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Kay: Hedging your words shows no conviction, right'

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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

What I'm about to discuss is from the "Small But Really Annoying Thing" department.

This small thing can have ramifications at work. So it's worth a mention, right?

That was it. The small, really annoying thing. Did you catch it• The usage of "right?" with that question mark at the end. It's how many people talk in the workplace. They say a sentence then end it with, "right?" but don't listen for or really want a response.

It's not new, but more pervasive, and these days I am particularly sensitive to this because I have been listening to dozens of professionals talk. I'm working on a project that requires me to interview people who toil away in various workplaces. And I do not exaggerate when I say that not a single interview has been without the speaker ending about every fifth sentence with: "right?" or a combination, "You know what I mean, right?"

One person, in describing his co-worker told me, "He expects everyone to speak up if there is a problem, right?" This prompted me to think, "How would I know?" which led me to wonder whether this person was sure about what he was saying.

Another worker, in reference to his boss said: "He sometimes thinks small talk is a waste of time, right?" That made me think: "Are you asking me if your boss thinks this or if I agree that small talk is a waste of time• And if I didn't agree, is our conversation over?"

I broached the subject with an executive who I hear use "right?" to end her sentences. When I asked her if she even knew she did it, she said, "Yes, on occasion," adding that she hears it from others then ends up saying it herself.

"When I hear it from other people it drives me crazy," she said. "I feel irritated with the individual. I want to say, 'Get on with your point and quit throwing out extraneous blah blah blah and asking for my approval.' "

She attributes it possibly, to the fear of offending someone. As a result, though, "They're irritating, which is another type of offensiveness."

An employer who has been interviewing a lot told me he too finds it irritating. "It's a subconscious device to get someone to agree with you whether you do or not, to reinforce their opinion."

Another employer says it represents insecurity. "It's as if the person needs constant validation that they're right."

When I hear it, I am left with a feeling similar to the one I get when people's sentences rise at the end of every statement, making what they've said sound like a question, or when they sprinkle "like's," "sort of's" and "maybe's" throughout a statement.

The speaker is hedging. Not sure they're committed to what they're saying. Or they're trying to get me to agree.

It's called a "tag question," said Dr. David Silva, professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington.

By using them, he says, yes, "there's something to the idea of fostering a certain type of relationship between the speaker and the hearer, one that seeks to build mutual understanding and shared attitudes."

Someone in the workplace might use "right?" to confirm what they said, "giving you a chance to be my ally on this particular matter," Silva says.

Wherever it comes from, it comes down to this: You can sound as if you're speaking without the courage of your convictions, which is not helpful for your career.

Andrea Kay is the author of "Life's a Bitch and Then You Change Careers: 9 Steps to Get Out of Your Funk & On to Your Future." Send questions to her at 2692 Madison Road, #133, Cincinnati, Ohio 45208; or via or .

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