What The Mafia and Plane Crashes Teach Us About Mitigated Speech

Etashe Linto
5 min readFeb 4, 2020
sources: freepik and wallpaperaccess

I n the classic mafia movie, Goodfellas, we are introduced to a host of characters that represent the mechanics of a mob. Among these personas is Tommy Devito, a man with a bladed-tongue and an oven heated temper, who frightened roaches to their death.

Early in the movie, Tommy lunches with several associates, including Henry Hill with whom he creates a boiling, yet humorous tension. During their dining, the restaurant’s owner, Sonny, approaches Tommy for an overdue bill of Seven thousand dollars.

source: GoodfellasMinute.com

Here’s how the scene plays out;

Sonny sneaks up to Tommy

TOMMY (to Sonny, who has snuck up on Tommy’s side): What the fuck is it with you? I thought I was getting pinched over here. He’s hanging on my fucking neck like a vulture, like impending danger. What do you want?

SONNY: This guy’s worried [referencing a waiter, who is standing in the background]. He didn’t wanna come over and give you the check.

TOMMY: The waiter?

SONNY (hands Tommy a bill): If you could take care of this?

TOMMY (to Sonny): Yeah, it’s no problem. Tell him to put it on my tab. Of course.

SONNY: That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You know, it ain’t just this here. It’s seven fucking big ones here. Seven fucking Gs you owe me here.

Seven thousand dollars, I mean … that ain’t peanuts. I don’t mean to be out of order or nothing.

TOMMY: You don’t mean to be out of order? Jeez, it’s good you don’t mean to be out of order, Sonny.

You call embarrassing me in front of my friends, calling me a fucking deadbeat, you know … [Tommy grabs Sonny by the tie] You know, Sonny, you’re a real fucking mutt.

You know the money we spend in this fucking —

SONNY: What are you talking about? Come on. Don’t be like that, Tommy. Come o —

TOMMY (to Sonny, as he smashes a glass into his forehead): What do you mean, “Don’t be like that”?!

(Sonny runs away. Tommy gives chase just enough to kick Sonny. Everyone at the dinner table laughs.)

This scene was a simple outplay of a creditor(Sonny) confronting a debtor (Tommy) for overdue debt. And the gist is in the style with which this happens.

Notice how Sonny begins his statement by pushing the steaming pressure to the young waiter by the corner, right before he hits the nail in yet an indirect manner “if you could take care of this?”

That is mitigated speech.

Linguists define it as an indirect speech inherent in communication between individuals of perceived High Power Distance.

Gladwell puts it more succinctly in his book, Outliers, where he describes it as “any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.”

We all mitigate at some point in our communication with others. You don’t tell your mum “Fix the car today.” Rather, we tone it down to “Mum, I think we should fix the car today.” The latter is indirect and less commanding.

Notwithstanding, mitigation is more common in high Power Distance Index (PDI) spaces, which place greater importance on respecting authorities. The greater the perceived difference in status between individuals (power distance), the more difficult it becomes for an individual of lower status to communicate in direct terms with the superior.

While mitigation may serve as a respectful tone of communication, its perils lurk in spaces demanding urgent decisions. In Outliers, Gladwell tells the story of plane crashes and mitigated speech.

Korean Air flight 801 skidded for two thousand feet, fell into a ravine and burst into flames on August 6, 1997. It was a disaster that claimed 228 lives, re-normed the cultural legacy of Korean Air staff, and strengthened the replacement of mitigated speech with direct speech in cases of emergencies.

Investigations revealed four antecedents of the crash;

  1. The three classical preconditions of a plane crash — minor technical malfunction, bad weather, and a tired pilot — which was propagated by
  2. Poor team-work in the cockpit

Both the first officer and flight engineer, in deference to the authority of the pilot, miscommunicated their timely observation about the bad weather conditions. They mitigated.

“Don’t you think it rains more in this area, here?” The officer tells the captain.

“Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.” The flight engineer tells the captain.

One PDI measure of pilots from around the world showed South Korea as having a high PDI. The captain of flight 801 wasn’t listening to the hints of his crew members.

Gladwell points out the 6 levels of mitigated speech with which we make suggestions to authority;

  1. Command — the most direct way of making a point (Buy the HP Laptop)
  2. Team Obligation Statement — this is command without invasion (We need to buy the HP Laptop)
  3. Team Suggestion — we’re in this together (Let’s buy the HP Laptop)
  4. Query — a suggestion that seeks superior validation (do you think we should / would you like to buy the HP Laptop?)
  5. Preference — a weaker suggestion of individual preference (maybe we should buy the HP Laptop)
  6. Hint — most mitigated form of suggestion. Hints are crowned with ambiguity and can be mistaken for observations. (I wonder what will happen if we buy this laptop)

In Goodfellas, Sonny’s request is mitigated in the form of a query. He understands that Tommy is a brazen-tempered man wielding a high level of authority within the mob. Making a statement like “Pay me my money, Tommy.” would be quite unwise. And unlike flight 801, getting paid was not an emergency.

The mafia prescribes the use of mitigated speech in diplomacy. Plane crashes forbid the mitigation of suggestions during life-threatening emergencies.

Together, they teach us that our manner of communication matters. Emergencies arise at several levels of our communities — home, workplace, associations — and leaders have to design enabling environments for the expression of useful ideas. The focus should be placed on the advantage of an idea, rather than its source. Stay respectful, but understand when to be direct. And regardless of your chosen form of communication, always be clear.

Mitigated speech isn’t inherently bad. It is highly valuable when we’re making a request, or showing regard to authority. But in cases where lives are at risk and decisive actions need to be taken, as seen in flight 801, mitigated speech should be ruled out.