How We Fail Each Other in Our Communication

At Automattic, we pride ourselves on our ability to communicate via text. And yet, we end up with misunderstandings every now and then. In this post, I’d like to discuss a specific type of misunderstanding – one so subtle that people often don’t even realize what’s happened.

An Example

First, take a look at this hypothetical exchange between two coworkers:

Jo: Hey there! 🙂

Ty: hi

Jo: Hey, it’s totally not a big deal, but I noticed on this chat that you told the user to do _____. It worked, and I see the user was happy with your solution. But for future reference, this might be a better way to do it: _____. Check it out, okay? And let me know what you think!”

Ty: okay, thanks

Jo: Cool. Just wanted to give you a heads-up. 🙂

Ty: sure, got it

At this point, some of you are probably thinking, “Well, that felt kind of uncomfortable.”

And at this point, others of you are probably reading the previous sentence and thinking, “Huh?”

That, right there, is the problem. What we’re seeing is a difference in communication style. And certain folks will find it glaring, while others may not even notice it.

  • Whether due to cultural upbringing or personal preference, some people tend towards directness: Say what needs to be said, and be brief with it, so you can both get on with your day.
  • Other people tend towards politeness: Say what needs to be said, and be nice about it, even if it takes longer to get everything out.

When these two communication styles clash is when misunderstandings occur.

The Source of the Problem

In American English, we often use filler words called “softeners.” Softeners are a type of politeness strategy, the purpose of which is to help the user sound less aggressive or confrontational.

The interesting thing about politeness strategies is that if you grew up in the United States and other countries where politeness is valued*, you may use them all the time without ever being aware of them. It’s one of those quirky things in American culture where everyone knows how to use them, but few people aside from linguists are aware of their actual purpose.

*This is not to imply that countries where politeness isn’t valued are rude. It’s more that for countries where directness is valued more, politeness strategies are not the norm in everyday conversation**.

**This is also not to imply that every person from a given culture communicates a certain way. Family background and natural demeanor also dictate where a person falls on the direct-polite spectrum***.

***Yeah, that’s right. My footnotes have their own footnotes.

Because most people aren’t consciously aware of such things as politeness strategies, if two people from opposite ends of the spectrum interact, the style mismatch is frequently misinterpreted as a behavior or personality flaw.

  • Have you ever had an interaction where you walked away feeling like the other person was kind of rude, but not really having a tangible reason why?
  • Conversely, have you ever had an interaction where you walked away feeling like the other person was wishy-washy or even ditzy?

If you have, then it’s likely that you and this other person communicate from very different spots on the direct-polite spectrum. The problem is magnified in a text-based environment, since we don’t have the benefit of body language and other visual cues.

How the Problem Manifests Itself

In the above exchange****, Jo is genuinely trying to help, but doesn’t want to be a jerk about it, so his/her comments are peppered with softeners. Ty, on the other hand, responds with succinct affirmations. He/she understands, and wants to communicate this understanding quickly and clearly.

****For contrast, I purposely exaggerated each person’s style. Most people aren’t this extreme either way, so the difference is even more subtle and difficult to detect.

  • The misunderstanding arises when Jo walks away suspecting that Ty is secretly annoyed with his/her advice and being passive-aggressive about it.
  • Conversely, Ty ends up not wanting to take Jo’s suggestions too seriously, because Jo comes across as uncertain or insecure.

As a result, Jo is left wondering if Ty is resistant to help, Ty is left wondering if Jo is secretly clueless, and this will color every subsequent interaction between these two people.

For funsies, we can also flip the exchange and see how that pans out:

Jo: ping

Ty: Oh, hey! How’s it going?

Jo: I noticed on this chat that you told the user to do _____. It worked, and the user was happy with it, but there is a better way to do this: _____.”

Ty: Ohhh, okay. I actually didn’t know that, but thank you so much for alerting me. I’ll definitely keep this in mind for next time!

Jo: you bet

Flipped this way, where the directness comes from the person offering the criticism, it feels even more uncomfortable …

Right? You all can “feel” the awkwardness, yeah? It’s not just me, right? 🙂

Complicating the Issue Even Further

Studies have found disparities in the use of politeness strategies by men versus women, with men using them to express uncertainty and women using them to facilitate conversation. This can lead to women being seen as indecisive, when they’re really just being courteous.

Women in a workplace setting also face a catch-22 when it comes to being direct versus being polite, with them taking more heat than men regardless of which communication style they employ.

For these reasons, the polite-direct misunderstandings I’ve described here can have far more adverse effects on women than on men.

The Fix

So how do we prevent these types of misunderstandings? Well, no one is actually in the wrong here, so really, we just need to meet in the middle:

If your preference is towards directness:

Please understand how you might sound to someone who does value politeness. If someone comes across as a bit wishy-washy, it may not be self-doubt or insecurity, but a desire to be nice. It may also help if you try to match their tone a bit, especially if the conversation is about a touchy subject. Giving or receiving constructive feedback is the perfect occasion to consider this.

If you’re ever in doubt, check out this post on softeners, or this more detailed guide on politeness strategies. Yes, some of the suggested strategies may make you want to facepalm, but stuff like this really is kind of important to some people. Or, to make it really easy for you, here’s a hack you can try.

If your preference is towards politeness:

Please understand that not everyone values politeness as much as you do. If the information you’re trying to communicate is important, make a conscious effort to be more direct with it. And if you ever get the impression that someone is rude or annoyed, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Curtness does not always indicate rudeness or annoyance.

If it really does bother you, look up this other person’s comments. Maybe that can shed some light on their communication style. And if you still believe they were being rude or resistant, then yes, it might be worth bringing this up with the other person. Just be prepared for the awkwardness that will likely ensue.

Wrapping it All Up Like Bacon Around a Hot Dog

We all have our personal style when it comes to interpersonal communication. That doesn’t have to change, and I’m definitely not asking anyone to communicate in a way that makes them cringe.

All I’m hoping is that you’ll try to understand and accommodate your coworkers a little more. That way, we can all communicate better with each other, regardless of our cultural or personal backgrounds.

Epilogue: A Similar Feeling

On some level, these types of misunderstandings are similar to microaggressions: subtle comments directed towards a minority, which are not overtly offensive, but nonetheless leave the recipient feeling uncomfortable.

Microaggressions are tricky because their motives are questionable. If you’re the recipient, you don’t really have a good reason to call the other person out. If you do, you feel like you’re making a big deal out of nothing.

On the other hand, if you keep your discomfort to yourself, then you sit around feeling … well, icky is the best way I can describe it. In the example exchanges above, we can remove the racist/sexist/etc. element, but we’re still left with that feeling of ickiness, because one person conveyed more aggressiveness than the other, whether intentional or not.

If you’ve ever been a victim of microaggressions, then you’ll hopefully understand the ickiness that a mismatch in communication styles can evoke.

If you’re unfamiliar with microaggressions, I do encourage you to read up on them. The topic is somewhat tangential to this, but just as relevant in a company as diverse as ours. If you’d like to get a sense of the aforementioned ickiness I described, I’m going to plug myself with an article I wrote not long ago. Unless you’ve experienced microaggressions personally, it’s really hard to convey that feeling.

PS: Thank you to everyone on Fawkes and Hedwig, as well as @annezazu, for feedback while I was working on this post.

PPS: If you’ve read this far, thank you for taking the time to read this. I know it was long, but I do believe it’s an important topic that we all need to be more aware of.

#communication #diversity