• Hedging helps you to separate yourself from the message so that if your listeners reject your message, they need not reject you (for example, “I may be wrong here, but . . .”). Hedging also enables you to cushion your being proven wrong. If, on the other hand, you were to say, “I know I’m right” (definitely not a disclaimer) and are then proven wrong, you’re likely to feel some degree of discomfort or embarrassment.
• Credentialing helps you establish your credibility, your believability. It helps you establish your special qualifications for saying what you’re about to say (“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not homophobic” or “As someone who telecommutes, I . . .”).
• Sin licenses ask listeners for permission to deviate in some way from some normally accepted convention, to violate the norms of discussion (“I know this may not be the place to discuss business, but . . .”).
• Cognitive disclaimers help you make the case that you’re in full possession of your faculties (“I know you’ll think I’m drunk, but I’m perfectly sober” or “Don’t think I’m exaggerating, I’m just reporting what I heard”).
• Appeals for the suspension of judgment ask listeners to hear you out before making a judgment (“Don’t hang up on me until you hear my side of the story”). These appeals are often used with excuses or apologies as in “I know you’re angry but please hear my side of the story.”
Generally, disclaimers are effective when you think you might offend listeners in, say, telling a joke (“I don’t usually like these types of jokes, but . . .”). In one study, for example, 11-year-old children were read a story about someone whose actions created negative effects. Some children heard the story with a disclaimer, and others heard the same story without the disclaimer. When the children were asked to indicate how the person should be punished, those who heard the story with the disclaimer recommended significantly lower punishments.
Disclaimers, however, can also get you into trouble. For example, to preface remarks with “I’m no liar” may well lead listeners to think that perhaps you are lying. Also, if you use too many disclaimers, you may be perceived as someone who doesn’t have any strong convictions or as one who wants to avoid responsibility for just about everything. This seems especially true of hedges.
In responding to statements containing disclaimers, it’s often necessary to respond to both the disclaimer and to the statement. By doing so, you let the speaker know that you heard the disclaimer and that you aren’t going to view this communication negatively. Appropriate responses might be: “I know you’re not sexist, but I don’t agree that . . .” or “Well, perhaps we should discuss the money now even if it doesn’t seem right.”