Mitigated Speech and Plane Crashes

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses what linguists call “mitigated speech.” Mitigated speech is when we speak in a deferential way in order to be polite or show deference to authority.

For example, “If you want your boss to do you a favor, you don’t say, ‘I’ll need this by Monday.’ You mitigate. You say, ‘Don’t bother if it’s too much trouble, but if you have a chance to look at this over the weekend, that would be wonderful.’”

In most situations, mitigation is a very good and polite thing. But there are some situations where it creates a problem. The cockpit of an airplane on a stormy night is one such instance.

Gladwell points out that there are six ways for a first officer to persuade a captain to change course. These relfect the six levels of mitigation in speech:

1. Command: “Turn thirty degrees right.” That’s the most direct and explicit way of making a point imaginable. It’s zero mitigation.

2. Crew Obligation Statement: “I think we need to deviate right about now.” Notice the use of “we” and the fact that hte request is now much less specific. It’s a little softer.

3. Crew Suggestion: “Let’s go around the weather.” Implicit in that statement is “we’re in this together.”

4. Query: “Which direction would you like to deviate?” That’s even softer than a crew suggestion, because the speaker is conceding that he’s not in charge.

5. Preference: “I think it would be wise to turn left or right.”

6. Hint: “That return at twenty-five miles looks  mean.” This is the most mitigated statement of all. (Outliers, p 195)

These six levels of mitigation are helpful. Mitigation is a good way to show courtesy and respect to others. Teaching mitigation is even a key part of raising kids. For example, we teach our children not to say to us “Give me some orange juice.” They need to say, “Please may I have some orange juice?”

So it is good manners to use mitigation in our communication, and this seems to come naturally to most people.

But sometimes this can get tricky. There are times to use less mitigation than others. For example, I don’t like it when people give me hints. As Gladwell says so well, “a hint is the hardest kind of request to decode and the easiest to refuse.” A lot of times, if someone is giving a hint about a course of action to take, it is too easy to interpret them as simply making an observation. Not until after the fact do I realize, “Oh, they really mean that I should have turned left there.”

The worst example of all comes in situations where lives are at risk and clear, decisive actions need to be taken. Those are instances where mitigation creates problems.

It is mitigation, in fact, which “explains one of the great anomalies of plane crashes.” The anomaly is this: crashes are far more likely to happen when the captain — that is, the more experienced pilot — is in the flying seat.


The reason is mitigation. The first officer wants to show deference to the authority of the pilot. So if the pilot is making a mistake, he mitigates. If things have gone wrong, the captain is low on sleep, and other complexities abound, the captain can fail to pick this up and decode the fact that the first officer is actually saying that a critical action needs to be taken. Gladwell gives several instances of how this became the decisive issue in commercial airline crashes. As a result, it is ironically the case that “planes are safer when the least experienced peson is flying, because it means the second pilot isn’t going to be afraid to speak up” (p. 197).

Fortunately, in recent years “combating mitigation has become one of the great crusades in commercial aviation in the past fifteen years.” Crew members are taught how to communicate clearly and assertively and a standardized procedure to challenge the pilot if it appears that he or she has overlooked something critical.

The result? “Aviation experts will tell you that it is the success of this war on mitigation as much as anything else that accounts for the extraordinary decline in airlie accidents in recent years.”

The lesson? The way we communicate matters. Be respectful and be polite. That is crucial to preserving the human element of our interactions. But know when times call for increased directness, and how to be tactful in spite of having to use less mitigation. And, above all, be clear.

June 4, 2009 | Filed Under Communication | 1 Comment 


  • Warren Kesselring


    I’ve been following your blog for months now and just wanted you to know I really appreciate the insights you regularly share (both your own and others’). I hope to pastor someday and know that developing these leadership, management, and communication skills will be crucial to effective ministry. Keep up the good work.