A number of years ago during my years as an editor and weekly columnist for a newspaper that has since banned my opinions, I wrote a column with the heading: “Direct Routes Aren’t Always the Most Effective Ways to Travel.” You see, the “number of years” from the date of that commentary is approaching 28, and I was, at the time, past the midpoint of a career in print journalism that started almost 22 years before. Despite the headline on the column, it had little to do with traveling and much more to do with getting to the point— a destination I am attempting to reach at this very junction in your dwindling attention span.
It was about how we communicate, and in 1994 we were barely into the technology so pervasive today, including emailing, texting, messaging and tweeting. And yet human nature has not changed all that much— or so I desperately want to believe— and I hope it still invokes some truths and humor inherent in being who we are. I chose the following observations from a box full of yellowing news clippings that remind me that I too am fading and crinkling up at the corners. There is so much negative to write about these days and maybe we all could use a blast from the past to remind us how much alike we are regardless of our politics, religion and other sources of divisiveness that make social media sometimes seem like gang warfare.
I will proceed to get to the point starting in the very next paragraph with a reprint of that column. Assume the rest is in quotations, with a few added notes in italic as reminders that things were different in 1994.
How do you communicate things you want others to do? On the job, do you order people around, make suggestions or offer indifferent rhetoric geared to spur others into action?
Most people feel uncomfortable giving orders, even to so-called subordinates who expect to be told what to do. There is the boss who tells his secretary: “Miss Typo, I need this letter typed and faxed within the hour. After you’ve seen to that, report to my office for dictation!”
That’s about as direct as you can get. However, most bosses would tend to be more indirect: “Oh, Miss Typo, if you get a chance, it would be great if you could get this letter typed and faxed as soon as possible. We’re down to the wire on this— and I apologize for that— and if anyone can get this done within an hour, I know it’s you. Oh, and I’ve got some thoughts I’d like to get down on an interoffice memo. After you’ve taken care of that other business, could you pop back in and help me out with that?”
Being indirect doesn’t mean you expect less of your subordinates and coworkers. In both cases, the boss has made the point that he needs something done and he needs it done rather promptly. Being indirect doesn’t mean you’re wishy-washy or uncertain. It is often used to improve the working environment and make employees feel that their efforts are appreciated. Management people often find that being indirect is more effective than barking out instructions as if giving voice commands to an automaton. Note: This was long before we made the acquaintance of Siri and Alexis. It tells them that you know they can make progressive, logical assumptions and makes them feel as if they are playing a part in the process.
This matter of being direct with others was the topic of a recent essay in a Sunday newspaper supplement, and it got me to thinking about how we try to get each other to do things.
It seems that my wife occasionally makes this statement: “I don’t know what we’re going to have for dinner. I really haven’t had much time to think about it.”
This, of course, is another way of saying: “You decide what we’re going to do for dinner tonight, and if you want to prepare it or take me out for a bite, I wouldn’t object.” Note: My wife makes such statements much more occasionally these days.
The telephone is a bastion of in directness. The classic request when someone aside from the party to whom you wish to speak answers the phone is: “Is so-and-so home?” Most people recognize this as a request to speak to so-and-so and respond thusly if so-and-so is indeed on the premises: “Yes, I’ll get him/her for you.”
Children who tend to be less aware of the nuances of telephone etiquette may take that as a direct question, and it’s one to which, happily, they have an answer. Kids love it when they know the answer.
You: “Hi, is your Mommy home?”
This is where the conversation would end if you didn’t have a follow-up question.
You: “May I speak to her?”
Okay, maybe it’s time to be direct.
You: “I WANT TO TALK TO YOUR MOMMY ON THE TELEPHONE. PLEASE GET HER. PUT THE PHONE DOWN AND GO GET HER!”
This may get results or the child may burst into tears. As you can see, we start out straightforward and directly. We have to learn that directness isn’t always the best approach and that being blunt can be counterproductive and even hurtful. Teaching children to be truthful and trying to make them understand that you can’t always be candid is one of those parenting dichotomies.
Most husbands, boyfriends and lovers know that candor can be dangerous when the woman in your life poses the following potentially explosive question: “Does this dress make me look fat?” Now sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but you should never say it does. Guys tend to state something obligatory: “I think you look good in anything, honey.” We say that because we love them and because we’re not totally devoid of intelligence. If your sweetie tries on one of those outfits that doesn’t look good on anyone with more than one percent of body fat, you might want to steer her in another direction and away from what could result in a volcanic eruption: “That looks nice on you, darling, but that dress reminds me of the stuff (pick the name of someone she despises) would wear.”
Here’s another question that begs indirectness: “Do I look older?” The truthful — and most direct— response would be, “Yes, you do.” That’s because most of us tend to look older as we age. You see, by asking that question it means the woman you love is feeling a little down, in need of bolstering self-esteem. Perhaps she feels tired or has spotted a wrinkle or gray hair. She wants more than indirectness. She wants you to lie.
Guys expect similar indirectness from women. As the body surrenders to the aging process, you need the support of the woman in your life.
You are steadily approaching the state of baldness, and you want to be assured she still finds you attractive. Very few men, with the possible exception of Telly Savalas, look better without hair than with it, but millions of women have to lie through their teeth (or the ones still left) every day. Note: Apparently, I didn’t know that Telly Savalas, a bald icon known best as the lead in TV’s Kojak, died several months before I wrote this column in 1994. Some women, in handling this touchy issue, strive for directness in an attempt to turn a positive into a negative: “Look at it this way. You didn’t really lose your hair. Most of what’s gone from your head is either in your ears or on your back.” Not the recommended response. They are more likely to respond thusly: “I didn’t marry you for your hair!” Don’t press for more information, guys. You have no money. You’re 45 (or 55) and your sexual peak was at age 18. Chances are, none of the reasons she married you is among your arsenal of assets today.
Note: This was written three or four years after I surrendered to follicular homicide, a.k.a. rampant hair loss, and traded a barber for a razor, transforming my formerly scruffy skull into a gleaming, hairless wonder. Not a gray hair to be seen. I believe it was shortly after my wife assured me she didn’t marry me for my hair. Anything I can do to please my ageless wife.