Politically incorrect speech can be good politics

Perception is everything.
Perception is everything.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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People don’t trust politicians, perhaps because they joust for jobs in popularity contests, promising us the world. Still, politicians—who often have their words written for them—strive to sound authentic and unscripted.

A new study by researchers at Harvard and Berkeley universities, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that one way to do that is to use politically incorrect labels. Different labels may grate for people of various political persuasions, but it seems that right and left alike get the same vibe from “incorrect” formulations.

“Impressions of speakers who use political language aren’t inherently partisan,” Juliana Schroeder, a co-author of the paper and assistant professor of management at the Berkeley Haas School of Business, told Quartz. ”At least moderate liberals and conservatives drew similar conclusions about a politically incorrect communicator’s warmth and authenticity. And when politically incorrect speech is applied to groups with which conservatives sympathize, then liberals tended to like it more and conservatives liked it less.”

Berkeley PhD candidate Michael Rosenblum, the paper’s lead author, was surprised to discover that the group being discussed had such a dramatic impact on listeners. “While we tend to think about political correctness as a phenomenon of political liberals, it can inspire the same reaction in political conservatives when applied to groups that they sympathize with,” he told Quartz.

What is political correctness?

The first step in the study was to define political correctness. This notion, now commonly discussed in American culture, originated almost a century ago in Russia with the term politicheskaya pravil’nost. 

Today, academics say it has two components. One is “the use of words, thoughts, or actions that minimize offensiveness or conform to social norms (which is sometimes considered a form of censorship),” the paper states. The other is “the use of tactics that are seemingly intended to help the disadvantaged.”

The researchers came up with a definition for the study based on data about how contemporary Americans across the political spectrum consider political correctness. They asked about 200 individuals, liberal and conservative, to provide a definition and examples, and then had people unaware of the researchers’ hypotheses categorize the answers. The definition of “politically correct” ultimately employed in the study is “using language (or behavior) to seem sensitive to others’ feelings, especially those others who seem socially disadvantaged.”

“Correctness” doesn’t refer to truth or falsehood but to what seems morally right during a particular period in certain circles. However, the researchers distinguish between political incorrectness and other types of insensitive communication.

Hate speech, for example, is a legally actionable attack on a particular group provoking hatred, and demagoguery is “an appeal to prejudices in the pursuit of power” characterized by oversimplification, or fear-mongering, among other things. Politically incorrect language, unlike demagoguery, is used in many contexts, not solely political or by those in pursuit of power. And unlike demagoguery or hate speech, politically incorrect formulations aren’t necessarily intended to generate a certain response but can be based on ignorance of “correct” labels.

Indeed, the researchers note that even a speaker who intends to be sensitive can end up being politically incorrect depending on the context they are operating in because labels change quickly. An example used in the study is “LGBTQ,” which might be viewed as politically incorrect in certain circles where “LGBTQIA” has since been deemed more inclusive.

Schroeder also distinguishes between political correctness and politesse. “Political correctness, at least in today’s language, is more about the appearance of seeming sensitive toward certain (usually marginalized) groups. Politeness is a broader category—it can exist in behavior toward anyone and it’s not so much just appearance-focused.” But she admits that extreme manners could seem inauthentic, just like political correctness.

Scrutinizing language

After defining political correctness, the researchers went on to conduct nine additional experiments involving nearly 5,000 people that measured the effects of language on listeners. Some tested their perceptions of recordings of politicians, others involved individuals judging written communications, or debating each other. The academics concluded that, overall, using politically incorrect language tends to seem authentic but cold to listeners, though which labels strike someone as offensive or real depends on the hearer’s ideology.

“There’s a trade-off to being politically incorrect: On the one hand, it makes you seem authentic but on the other hand it makes you seem less warm,” Schroeder said.

Also notable, when study subjects debated each other, those who used politically correct language were viewed by their debate partners as more susceptible to persuasion. So, being politically correct in speech gives listeners the impression that you’re the kind of person who might change your mind. The speakers who used “correct” language, however, did not report feeling particularly susceptible to influence, despite listeners’ impressions.

The paper concludes that there are at least two potential consequences of the association between authenticity and politically incorrect language. First, politically incorrect speech tends to strike listeners as sincere, indicating that the communicator’s beliefs are truly held. That sense then gives listeners the impression that they can know how the communicator will behave in the future. Second, being politically correct may create an illusion that the communicator is persuadable regardless of actual persuadability.

For politicians, there is no right way to be that will work for every voter. Some may prefer to know their representative will not bend on the issues they believe in, while others may see leadership as more akin to diplomacy and hope for a flexible negotiator. Thus, there is no correct combination of words a politician can use to net every voter. But there are certainly consequences to their word choices.

Making the right linguistic impression

Based on these findings, it seems that if you want to appear authentic and intractable, being politically incorrect has benefits (but then again, swearing can also indicate authenticity, so if you’re just looking to keep it real, try spicing up your speech with profanity, like Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke). If you want to appear warm and reasonable though, use politically correct labels to give the impression that you’re sensitive and persuadable.

However, because people of different political persuasions are concerned with the political correctness of labels attached to various groups (broadly generalizing, poor whites for conservatives, for example, and LGBTQIA for progressives, say), there is no single approach to language that will work for all audiences even while everyone has similar reactions to formulations they deem “politically incorrect.”

Schroeder says she’s become more attuned to the political correctness of language working on the study, suggesting, “I think communicators are wise to modulate their language according to their audience.”