When you think of the word “hedging” you might picture something similar to what I did: A gardener with some sort of shears trimming down a hedge. Up until recently, this was the image that came to mind on the off chance that I would hear the word “hedge” sometime in my day. It wasn’t until a meeting with my English Composition class that I learned that “hedging” has a whole other meaning.
According to Enago Academy, hedging is “the use of linguistic devices to express hesitation or uncertainty as well as to demonstrate politeness and indirectness.” In other words, hedging is the use of language to add ambiguity into writing. This includes using words like “possibly” or “suggests.”
For example, if someone were to include hedging in the phrase “the data shows that climate change is to blame for coral bleaching” they could say “the data suggests that climate change is to blame for coral bleaching.” The use of the word ‘suggests” expresses uncertainty because the writer is unsure about the data. While this is not always a bad thing as sometimes there is a genuine need to express uncertainty in writing if a source is not concrete, there is a clear pattern of who uses it the most.
In her 1997 book, Talking Difference: On Gender and Language, Mary Crawford studies and identifies the three main goals of female speech. Summarized, those goals are to build, or build upon relationships, provide criticism through indirectness, and to show understanding towards those they are addressing. These goals reflect the influence gender norms have on female behavior. As I’m sure most of you know, female history is plagued with the idea that women should always strive to appease those around her and remain subdued in social situations. These gender norms still prevail to this day and are exemplified by the disparity of hedging used by women and men. In fact, in the 2018 study conducted by the University of Gavle I’m sure women use more hedges than men, I think, it was discovered that the majority of participants who used the phrase “I think” were women. Specifically, women made up 67.6% of the people who said “I think.” This study emphasizes how even in today’s society, women are much more hesitant than men are with their speech.
This trend is especially noticeable with women in the workplace. In the same study, it was found that when asked to present a series of information, men used more blunt, quantitative statements to describe what they were trying to communicate. Women on the other hand, showed a greater usage of qualifying clauses, longer sentences, and incorporated more hedge words.
For example, one of the most common ways the men presented numbers on a data table was by stating them outright. Women added phrases like “you might find this interesting” or “you might see a pattern here.” This data, once again, shows how women use hedging as a form of appeasement, or use it to try and sway the listeners into liking them. Communication is a key skill to have for any situation, but it is crucial for operating in the workplace. Relaying information in a clear and concise manner is tricky as it is, but with the added pressure to play into gender norms and try to appease your audience, communicating information as a woman in the workplace gets to be a whole lot harder.
I was shocked by this information. I had no idea that gender norms still had such a large effect on the way women articulate, so I decided to do a little study of my own. I interviewed 7 different women from various schools about what they knew/thought about hedging. I started off conducting the interview by asking them to listen to 3 sets of 2 different phrases and tell me which ones they liked better. All except one shared that they liked the phrases with the hedges better. 4 out of the 6 women who said they liked the hedged phrases said that they sounded better because they were more ambiguous and less likely to offend people.
Later in the interview, I asked all 7 participants if they used hedging in their own writing, and if so why they used it. All of the women responded that they have used hedging in their writing at one point or another, and they use it when they are worried about offending readers by stating something outright, or they lack confidence in their writing. This once again shows how, even today young women are worried about offending people in their speech and writing. I would have liked for this study to have been done in a professional setting in order to be more in depth, but even from just talking to a few other women it is apparent that there is a disparity in the use of hedging between men and women.
After conducting my interviews I took a look at my old writing from high school. I found many examples of hedging in my work even though I did not know what hedging was at the time. It was very interesting to look back and remember why I chose to word some of my statements the way that I did. Specifically, for a large research paper I wrote on the rising prices of insulin, I used the phrases like “the data suggests” in instances where the data I was referring to was concrete. I remember being extremely cautious in this research paper because I knew that people are very opinionated about insurance coverage and the American economy, and I did not want to offend anyone by being direct when stating my findings. If I knew then what I know now I would not have worried about offending anyone in that paper. My examples and data were both concrete and from credible sources so there was not a need to add uncertainty into my claims as they were justified.
I encourage anyone in the process of writing a paper to look back over it and check to see if there are any hedging phrases where there do not need to be. Uncertainty is not inherently a bad thing, but when the strength of a paper is compromised because the writer is hesitant to be direct then it needs to be rid of. Some of the main purposes of writing a paper are to inform or persuade the reader and that can’t be accomplished if we as women are afraid to use direct language and make it clear what we are saying.
So next time you sit down to write a paper keep in mind that it is not worth sacrificing your writing’s integrity to appease readers you don’t even know.