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Hedging in US Business Communication: How to Do it the Right Way

The upsides and downsides of softening your message. Learn what hedging is, why and when Americans use it, and how it can work for and against you.


a person balancing 4 cubes that spell the word risk.

What is Hedging?

 

In the world of finance, hedging is a way of protecting yourself against a loss on an investment. It’s a way to reduce risk. Similar to the purpose of hedging in finance, verbal hedging is a communication technique that can be used to reduce the risks of an unpleasant outcome in a conversation.

 

In verbal communication, a hedge is a word or phrase used to express caution and uncertainty.

 

  • We should be able to deliver by next Monday.

  • It seems that Tom left without finishing the report.

  • Some team members may not be happy with the new approach.

 

All three sentences involve hedging (highlighted in bold). The speakers have softened their statements to make them less forceful and decisive.

 

You may now ask: Why would I want that? I want to be forceful and decisive when doing business in the US (or elsewhere).  

 

Read on to learn more about the technique of hedging, its purposes, and when it can be a useful tool for you to use.


Is Hedging Common in US Business Communication?

 

Generally, directness is valued in American business culture, for various reasons.

  • It saves time.

  • It shows confidence and strength.

  • It supports clarity.

  • It gives you credibility and shows that you know what you are talking about.

  • It is effective.

 

These are all aspects that Americans appreciate when communicating in a professional setting.

 

Despite the general preference for directness, there are, however, quite a few situations when Americans opt for softer and more indirect communication and hedge their comments, recommendations, and requests.

 

How much hedging people do varies depending on factors like the context and goal of the communication, the relationship of the people communicating, and the speakers’ personal communication styles.


Why Should you Learn Hedging Techniques?

 

As a non-native speaker, it is important to learn about hedging for two main reasons:

 

1. Recognize Verbal Hedging.


First, so you'll notice it when others use it. This can help you correctly interpret what your counterparts are saying and better understand what they really mean, which will allow you to respond more effectively.

 

2. Effectively Use Verbal Hedging.


keyboard; the shift key has the German word "Vorsicht!", which means caution.

Second, so you can strategically use it yourself. There are many situations when a more indirect approach will yield better results than a blunt one. Too much directness can be hurtful and offensive. Hedging can help maintain professionalism and good relationships, as it is a more diplomatic way to voice an opinion or make a demand. This is particularly important for people from cultures with very direct communication, such as the DACH region.


What is the Purpose of Hedging?


Here are the five main reasons why people hedge their words.


Verbal Hedging Infographic TransAtlantic Coaching & Training
Verbal Hedging Infographic
  1. To soften an assertion or recommendation. Hedging indicates to your counterpart that you are open to other perspectives.

  2. To reduce the risk of offending someone. This is especially important when discussing sensitive topics, giving feedback, or disagreeing with someone.

  3. To manage expectations and allow for unexpected changes or different outcomes. This can be useful in a business context where you cannot control all the variables.

  4.  To qualify a statement as being your own opinion or view. Like in point 1, you indicate that you are open to and respect other opinions. (It doesn’t mean that you are going to change your opinion.)

  5. To make a request more polite. This is important for everyday office conversations when we ask team members to complete tasks.



What are Common Hedging Techniques?


Verbal hedging techniques range from using certain verbs, such as seem, appear, and tend to incorporating modal verbs like would, could, may, or might.


You can also add adjectives (or adverbs), such as potential(ly), likely, and apparent(ly), or start the sentence with a that-clause (It is probable that… It seems that…) to tone down a statement. Sometimes, hedging goes beyond adding words and means restructuring a sentence altogether. For example, changing a command into a question can be a way to increase politeness.

 

Finally, hedging does not just happen through the actual words spoken but through the tone you adopt and the body language that accompanies your statement.


The Downsides of Hedging

 

It’s important to know how to hedge, but it is just as important to be aware of its downsides.

 

As hedging adds ambiguity to your communication, it can make messages less clear. This can lead to misunderstandings.

 

Moreover, the vagueness can come across as indecisive and harm your credibility. In certain situations, such as negotiations, this can negatively affect your negotiating strength.

 

The right use of hedging techniques requires cultural and situational awareness.

 

Do you want to learn and practice this and other communication techniques and understand the meaning and purpose behind them? I can help you learn to communicate in a more nuanced and effective way and navigate the diverse landscape of American business interactions.


Contact me to arrange a free no-strings attached 30-minute consultation on your language and culture coaching needs. I look forward to speaking with you.





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