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What Is a Platitude?

A platitude is a statement often used for comfort or to sound meaningful, but it's typically overused to the point of losing its original impact. These phrases can seem superficial in situations that demand depth and sincerity. Have you ever found yourself reaching for a platitude in conversation? Let's examine why that might be and what it reveals about communication.
Elizabeth West
Elizabeth West

The word "platitude" originates from a French word, plat, meaning flat. These trite and meaningless statements certainly do fall flat on recipients' ears, often making them feel patronized. Often people can't think of anything to say in profound or emotional situations, and may grasp the first thing that comes to mind. They can be found at exhorting motivation at work, or offering false comfort at funerals, weddings and other life events. Most people agree that sincere expressions of praise or condolence are much preferred, especially in the workplace.

Most people turn to family and friends in time of crisis. But when they offer a platitude rather than sincere support and heartfelt expressions of sympathy, the result is a feeling that the upset person is being dismissed. A bromide, or calming statement, with a clichéd element fails to validate the emotional state of the upset person and seems insincere.

People dealing with crisis often look for sincere support rather than general platitudes.
People dealing with crisis often look for sincere support rather than general platitudes.

A crisis situation makes people uncomfortable. When facing a serious stress event, especially death, it is common to seek an explanation even when there is none. It is also upsetting for many to see someone they care about, even only superficially, in a state of despair. So they seek to placate by reassuring the person that their loved one is “better off, out of pain, at least it was quick,” et cetera.

The best way to handle a situation like this, according to those who have experienced it, is a sincere expression of sorrow. If one is inclined to offer support rather than a platitude, then one should be prepared to follow through. A promised visit or helpful action that doesn't actually happen, such as providing a listening ear, or assisting with family arrangements only adds more stress.

In the workplace, the platitude has become a managerial tool intended to motivate workers. Such trite phrases as “Think positive,” “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” and others have been shown to irritate workers, especially when management does not back them up with their own actions. When conditions at work are less than ideal, workers have trouble caring about their jobs. Higher-ups who offer a platitude instead of a solution to problems are seen as uncaring and out of touch, and employees lose respect for them. Commitment and morale issues soon follow.

Managers can avoid this situation by evidencing a sincere dedication to thinking before they speak. Instead of using a platitude, they can listen to their employees’ concerns and indicate that they truly care not only about the well-being of the business, but of the workers. Most people who leave a job do not do so because of money, but because they don’t feel appreciated and acknowledged. Praise needs to be real and targeted. Companies who provide honest feedback to their workers, who do not hide concerns from them and make efforts to communicate with them by listening as well as speaking are more likely to hold on to skilled employees than those who dismiss their worries or suggestions with a platitude.

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    • People dealing with crisis often look for sincere support rather than general platitudes.
      By: Syda Productions
      People dealing with crisis often look for sincere support rather than general platitudes.