Ann L. McGill doesn’t want to be mean, but...

A Q&A with the Sears Roebuck professor of general management, marketing, and behavioural science at Chicago Booth


Ann L. McGill, Sears Roebuck professor of general management, marketing, and behavioural science at Chicago Booth.
Ann L. McGill, Sears Roebuck professor of general management, marketing, and behavioural science at Chicago Booth.

Should we start a sentence with something like, “I’m sorry, but . . .”?

People include phrases like that in their conversations before saying something negative. Intervening in the flow of information in this way makes you more persuasive and likable. Linguists call these “dispreferred markers.”

Where do you see these markers?

I notice them in online product reviews, for instance. I think most of us are aware that some people are pre-irritated in life: they just want to vent their frustrations and anger. If somebody is presenting you with negative information, you have to determine, “Is this person a crank?” A dispreferred marker is a signal that says, “I am not a crank. I know that presenting negative information is off-putting.” It’s a way of being a good conversational partner and not sounding like a curmudgeon.

Is there a downside to using them?

Have you spent time in the American south? You’ll hear, “Bless his heart.” Or just about anywhere it might be, “Don’t get me wrong.”

If you hear someone say one of these, just dive under the desk. They have become a license to kill.

I think the general lesson is to recognize that what’s important is not what you’re saying but how people will react to what you’re saying. This is true of persuasion more generally. Good persuasion involves thinking about what other people think.

Persuasion is in the other person’s head.

This article first appeared in The Chicago Booth Review.

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