Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I have a propensity to say things without much ornamentation. It is a habit I come by honestly, a family trait passed on from my parents to my brother and me. When I say I do not ornament my speech, that does not mean I am not prone to fits of hyperbole or casual sarcasm, being human and all. Nor does it mean that I get in people's faces or am rude or impulsive. I talk straight, meaning that when I speak, I tend not to evade the truth or facts as I see them, and I abhor misdirection and obfuscation. This straight talk is a sign of neither arrogance nor aggression. In fact, a wise straight talker will remain silent and listen when her or his version of the truth might fall flat or be counterproductive or hurtful. One of my personal guides is that only fools speak when there is nothing to say, which is not to suggest that I am not such a fool more often than I would care to quantify or admit.
Straight talk can be jarring to some who demand what they consider more diplomatic speech. Indeed, I can be diplomatic and quite deferential in my tone and diction when necessary, but that last qualifier is essential: when necessary. Diplomatic speech is vital to the success of, well, diplomacy. In other situations it can be off-putting, mystifying, dilatory, or downright misleading. The same can be said for euphemism. At times euphemism is absolutely the right choice for reasons of politeness, gentleness, or cultural sensitivity, but euphemism, when used as a matter of course, can be tantamount to guileful manipulation. It places the audience, particularly during conversation, in the subordinate position by imposing unwarranted verbal limitations. Similarly, political correctness can be disorienting, but there is a caveat here. While some extremes of what is deemed political correctness can be quite silly and while political correctness can feel constraining to many audiences, political correctness is also a way for individuals and groups to create and possess their own identifiers rather than subjugate themselves to those imposed by more dominant groups. And, lest you imagine that the politically correct are creatures solely of the left in the United States, think again. Labeling a middle-class married woman a "housewife" will likely and rightly cause offense and evoke indignation from watchers of MSNBC, but what response can you expect from wishing a Fox News fan "happy holidays" around Christmastime (or, for that matter, spelling the holiday Xmas, which warrants some research if you are unaware of the origins)?
What do diplomatic speech, euphemism, and political correctness have in common? All three have their uses, as I have noted, but all three have their abuses. The worst cases result is evasion and deception, willful or otherwise. But even when used properly and benignly, diplomatic speech, euphemism, and political correctness create a sense of insider-outsiderism. Much as with sarcasm, if you are not in on the lingo or do not understand why it is being applied in a situation, then you are de facto excluded—an outsider. The gratuitous use of jargon can have a similar effect.
Straight talk may also seem to have an inside-outsider quality for those who are not personally or culturally disposed or comfortable with it. Some will say that straight talk is too curt and off-putting, but that is never its intent and need-not be its effect. Straight talk is a way of cutting through the clutter of language. Like all forms of communication, it is severely hampered by the human limitations of perception that plague both the speaker and the listener, but straight talk is an attempt to be more direct and emphatic and is often greeted as refreshing and freeing. In conversation, it signals a willingness to drop pretense and evasion and cut to the chase, to say what you mean and mean what you say. It gives the opportunity to converse mutually without ritualizing the process. In fact, as a tool of diplomacy, it can eliminate delays and misunderstandings when wielded with integrity and skillfully for mutual benefit.
Again, straight talk is not about rudeness, insult, or dominance. Those are hallmarks of bullying, which sometimes masquerades as straight talk and is anything but. Bullying is about mastery and control certainly, but it is also about evasion. The bully eschews exposure as a coward and values winning above all else as though every circumstance were a zero-sum game. Straight talk, by contrast, is a form of verbal collaboration for creating win-win scenarios. It evinces deep respect and regard and a willingness to share on an equal footing. The straight talker is not seeking to oppress or intimidate but to accommodate and welcome straight talk in response. The straight talker strives to maximize honesty and transparency and therefore is rendering her or himself most vulnerable in the exchange. Talking straight, unlike bullying, runs a risk because it seeks to remove the veils that conceal individuals from each other and too often from themselves.
Nonetheless, as a veteran and dedicated straight talker, I find the risk is worth it. Who wants to live in a world in which everyone habitually and relentlessly obscures meaning? Language and communication are slippery enough without the added liability of volitional evasion. Straight talk is not always the best tool and is sometimes inappropriate or ineffective, but as a norm it cuts down on the nonsense and frees participants in a conversation to come to terms as painlessly and effortlessly as possible. Straight talk is not perfect. Like its political cousin, democracy, though, it is the worst form of communication except for all those others.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.