Nobody who saw the TV series Gavin and Stacey could forget Alison Steadman’s brilliant portrayal of Pam, the neurotic Essex mother who runs a tight but affectionate ship with her son Gavin, and Mick, her long forbearing husband. One of Pam’s signature phrases before handing out well-meaning advice is ‘I’m not being funny’ as in ‘I’m not being funny Stacey, but you want to get a life; what you just said was really boring‘. The purpose of the opening phrase is to soften the potentially hurtful comment that follows.
Linguistics geeks call these phrases hedges, or mitigators, and they come in all shapes and forms. For example, one of my ex- bosses used to preface his objection to any of my suggestions with ‘ The thing is’, and then tell me why it wouldn’t work. Once those words were out, I knew my bright idea would be binned. And I often find myself trying get some conversational space in a robust family lunch or animated university seminar with the phrase ‘ could I just say?’
The British tend (there’s another one) to be more indirect and make liberal use of these devices. It might almost be part of our national psyche, Strangely though, the word basically attracted much cheek-sucking in the British press recently from prescriptive pedants who claimed that the word has no meaning. But, basically, it is just another hedge, and a very useful rhetorical device carrying not propositional, but interpersonal meaning.
Americans, being direct, use these devices much less and react either with bemusement or impatience at the abundance of politeness forms that trip off our lips. The late Lauren Bacall, a no-frills Bronx girl, was supposed to have nipped the meandering tentativeness of one English director in the bud with the admonishment ‘ Say what you want to say, goddamit’.