The prefix “soft” is incredibly useful. Generally speaking, it indicates either actual relative softness (e.g. “soft cream,” a softer form of ice cream), or a certain gentleness and/ or flexibility obtaining to a non-tangible concept (e.g. soft schedule). This piece (which will be broken up into a couple of posts) will explore a number of instances of the prefix “soft” at greater or lesser length. I like all the items we will discuss, all except one.
Francis Wade in the classic blog post “Hard vs Soft Scheduled Items” comments thusly on soft scheduling:
Professionals who undertake the discipline of Scheduling at higher skill levels (Orange and Green belts) have their calendar as the central point of focus (…) Their lives would be made much easier if Outlook were to distinguish between different kinds of segments, recognizing them as either “hard” or “soft.
(Let’s just pause for a moment to appreciate Wade’s capitalization of “Scheduling,” as well as his reference to “Orange and Green belts” as scheduling skill levels. This dude is serious about scheduling.) Wade here hits on an essential point, Outlook (the Microsoft program) does not (or did not, Wade was writing in 2011) allow users to classify schedule items as “hard” or “soft,” viewing instead all items as identically fixed. In Outlook, something is either on or off one’s schedule. This is a problem according to Wade because:
A soft item is one that only involves the user, and can easily be moved around one’s calendar, with few immediate consequences. They might have great importance, but a late start would not endanger the end result.
Obviously, Wade is differentiating a soft item from a “hard item.” Thus, in the realm of scheduling, “soft” indicates that the item is flexible because it is individually owned. For example, a teacher may have “grade papers” on her schedule at an appointed time, however in practice everyone knows that this schedule item is fungible.
In my opinion, Wade is right on as far as he goes. His point about Outlook is a seminal one. However, I do not agree that we can only soft schedule something that applies only to ourselves. I believe we can just as easily soft schedule a call with a friend or a meeting at the pub. If my friend texts me and wants to speak on the phone tomorrow, I might reply with “sounds great, let’s soft-schedule that for 2 PM.” This means, clearly, that 2 PM is the target time, however it may be a little earlier, or, more probably, a little later. If you think about your own life you will probably recognize the role that soft scheduling plays in it. In fact, soft scheduling is everywhere, you probably just don’t use the term.
(Before we go any further I want to address the issue of hyphens. Mr. Google suggests that “soft schedule” should not be hyphenated, nor, in fact, should basically any of the terms this piece will examine. I can give this one to Mr. Google because it is just easier to skip the hyphen. However, logically, and even emotionally, I like the hyphen for a lot of “soft” prefixes. This is because the hyphen, in my view, serves to attach the prefix to the term, thereby underlining the fact that we are engaging in an act of proactive and meaningful categorization.
An additional grammatical point here is that nowhere in Wade’s piece, for example, does he use “soft schedule” as a verb phrase, or indicate that we can do so. Folks in general massively underrate the effectiveness of turning a noun phrase like “a soft scheduled item” into a verb phrase “to soft schedule.”)
In any case, you get the idea with soft scheduling. Let’s move on.
A soft pedal originally referred to a piano pedal, which is interesting, however for our purposes it means something else. According to Collins dictionary: “If you soft-pedal something, you deliberately reduce the amount of activity or pressure that you have been using to get something seen or done.” (Look at this s***—Mr. Collins Dictionary is hyphenating soft-pedal! Mr. Google, though, disagrees. Why would we hyphenate soft-pedal and not soft schedule? What’s going on?)
We see soft-pedaling all the time in politics. A politician or party will advance an idea and then back away slightly from said idea without entirely abandoning it. They just turn down the temperature around it. It will be apparent that soft-pedal is lexically and conceptually related to a number of other idioms, for example “tap the breaks,” “put on the back-burner,” “let’s put a pin in that,” and, my favorite and perhaps quasi-original to me, “to bracket.”
(When we bracket something, we acknowledge the existence, and importance, to one or more parties in a conversation, of the item in question while indicating that the item needs to wait or be placed in the background for the time being. We may bracket an item because we don’t have time to deal with it right now, because it doesn’t fit conceptually with what else we are doing, or because it is too sensitive, political, or otherwise complex to address at the current moment. As an example, let’s imagine a newly hired HR manager at a large company. In the first week on the job she is told by multiple people of an alleged instance of sexual harassment from a senior male manager to a subordinate younger female. The HR manager is told that everyone knows about this instance and that nothing has been done or said on any level. Now, our HR manager (let’s call her Jessica) is in a tight spot—obviously the allegation is a live issue, and perhaps a growing one as it has not even been acknowledged. Also, by very virtue of the fact that this complaint has come to Jessica several times immediately after her hiring it is clear that other employees are expecting her to do something about it. And she should. On the other hand…Jessica is brand new. She probably does not have a full handle, or even much of a grasp, of the corporate culture or power dynamics at the company. She does not know who to go to, necessarily, and even if there is a specified reporting flow for these kind of complaints, and, this point is crucial, she knows already that even if there is a flow it is not functioning properly. In fact, if she was to bring the matter immediately to a direct superior she could well be stepping on a political land mine. So our Jessica, god bless her, may say to her colleague something like: “I get it. This sounds like a serious issue and I understand that the fact that it has not been addressed only exacerbates the situation. However, let’s bracket it for the time being, and in the meantime I’ll try to learn more and see what the right next step might be.” Now in theory is this the right call? Maybe not. Maybe Jessica should go guns blazing up the chain. But no, she really shouldn’t. She should listen, observe, assess. In other words, she should probably bracket.)
Back to soft-pedal. Unlike soft schedule, which is basically always a positive, soft-pedaling can cut both ways. Soft-pedaling can be a risk. Take for example the Democratic primary contest for the 2020 presidential nomination in the United States. As any political watcher knows, candidates in primaries generally tack further to the left or right and in the general tack back to the center. The reasons for this are obvious, however in the digital age where every word, every micro-shift in a candidate’s position, gets analyzed in depth in real time, it is becoming far harder to tack from side to side without coming off as inauthentic. In the 2020 primary, Bernie Sanders’ plan for Medicare for All became the default position of anyone running anywhere near the left lane of the party. Now, the fact that Medicare for All was unlikely to get passed even under a Sanders administration, much less that of a bandwagon candidate like Kamala Harris, made it basically safe for a leftish candidate to champion the cause right through the primary.
Two candidates, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, initially jumped on-board with Medicare for All as they were trying to run in the left (Warren) or center-left (Harris) lane. Other candidates including Joe Biden (the eventual winner) and Pete Buttigieg were running basically as centrists, so they weren’t obligated to support it. Others, such as Andrew Yang, were niche candidates and/ or somehow on a tangent to the left/ center axis, and were therefore not endangered by the issue one way or the other. Harris and Warren could have just stuck with their support, however as the primary advanced they felt compelled to soft-pedal their position. This was probably from some combination of media demands for them to differentiate their plan from Sanders’, advisors telling them they needed to triangulate ahead of the voting, and, in Harris’ case, a lack of a political core that left her susceptible to political wobbling. Harris was going to lose in any case; she was a bad candidate with a toxic relationship to her staff and a habit of telling ridiculously embellished life stories. Warren, on the other hand, arguably lost her shot at the nomination because of her decision to soft-pedal Medicare for All. She couldn’t get her position straight, started to dissemble and flop-about, and her candidacy stalled in the Fall of 2019 as a pretty direct result. Such was the fall-out from her soft-pedal.
Nonetheless, in politics and in organizational settings the soft-pedal can be a crucial move. In an office environment a manager or manager group may try to roll out a new initiative and run into headwinds from employees. Said managers then have a choice, they can continue to push straight through and force the initiative, in the process risking the goodwill and enthusiasm of the team, or they can soft-pedal. Here, the soft-pedal is often the right call because it is quite different from “the climb down.” When managers climb down (or “back down” in more common parlance), they may put the issues to rest however they will likely lose face. Sometimes a climb down is necessary and hygienic, as when the managers realize the initiative is simply a non-starter and it’s best to cut their losses. The soft-pedal, however, allows for two things: i) it allows the managers to save face and to maintain the flexibility to bring the initiative back, perhaps in a revised form, at a later date, and ii) by leaving the initiative on the theoretical table while taking it “off the front burner” employees are reminded that the point behind the initiative may still be important in the future. When and if the initiative is brought back, the issue set has been “seeded,” and this seeding can “prime” employees to be more receptive the next time around when the initiative (by this time re-packaged) is re-introduced. Of course, the managers can also just allow the initiative to die off of its own accord over time while avoiding the (more sudden) climb down.
Such are the pros and cons of the soft-pedal. Handle with care.
to be continued…