The new coalition government in the UK uses a different language to its predecessor. Of course, it’s still English – and it’s still packed with jargon! But according to a leaked memo, there have been subtle changes.
“Targets” have been replaced by “results”; “stakeholders” by “people”; “narrowing the gap” by “closing the gap”; “state” by “society” and so on.
According to an item on Radio 4 the memo was created to help outside agencies communicate more effectively with the government. How could it help? The implicit presupposition is that if you want to get your message across to someone, using their words rather than your own can be very valuable.
Research shows that this definitely does pay. Professor Richard Wiseman (in his brilliant book 59 Seconds) quotes a study from the University of Nijmegen in which a waitress increased her tips by 70 per cent simply by repeating the customer’s order back to them, rather than saying “okay” or “coming right up”.
How does this work? As commentator Dr Nicholas Ostler put it on the Today programme, “The way people talk is close to their soul.”
Using the other person’s words, parrot-phrasing rather than paraphrasing:
- encourages the person to like you. Matching language sends a strong hint that you are similar, that you belong to the same group. And it’s well established that people tend to like people who they believe are like themselves.
- helps you to build rapport and trust with the person. In repeating their words you acknowledge that you have actually heard them, that you are listening, and that you are inclined to continue the conversation.
- retains subtle distinctions of meaning, and retains the metaphoric structure of the thought. For example, “closing the gap” contains a presupposition that the gap can vanish completely – “narrowing the gap” does not.
- supports the person to continue speaking, expressing themselves more fully and perhaps more clearly.
- encourages the person to think about what they have just said, and perhaps to understand their own ideas more deeply.
- saves you the trouble of thinking of suitable paraphrases.
- prevents the distracting and time-consuming disagreements (“That’s not quite what I meant”) which often arise over slight differences in wording.
- conceals your lack of knowledge or understanding about a subject. It’s quite hard to make a fool of yourself it you only use the other person’s words!