Politically-incorrect language can seem sincere, but only if you’re saying what the audience wants to hear

Everyone prefers politically correct language sometimes, a new study reports. Where we differ is who we use it with, and how we perceive it in regards to the groups it’s being applied to.

Image credits Rudy and Peter Skitterians.

The concept of political correctness doesn’t get a lot of love in the online environment, so much so that it’s often pointed at to imply a lack of authenticity of those who use it. But it’s also a very divisive term; what others would see as dishonesty and sweet-talking, I would often just chalk up to being nice in conversation.

But a new study shows that, in fact, we’re all inclined to use politically correct language, we just apply it to different people. We tend to see it as compassionate when it’s applied to groups we support or care for, and as disingenuous when it’s addressed to other groups. Overall, however, we all tend to view people who use politically correct language as warmer, but less authentic and thus less likely to hold true to a particular view or idea.

Speeches and stones may break my bones

Such language is often used in a (genuine or disingenuous) attempt to appear more sensitive to the feelings of other people, especially those perceived to be socially disadvantaged. One example would be saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in the understanding that not everyone holds to Christian or religious beliefs.

On paper, it all sounds great — I think all of us here agree that being considerate of others is a good thing. In practice, as you may know from discussions on various social media groups, the term is thrown about as a shorthand for censorship or socially-sanctioned limitations on free speech.

So there’s obviously a disconnect, but where? The team carried out a series of experiments totalling roughly 5,000 participants to examine this issue, reporting that, in broad lines, such language can make us seem less sincere by making our speech seem more strategic and calculated.

The first experiment asked participants to review a written speech and imagine a senator delivering it to an audience. Half the participants received a speech revolving around transgender policy, and the others around immigration policy (the topics were selected from particularly polarizing topics in American public discourse on purpose). Each speech used either politically correct (“Of course I believe that LGBTQ persons are among the most vulnerable members of our society and we must do everything in our power to protect them”) or incorrect (“These people who call themselves LGBTQ are often profoundly disturbed and confused about their gender identity”) language.

All in all, participants who read speeches using politically correct language tended to rate the senators as warmer, but less authentic. The results were consistent between all participants, regardless of their self-reported like or dislike of such language.

For the second experiment, the participants were asked to read a short biography of either Congressman Steve King, Senator Jim Inhofe, or Governor Jeb Bush and watch one of their speeches that were deemed either politically correct or incorrect. Afterward, they were asked to predict what stance these politicians would take on political issues in the future. This step aimed to evaluate how the use of language impacts an individual’s perceived trustworthiness or willingness to defend their beliefs even in the face of social pressure.

Those who listened to politically correct speeches reported feeling less certain about what stance the politician would take on topics in the future. This step showcased one of the trade-offs of using such language: while it makes one appear warmer and more concerned with others, it also makes them seem less sincere or more easily persuaded.

But it’s bias that convinces me

By this point, you’re probably asking yourself an obvious question: where do ‘them libs’ fit into the picture? The authors asked themselves the same thing, and it turned out that political affiliation has very little impact on our propensity to use politically correct language — but very much to do with whom we use it for.

In the third experiment, the team separated participants (based on their responses in a pre-test) as either Liberal-leaning or Conservative-leaning. The first group reported feeling sympathy for the undocumented immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and pro-choice individuals, while the latter was most concerned with the plight of religious Christians, poor white people, and pro-life individuals.

Each participant was asked to read a statement: “I think it is important for us to have a national conversation about” one of six groups. These groups were referred to using either politically-correct (e.g. ‘undocumented immigrants’) or incorrect terms (e.g. ‘illegal aliens’).

Unsurprisingly, when the participant felt sympathy for the group in question and was presented with a politically incorrect term — such as conservatives with ‘white trash’ or liberals with ‘illegal aliens’ — they didn’t view the language as particularly authentic, but as cold and uncaring. However, when presented with a politically-correct term for a group they did feel sympathy towards, they viewed it as authentic. On the flip-side, people also tended to rate politically incorrect language as more authentic when applied to groups they didn’t feel sympathy towards — such as liberals with ‘white trash’ or conservatives with ‘illegal aliens’.

But, and this is a very important ‘but’ in my opinion, there weren’t any divides in liking political correct speech among political groups. Liberals and conservatives were equally supportive of it as long as it applied to groups they felt sympathy towards — and equally against it when it wasn’t.

I feel the findings give us ample reason to pause and reflect on our own biases. Language does have power, and the way we use it speaks volumes about where our particular interests and sympathies lie. But at the same time, understanding that there are certain things we want to hear, and that this changes our perception of the ones saying them and the way they say it, is an important part of becoming responsible citizens for our countries.

The use of politically correct language can stem from genuine care and concern, just as much as it can from a desire to fake that care for brownie points. Politically incorrect language can come from one’s inner strength and willingness to state their mind regardless of society’s unspoken rules, but it can equally be used to deceive and appear no-nonsense when one is, in fact, callous and uncaring. It could go on to explain why considerate politicians can be perceived as weak, or why those downright rude and disrespectful can have the veneer of strength.

Perhaps, in this light, we should be most wary of those who tell us what we want to hear, the way we want to hear it. At the same time, it can help us understand that those we perceive as opposing our views and beliefs aren’t ‘out to get us’ — they literally see a different intent behind the same words, just as we do. Working together, then, doesn’t start with changing their minds, but with checking our own biases, and seeing which ones we truly believe in.

Back to the study at hand, the team explains that their findings showcase how the use of language can help shape other’s perceptions of us. Politically correct language can make us seem warmer but more calculated and thus less sincere. Politically incorrect language can make us look more honest, but colder and more callous — it all depends on what your conversation mates want to hear.

The paper “Tell it like it is: When politically incorrect language promotes authenticity” has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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