The Rules of Bad News

Alan Manning, linguistics professor at BYU, discusses his recent research on the use of buffers to deliver bad news in the best way possible.

In a recent paper published by the IEEE, Alan Manning, a professor of linguistics at BYU and Nicole Amare, a professor of English at the University of South Alabama, consider the ideal use of buffers in situations in which bad news must be delivered. Their conclusion? Getting bad news is never a pleasant experience for the giver or receiver, but it can be made a little easier for both parties by understanding the right amount of buffer, or cushion, to use first.

A buffer could be anything from a series of road signs warning of a road closure, a company’s letter of explanation prior to downsizing, or even the coughs, throat-clearing, and hesitation one expresses when trying to break up with a significant other. But how much buffer is the right amount? Advice on the subject differs widely from one textbook to another, but Manning and Amare were convinced there had to be a more universal answer. They eventually came up with a unique theory: “[We thought] it had to do with how much it [was] the physical world giving us bad news and how much of it was bad news that directly impacted peoples’ identity and sense of the world,” Manning said.

In a voluntary survey Manning and Amare developed, bad news was represented by pairs of real signs: one giving a more direct version of the message, such as “no swimming,” and the other offering the same message, but with additional explanation like “no swimming – toxic chemicals in water.” Respondents overwhelmingly preferred the more direct sign, citing clarity as an important factor. When the news was external and did not affect their identity, they preferred receiving straightforward, impersonal bad news as simply and quickly as possible. Manning stated, “If you’re not trying to change somebody’s religion or their political views or their scientific conclusion, a relatively small buffer is the take-home conclusion.”

In another scenario, a conversation was presented between two people in a month-long relationship, where one of them broke up with the other. In this scenario, no buffer was considered rude. But, “If you go on too long,” Manning explained, “then it feels like you’re being strung along.” In this case, a short buffer, like, “We need to talk,” was the option preferred prior to a breakup because, according to respondents, a month was not long enough for the relationship to have become part of their identity.

However, telling someone they’re mistaken about something that would impact their sense of the world—challenging research conclusions, for example—takes a bigger buffer every time. According to Manning, “People really don’t like to be told they’re wrong about things they’ve labored on.” This may explain why receiving a bad grade feels like a punch to the gut. The next time this happens, just remember: it’s not you, it’s your research.

—Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia Madsen covers news from the Linguistics Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.


Photos from Fotosearch, Safety Sign and Compliance Signs, Unsplash