Talking Up and Talking Down: The Power of Positive Speaking

December 2015
with Hilary Bergsieker et al.; Journal of Social Issues 71(4)

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Consistent with Lewin's legacy and SPSSI's traditions, out work has focused on inequality and power dynamics between people. Drawing on interpersonal positivity biases, stereotype content emphasizing perceived warmth and competence, and on the compensation effect (trading off warmth and competence), we study how people communicate, understand, and present themselves and others, especially across status divides. First, polite communicators omit negativity in describing individuals, especially stereotyped ones. Negativity omission creates innuendo (its absence implies the negative information), which allows stereotype to stagnate. Listeners understand the innuendo and infer the negativity from its omission. Impression-managers understand this dynamic and use positive innuendo: They downplay one aspect (e.g., warmth or competence) to convey the other. Status determines which strategy people use: High-status speakers talk down (warmly), and low-status speakers talk up (competently). Cross-race interactions also show this dynamic. This creates dysfunctional inter-status interactions, the two people operating at crossed purposes.