The habit of sort of just filling in your speech with expressions of uncertainty, when you’re not really that uncertain, is probably a bad habit. I mean, I am fairly sure that these hedges cut down on your perceived confidence, and I think they most likely make you a somewhat less effective witness or advocate. Okay, those are enough examples to make the point, and the point should seem obvious: Don’t hedge your statements by adding in expressions of uncertainty when you actually are not uncertain.

Despite that, many witnesses, and even some advocates, will let hedges creep unconsciously into their speech when they don’t mean to convey that uncertainty literally. Maybe they’re feeling uncertain about the situation, rather than about what they’re saying, or maybe they’ve got it into their heads that it is “nicer” or “less arrogant” to say something less directly than they could otherwise say it. It may be an ingrained social habit, but it is not a good one to bring into settings where credibility matters — settings like a courtroom, a hearing, or a deposition room. A recent study (Jones & Strange, 2019) confirms the intuition that, when it comes to trial testimony, statements are more believable when the hedge words are not just ‘kind of’ absent, they’re absent. In this post, I’ll take a quick look at the research, the reasons why communicators hedge in the first place, and the reasons to keep expressions of uncertainty to those that are meant literally.

The Research: Hedges Reduce Credibility

Researchers with John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, studied the hedge in a simulated trial testimony context. Altering testimony about a sexual assault, they found that when hedges were added, and particularly when cross-examination was able to highlight those expressions, the witness was less credible and the testimony itself was less likely to be believed. The researchers also looked at whether recall focused on an event 4 years ago or 15 years ago, on the theory that hedges might be less of a problem in the context of a more distant recollection, they did not find that. We listen to testimony to gain information, and when that information is hedged, it is less useful.

The Implications:

Understand Why It’s Used

Of course, sometimes it necessary to hedge. If you are only “somewhat sure” that the light was red, then that’s your testimony. The interesting question is why some people will add these softeners more out of habit than literal meaning. The theory that I put stock in says that these habitual hedges are part of a set that’s referred to as “Powerless language.” The label in earlier decades had been, inaccurately, “women’s language,” but the point is that some speakers, especially in situations where they feel lower relative power than others, will unconsciously “soften” their communication so as to minimize the risk of someone taking offense. By adding the hedge, they’re reducing their own assertiveness and power. It is like asking, “I know I shouldn’t ask, but could we try to finish the meeting by ten o’clock, or close to that?” instead of saying, “We need to finish the meeting by ten o’clock.”

Understand Why It’s Bad

It is easy to see why the hedge would be less useful in testimony or advocacy. The speaker needs to be trusted, and a few literal expressions of true uncertainty may be respected. But a habit of adding uncertainty as a general communication trait just reduces your relevance as a source. Interestingly, some research cited in the article shows that hedge words are more likely to be used when someone is telling the truth, but that is not what we hear. The authors explain, “People likely rely on confidence because there is often little information to determine a person’s accuracies – and because people assume confidence and accuracy are calibrated.” So when hedges are used, especially when cross-examination is available to point them out, a witness has less credibility and jurors evaluate claims and arguments more negatively.

And Keep Your Hedges to Those You Literally Mean

That is never a reason for false confidence, or for making a statement with greater certainty than your knowledge and memory will support. Cross examination is also a pretty good tool for revealing that, and a witness who over-reaches will also have less credibility. But when I’m meeting with witnesses in order to prepare for testimony, I encourage them to be conscious of their language, to drop any “softening” language habits they might have acquired, and to not allow the situational uncertainty they might feel to bleed over into literal uncertainty about their claims. When you’ve thought about it, and mean your expressions of uncertainty to be taken literally — when you “think” it is true, but do not know it is true — go ahead and use them. But otherwise, don’t hedge.