I’m on an airplane, waiting to take off for a corporate speaker coaching gig in Houston. It’s a little puddle-jumper — three seats across and sized for what Americans weighed in 1947 — so I’m six inches away when the flight attendant tells the man in back of me, “Sir, your tray table needs to stay upright until we’re airborne.”
I’m struck by the elegance of this statement, and its utter lack of human agency — it’s not her telling him what to do, it’s a statement of what the tray table, an inanimate object, requires!
Did she think of this herself?
Was it part of her training?
A Lesson in Reading Your Audience
When we were airborne, I asked the flight attendant those questions.
As it turns out, she chose that language on her own. She said,
That’s just how I talk. They [her supervisors] just tell us to make people put them up [the tray tables], but I’ve learned over the years what people take offense at, and what they don’t. [emphasis added]
Speak No Evil
The reason I was so impressed with this young woman’s use of the passive voice (more on that in a second) is that I would probably have said something impatient and imperious, like,
Sir, you have to put your tray table up.
Unlike her statement, mine could have put him and me on a collision course, because my statement includes two human beings: Him (owner of the tray table) and me (who’s telling him what to do about it). And not everyone likes to be told what to do, especially by (sorry, but this is true) a woman.
That’s why my flight attendant wisely “didn’t tell him what to do” (wink-wink).
Use the Power of the Passive Voice Wisely
This is called using the passive voice.
Using the passive voice — in other words, making a statement in which the actor, the person taking action and responsibility, isn’t you — is the adult version of that familiar children’s cry, “I didn’t do anything!!!”
It deflects responsibility, which is good for managing the other person’s reactions and/or for covering your butt.
Deflecting responsibility can be a good thing, as in my example with the flight attendant, above.
I can also be despicable, as in the infamous statement, “Mistakes were made” (Oh yeah? Who made them?).
My favorite example of the dishonest passive voice is the 1873 Supreme Court decision (Bradwell v. Illinois) that upheld a state’s “right” to prevent married women from practicing law. Writing for the majority, Justice Bradley said that,
The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.
Pretty slick, huh?
We’re not keeping you out of the profession. It’s your natural timidity and delicacy that’s keeping you out.
So as you can see, the power of the passive voice is yours to use for good, bad, or evil.
I suggest using it for good!