Mitigated Speech

I first ran into the concept of mitigated speech in a management class. The instructor was a non-mariner. The classes I took later were taught by retired deep-sea captains and they didn’t mention the concept.

Mitigated Speech and Plane Crashes

  1. Command: “Turn thirty degrees right.” That’s the most direct and explicit way of making a point imaginable. It’s zero mitigation.

  2. Crew Obligation Statement: “I think we need to deviate right about now.”Notice the use of “we” and the fact that hte request is now much less specific. It’s a little softer.

  3. Crew Suggestion: “Let’s go around the weather.” Implicit in that statement is “we’re in this together.”

  4. Query: “Which direction would you like to deviate?” That’s even softer than a crew suggestion, because the speaker is conceding that he’s not in charge.

  5. Preference: “I think it would be wise to turn left or right.”

  6. Hint: “That return at twenty-five miles looks mean.” This is the most mitigated statement of all. (Outliers, p 195)


Thanks for explaining this – I thought you meant swearing when you mentioned it on the other thread.

#4 has a sting in the tail, seems to me.

This seems to be related to the excessive use of the “passive voice” in our conversations and writing. I struggle with this and was hoping for a 12 step program to rid me of it once and for all. Seems I should have worked harder in English class when I had the chance. To hell with being mechanically inclined, learn to write and speak effectively.

I have not noticed any excessive passivoicity in your writing on here.


are you telling me I can’t simply order a mate or helmsman to alter course anymore? I need to “mitigate” my order? WTF is this sorry assed world coming to?


I thought I remember reading somewhere that use of passive wording like this in high risk situations leads to errors. I forget whether the article/study was about ships or planes. I understand using some of these types of phrasing in a situation where someone is mentoring or instructing, but in high risk situations, congested waters, etc it creates bad outcomes.

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That is not the point made in the article. The examples given are the first officer taking to the captain. And it cautions about the dangers of mitigated speech.

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Mitigated speech is a linguistic term describing deferential or indirect speech inherent in communication between individuals of perceived High Power Distance which has been in use for at least two decades with many published references.[1][2][3][4]

The term was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, where he defines mitigated speech as “any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said”.[5] He continues with reference to Fischer and Orasanu,[6] to describe 6 degrees of mitigation with which we make suggestions to authority:

Command – "Strategy X is going to be implemented"
Team Obligation Statement – "We need to try strategy X"
Team Suggestion – "Why don't we try strategy X?"
Query – "Do you think strategy X would help us in this situation?"
Preference – "Perhaps we should take a look at one of these Y alternatives"
Hint – "I wonder if we could run into any roadblocks on our current course"

Gladwell brings up the concept in the context of how crews relate to each other in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, graphically illustrating the degree to which mitigated speech can be detrimental in high-risk situations which require clear communication.

No, I imagine it is more often than not the helmsman to the mate (in your example) that they may be heading into harms way.

Mitigated speech has its place in civil society. The question is when one needs to become more forceful to avoid a situation from getting out of hand from indecision. At the same time a certain amount of tack or discretion is often required when a subordinate is attempting to make a supervisor open to a differing opinion or unfolding situation.

If a persons defenses are up they are often not usually open to ideas or suggestions.

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This is also a good part of the reason we use such tools as anchor circles and the like.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell for sure if the anchor is dragging or not. So firstly the mate might wait to call until he is 100% sure. Secondly, if the mate is not sure the message might be vague as the mate tries to describe his uncertainty and the message will be made even less clear, seemingly less urgent, if it is mitigated.

With the anchor circle (or similar tools) the ship is either inside or outside, the decision to call is easy and the message is clear, the ship is outside the circle.


Fully agree. If there are “mile markers” it is much easier to maintain situational awareness.

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I turned it into a graphic in case anyone wants to save it.