Minimizing, Mitigating and Marginalizing Ourselves with Every Day Speech!

“Kinda”, “sorta”, “maybe”, “I guess” and “I don’t know” are just some of the phrases that punctuate the stories I hear each week in my practice. It grabbed my attention one day recently, when I heard a young woman answer my simple question, “How are you feeling?” with “I don’t know, it’s kinda like, I’m maybe, sorta, sad. I guess.”

I asked her to take out all the little minimizing, mitigating and marginalizing words and repeat the sentence again. She’s a bright young woman, and she still had to take pause to see what I meant. The only words left to say were “I’m sad.”

So I had her say it again but just those two words this time and she burst into tears. All these other words were buffering her from having to actually name it so she wouldn’t have to actually feel it.

If a person isn’t really committed to feeling a feeling then they aren’t really committed to releasing it and healing either.

Since this happened, it’s been like the phenomena of buying a new car and seeing that make and model car everywhere on the road for the next few weeks. I notice them even in my own speech patterns.

They aren’t bad words, but they have become over used almost like social tics. We say them aaaaaallllll the time! These adverbs are actually referred to as ‘downtoners’. These are words that play down the verb. 

“The boat sorta swayed.” “I sorta thought this might be a good dessert to bring.” “I’m kinda beginning to think all my friends are pretty lame.”  Or “Maybe, I’m kinda sad about this loss.” And “I sorta thought I was right, but I guess not.”

Gabriel Doyle, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics and writes the blog Motivated Grammar, reports that “sort of”’ is a “de-precision device.” As Dr. Doyle put it: “The speaker is saying, ‘Don’t think of this as being overly accurate.’ ” These words can also be referred to as “hedge-speak” as in hedging your bets and not committing all the way.

In other words, people throw “sort of” into their speech because they’re unsure. Our language is reflecting modern life. We will sorta end the war in the Middle East. Maybe some of your health issues will kinda be covered by your insurance plan.

In this sense, “sort of” addresses another modern concern, because not a week goes by that someone isn’t publicly embarrassed or shamed over ill-considered words they tweeted or were caught saying on video. Daily conversation has become a high-stakes arena, for celebrities as well as normal citizens.

The awareness that offhand utterances can live forever online and have serious consequences has made for overly cautious speech.

Using “sort of” to reduce the risk of making an error or causing offense is a tactic an editor friend calls “strategic softening.”

None of these ‘downtoners’ are bad or destructive in or of themselves but the repetition and ubiquitous nature of them can kill us slowly like being nibbled to death by ducks. This doesn’t appear dangerous at first, but you get enough ducks nibbling repeatedly and you can count on imminent ruin.

As a species, we have been socialized to not overpower or insert too much of ourselves so as to get along with others and basically live in harmony in a community. We are hardwired to perform in ways that keep us bound to the group because in primitive times, without the group, we would die on our own. Being shunned was equivalent to death. A single person could not hunt, gather or take care of him or herself alone. He or she would need the group to survive.

Can you imagine saying to a controlling boss, “It should definitely be this way.” and still expect to keep your job?  Instead we say, “Maybe it should be this way.”  Softening our words increases our chances of remaining employed for longer. Not a bad survival plan indeed!

In other words, we’ve learned to minimize, mitigate and marginalize what we say and do so as not to offend others but also to not incur the rejection, wrath or ridicule of our peers or social group. And for the most part it works. Benjamin Franklin’s quote “Your right to swing your arm stops at my nose.” is still true in our democratic society today. However, we seem to be barely owning our own internal experience so as not to hit anybody’s nose, when in fact it’s ourselves we can hurt with this type of thinking.

Even though today we aren’t hunting and gathering in clans or tribes, we still need each other to survive. However, I believe we need to own more and more of who we are and what we feel, desire, think and believe, which will help us to not only survive but rather THRIVE!

Steven Kurutz, a reporter for the Home section of The New York Times states, “Sometimes I think of epic declarative statements, and wonder how they might be rendered in today’s hedge-speak. “It was sort of the best of times, it was sort of the worst of times.” “I came, I saw, I kind of conquered.” “I sort of have a dream.”

Sounds kind of weak? Most definitely.

We might be perpetuating a belief system that perhaps keeps peace in the group, in that we don’t “rock the boat”, but we also at the same time diminish the capacity for others to know, see, and accept us, thereby, decreasing the chances that people will authentically love us. They are loving or approving of a minimized, mitigated and perhaps even marginalized version of us, which in effect isn’t loving at all.

I am not suggesting that we throw all tact and decorum out the window. These words can help do just that–soften the blow a bit, especially when giving constructive criticism or feedback. Nevertheless, when we are naming our personal truth and our own individual experience, acknowledging it for exactly what it is without diluting it with these mitigating and minimizing words, we all become more vulnerable, exposed and open for judgment, but only then do we truly become open for acceptance, understanding and real love.

We need to become more conscious of our words and how they resonate in us when we speak them. Imagine using amplifiers instead. These are words that enlarge the meaning of the verb. For example, “Black widow spiders completely scare me.” Or “I’m undoubtedly devastated by this loss.” When we use these words, we talk more boldly, more directly and we begin to fire a new pathway in our brains. One that springs from confidence and awareness rather than doubt and insecurity.

When we use soft words, dowtoners or hedge-speak, we are unconsciously buffering ourselves from pain–pain of rejection, ridicule, judgment, of not being enough, etc. or even of feeling good and then having someone dismiss or discount us, which can hurt just as much as an initial brush off if not more. Once we’ve named the truth, we’re committed to it now. We’re in it.  We’re not on the margins of the emotional experience– we are now smack dab in the middle of it.

In order to heal and to grow, we need to own our emotions whether it’s anger, fear, pain, guilt and shame or joy, passion and love. Softening our internal experiences by dancing around them is like trying to cut a ripe tomato with a dull paring knife. It will ultimately cut the darn thing, but you will have to work a lot harder and sawing at it and stabbing it results in a lot of mangled pieces and tomato juice every where. In effect you will waste a ton of the tomato as well as a lot of energy and still have a large mess to clean up.

You will get to the issue at hand like my client I mentioned at the beginning of this post did, but it would sure be a lot more efficient, effective and self-loving to simply sharpen your awareness and cut right through with precision and honesty from the beginning.


If you don’t own your own truth and name it, who will?