When It’s Wrong To Be “Right”
"This new initiative is amazing, right?"
– Just about every executive on the planet, pretty much every day
This year marks the ten-year anniversary of my return to the analyst world of Forrester from academia where I had spent a wonderful, several-year break. Leaving teaching was a hard call to make. Teaching smart students is very fulfilling, energizing, and informative. In fact, it was a student on the back row of one of my classes who first introduced me to YouTube in 2005. When I made the tough decision to return to analyst life, there were two things about teaching that I knew I wouldn't miss, however: 1) faculty pay, and 2) student uptalk.
Most will recall from when it was a topic of wide conversation that uptalk refers to arbitrarily raising the pitch of your voice at the end of a phrase or sentence, as if asking a question though usually when no question is present. Uptalk was rampant on college campuses back then along with the more standard verbal pause, "like," which I also was not sad to leave behind. I tried to teach my students to exert more effort in their use of words and phrasing; some benefitted from my lessons, others did not. In the end, uptalk, while not a reason to leave teaching behind, was also not a reason to stay.
At last, I thought, I can move into the corporate world, where everybody understands the power of words and exercises more discipline in their choice of just the right word for just the right occasion. Wrong. While I was out for several years engaging in energizing discussions with young, smart students, something happened in the business world. A pernicious fad had arisen and spread itself pandemic-like into every industry. That fad, that disease is the word, "right?".
You know the one. The "right?" that people tack on to every third or fourth sentence when they're trying to be persuasive. It practically drips with manufactured authenticity — I'm trying to get down to your level, trying to make it seem like we're just two people having an earnest conversation, right? At the same time it reeks of the kind of fear and insecurity that dogs can smell and sharks can sense — please show me that what I just said make sense by nodding along as I end this sentence, am I right?
Ten years ago this terrible word landed on me like a ton of bricks. Conferences are particularly rife with it. I've counted as a single speaker asked us if he was "right?" more than thirty times in fewer than thirty minutes. I stopped counting because I had a headache. I desperately wanted to do something to correct this malady, to heal the business world of such a devastating ailment. I thought I would write a cunning and clever blog post, perchance, even ask a major news outlet if they wanted to run it as a frothy op-ed. But then I thought, "Nah, this, too, shall pass," and went on with my life.
It didn't pass. Ten years later this word still echoes throughout conference rooms, meeting spaces, and hallways. For some reason this fad did not join the other business jargon terms that preceded it, like, liaising, running point for something, or taking a quantum leap. (Okay, I'm guilty of using that last one from time to time, but I only use it in the strict sense of leaping from one orbit or level to another without crossing the space in between, but I digress.) We are still, a decade later, drowning in requests to validate someone's ideas every third sentence. And I want to just scream: "You're either right or you're not! If you are, be bold! If you are not, don't ask me to pretend!"
I get that the phrase works, probably explaining its longevity. I see that people nod when asked if the speaker is "right?" and that kind of response is human, even habit-forming. Recent research shows that such interpersonal synchrony actually activates the dopamine reward system, making it yet another thing that we can crave and become addicted to. Perhaps that's what's going on here: We're addicted to the affirmation, however forced, that we get when we ask for it.
However, explaining it doesn't justify it. My ongoing research in consumer psychology has taught me that identifying the biological underpinning of an urge doesn't require that we act out that urge. Which leads me to the ask: Can we just stop being so "right?" And before you look around, examine your speech first. I bet you don't even know you are an offender. Yes, you are still a good person and all that. But you could be a more persuasive and confident sounding good person if you dropped the "right?" You could also find more authentic ways to make yourself approachable, whether in how you use your voice, your body language, or just your personality. Try that and see if it changes how people respond to you. Maybe you'll get the same high that "right?" was delivering before.
And maybe, finally, I'll get a rest from you all being "right?" all the time.
This frothy post is good reading for a Friday afternoon and is brought to you by James McQuivey, Ph.D., a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. He is also the author of the book Digital Disruption.