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Monday, January 2, 2012

Getting Facts Straight


When someone makes a mistake, do you correct him or her directly? Do you correct him or her in a more polite way? Or do you not correct him or her at all?


Read this conversation. Notice how Harold corrects Sally.

Harold: Hey Sally, have you ever heard of Mother Teresa?
Sally: Mother Teresa…oh, yeah, the Indian nun.
Harold: Well, sort of…in fact, her parents were Albanian and she was born in what is now Macedonia. She went to India when she was 21 to help the poor.
Sally: Oh...uh…and because of her work she got the Noble Prize, right?
Harold: Actually, it's the NoBEL Prize, with the accent on the BEL.
Sally: Sorry…So, how old is she?
Harold: Well, um, to tell the truth, she died back in 1997.
Sally: Oh! I guess I better get my facts straight!


Sally is "so close": she knows a little about Mother Teresa, but not quite enough.

Instead of correcting Sally too directly, Harold uses several techniques so she won't feel attacked:
(1) Give some credit, if possible.
(2) Take your time. Use lots of pauses (the "…" above).
(3) Use softening words or phrases like "in fact," "actually," and "to tell the truth."
(4) Give the correct information in place of the mistake.

In other words, don't just say, "No! You're wrong!"


Look at the conversation again. Which technique does Harold use on each of Sally's three mistakes?


1. How do you take care of this sort of problem in your language?
2. Do you correct differently depending on who you’re speaking to? That is, is it OK to be direct with some sorts of people (close friends, employees) and less direct with others (strangers, bosses)?
3. Make and practice a dialogue where one person gets the facts WRONG, and the other gently corrects him or her.


After Sally's first mistake (saying Mother Teresa is Indian), Harold gives her credit for nearly being correct by saying "sort of" (1). We might also say "kind of" in this situation. Next Harold uses "in fact," one of the softening phrases we use to get the listener ready (3). Then he explains that she did live in India most of her life, but that she wasn't from there.

Sally's second mistake was mispronouncing "Nobel" (the name of the man who created the prize.) Here Harold uses "actually" as a softener, then gives the correct pronunciation (3).

Sally's final mistake was to assume that Mother Teresa was still alive. Harold takes his time by saying "Well, um" then uses "to tell the truth" and states the facts.

Note that many teachers will tell you not to say "um" or "uh." But often, in informal speech, these sounds can be used effectively to prepare the listener for something unexpected.

Try using these tips next time someone makes a mistake.

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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