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Wolfish Words in Sheep's Clothing

10/22/2010 01:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some people just don't get it. Respect, politeness and relationship-building are not about using nice words. To be effective, those words have to be matched by respectful and cooperative intentions. When they are insincere, they boomerang onto the speaker. Studies have shown that they actually cause our brains to light up in the same area as if we were affronted by a repulsive smell.

The most recent example of this is the out-of-the-blue telephone message left on Anita Hill's answering machine by Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas, whom Hill had accused of sexual harassment at his confirmation hearing 19 years ago. Here's what she said:

"Good morning, Anita Hill. It's Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us to understand why you did what you did. Okay, have a good day."

Aside from all the nice terms -- "reach across," "ask you to consider," "I would love you to," "help us to understand," and, last but not least, the hideous "have a good day" -- this message is nothing more than a series of commands. Thomas tells (not asks) Hill to consider (twice), to explain, to think, to pray, and -- the underlying point of all these words -- to apologize. Was there any moment in this speech in which she wasn't telling Hill to do her bidding?

People are rarely fooled when you use cooperative language to pursue an utterly one-sided agenda, such as asserting with a big smile, "I'm offering you an olive branch" while doing everything in your power to force the other party to give you everything you want. Insincere friendliness is nothing more than wolfish manipulation in sheep's clothing. All that fluff just can't cover the revolting smell.