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Volume 16, Issue 46;   November 16, 2016: The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words

The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we take special care in choosing our words, so as to avoid creating misimpressions, something strange often happens: we create a misimpression of ignorance or deceitfulness. Why does this happen?
Donald Trump (left) and Hillary Clinton (right), candidates for U.S. President in 2016

Donald Trump (left) and Hillary Clinton (right), candidates for U.S. President in 2016. Although their respective speaking styles illustrate the differences described here, we cannot know for certain what accounts for these differences in this case, or in any case, without additional information. Judgment is required. One cannot base an assessment of the competence and/or honesty of any individual based solely on the style of their delivery.

Photo of Donald Trump (cc) Michael Vadon. Photo of Hillary Clinton (cc) Gage Skidmore. Composition available at WikiMedia.

In their simplest form, paradoxes are self-contradictory statements. For example: "This statement is false." If the statement is false, then it must be true. And if it's true, then it must be false. But we also apply the term paradox to situations that seem to contain inherent contradictions. When our actions cause effects that contradict our intentions, we might view those effects as paradoxical.

An example is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which describes our tendency to confuse confidence with competence. Because incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it, the incompetent have a greater tendency to interpret confidence as evidence of competence. And they interpret behavior that seems tentative or halting as evidence of incompetence. Thus, speakers who are unaware of their own confusion might seem confident, and therefore competent, when, in fact, they're clueless. Speakers who are aware of their own limitations might seem tentative — and therefore less competent — when, in fact, their tentativeness might actually arise from greater awareness of the full complexity of the issue at hand.

The effects are most dramatic for spoken communication, when we can observe pace and rhythm, but they're also observable in written communication, in construction and vocabulary.

In conversation, people who have command of the subject at hand sometimes exercise great care in what they say, so as to reduce the chance of being misinterpreted. That cautiousness can reduce the pace of their speech, and make its rhythm uneven. To listeners, cautiousness can appear to indicate incompetence relative to the subject at hand, or perhaps even dishonesty. When this happens, careful word choice produces the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of reducing the chance of misinterpretation, it actually invites listeners to misinterpret what the speaker is saying. That's one form of the paradox of carefully chosen words.

In that Choosing your words carefully
can unintentionally create an
impression of incompetence
and even deceitfulness
same conversation, people who lack command of the subject, or who care little about the veracity of their statements, can produce contributions to the conversation with ease and fluency. To listeners, ease and fluency can appear to indicate confidence, competence, and credibility, even when these speakers might actually be relatively less than knowledgeable at best — or worse, dishonest. That's the second form of the paradox of carefully chosen words.

People tend to interpret a cautious, tentative, and thoughtful demeanor as an indicator of incompetence and/or dishonesty, rather than the mastery and scrupulous care that can be its actual source. And they tend to interpret a glib, relaxed, and easy demeanor as an indicator of mastery and honesty, rather than the ignorance and overconfidence that can be its actual source. And here's the really bad news: some speakers might cynically exploit this paradox. They affect a glib, relaxed, and easy demeanor as a way to fool us. Don't be fooled. Go to top Top  Next issue: Why People Hijack Meetings  Next Issue

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Read Kruger and Dunning's original paper, courtesy the American Psychological Association.

For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Wishful Significance: II," Point Lookout for December 23, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; and "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016.

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