Reading Between the Lines

I’m not good at reading between the lines. Vagueness or ambiguity is totally lost on me. That’s probably why I was not too good at dating.  Never understood why guys could not be honest and direct enough to say, “You’re nice but I’d just rather be friends”.  Tough words to hear, but much better than waiting to see if he’s going to call you again. 

This hasn’t changed for me, even in marriage. Hubby learned the hard way that it’s best to just man-up and tell me what’s on his mind.  Otherwise my mind will come up with all sorts of crazy notions about what he wants to say, which are usually wrong, and we’ll end up having a rather loud and lively “discussion” with tears flowing and the dog cowering under the bed.  Definitely not fun.  

When I started my career, business communications were right up my alley: clear, concise and direct.  I was expected to be tough and get the job done. Best to ask questions, recap meetings and lay it all out there so everyone understands the expectations. Doesn’t seem too hard, does it?  My mantra became, “say what you mean and mean what you say”. In a nice way, of course. There’s usually a way to get your point across without being rude. 

Some years ago I noticed a trend away from direct communications, even in business discussions.  Seems like everyone is afraid of offending others by being too direct, and in an attempt to be super nice, we’ve lost our ability to communicate with clarity. 

At work I’ve always said that if you want to ask me to lunch, just ask me.  If you come to my office and say, “I really like pizza”, I think you’re just making a statement – although sort of an odd one at work.  Never would I think that you are trying to tell me “grab your purse so we can head to the cafeteria”.

Why do I have to say “I’m reaching out to someone” instead of “I’m calling him”?  What does “so we’re good, right” mean?  Whatever happened to clearly stating what you need, so the recipient has a good understanding of your expectations?  At least with clear direction, the recipient can ask questions.  Some communications are so vague they are open for interpretation, which is not good for either side.

Recently I’ve noticed that I’m starting to move to “the dark side” in an attempt to fit in with the new corporate culture, using vague communications so as to not offend anyone with my direct-but-polite approach. Yet all this has done is got me in trouble.  A recent email I sent went something like this:

What I said: “Based on yesterday’s discussion, we need to organize and host the upcoming meeting. Would you like to take the lead on this?”  Notice my super-nice phrase, “take the lead” – nothing wrong here, right? After all, I wouldn’t want to insult the recipient by spelling out my expectations, would I?

What I meant: “Will you be the point person to manage this project and all that’s included to see this to completion, such as inviting attendees, developing the agenda, ordering food and preparing the presentation or assigning others to help in the presentation?”     

The response I got: I would love to be there, thanks for inviting me. I’d be happy to show them around the office.

HUH?  This person either totally misunderstood my uber-polite email, which is scary in itself, OR this is an uber-polite-yet-so-subtle-that-I-don’t-get-it way of saying, “No, I’m not able to/interested in taking the lead on this project”.   

I used to think this was mainly an issue with younger people, those who have been brought up never hearing the word “no”, always believing they are “winners”, the ones with parents who coddled them a bit too much.  But I’ve noticed it in older employees too.  Maybe it’s a function of career path – I started out in a traditional, well-established business environment that had structure, and clear communication may have been easier to learn than if my career had begun at a small start-up company where things were done on the fly without much organization. 

However this trend began, I know I’m not a fan.  Seems like we’re either writing fluffy emails or tip-toeing around with our spoken words, fearful that we may come across as negative or hurt someone’s feelings if we use more direct communication. The result is often misunderstanding and confusion and we end up spending more time trying to clarify our meaning than if we had been clear and concise to begin with. Ugh.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. That’s all I’m gonna say.

Read more at my blog, www.talesoftheterminated.com.

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