As someone who lives, conservatively, more than 95% of my life in the space between my ears, getting out of my head can be an enormous, gigantic, ferocious challenge.
I’m not bad with words. I mean, I overheard myself talking to my eldest about a school friend situation (oh! how cruel school friends can be when you are six!) and probably should have taken notes. I could have learned a lot from what I spouted off extemporaneously to my scalawag.
So apparently, given the right situation, I can say things the right way. But I don’t generally trust myself in conversation.
And maybe keeping it all stuffed between my ears most of the time is a good thing because even a fool appears wise if he keeps his mouth shut. I’ve been forced to formulate an unfortunate wicked stepsister to this proverb, however:
If she who proofreads after she hits “send” is a fool then she who searches for the “unsend” button is an idiot.The Philosopher Princess
Why yes, because even when 95% of our life is lived in our head, and we say out loud only say 2% of the things that actually cross our minds, that leaves a full 3% to screw-up by writing thoughtless emails and text messages.
And therein, we get endless, tremendous opportunities to be a fool.
It used to be that a letter was a precious thing, carefully considered, over which punctuation was agonized, something re-read and re-copied until it was perfect. Something perfumed and sealed. We never knew exactly when it arrived. We couldn’t know the moment it had been read.
Am I pining again to become Laura Ingalls Wilder again?
I remember once, a long long time ago when I worked at a fancy schmancy downtown hotel. My boss was a jerk. (I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. He was.) There was no way to please him. We would fight tooth and nail to meet our goals, only to be berated for not surpassing our goals.
Ugh. I hated working for him. I hate being faced with shifting goals and squishy expectations that hinge on a narcissist’s whims. He was the king of the public elegies and the private teardowns. His weapon of choice was email.
Because he was so publicly effusive in his praise, the whole team mistrusted one another. We all thought everyone else walked on water. So then, when we would get one of those nasty private messages about why we hadn’t cold called an extra 50 firms that month like so-and-so had found the time to do, it hit pretty hard.
During the time I worked for him, there was the Great Blackout of 2003 Do you remember the Great Blackout? If you weren’t in the Midwest or Northeast at the time, it may not ring a bell.
What I remember was, in spite of what a jerk he was to work for, this guy taking responsibility for getting our hotel guests to safety from a stopped elevator, keeping everyone informed because he was one of the rare people who had a charged cell phone at the time.
I don’t know what struck me to do this, but after we got power back, I wrote him a note. On real paper–on beautiful stationery, actually, not just paper. And I told him how impressed I had been by how he’d reacted in the face of crisis. I really meant it, too.
I didn’t know if he’d read the note. He immediately went back to being a jerk anyway.
About a year later I was offered an incredible opportunity to go work for an asset management firm by someone who knew how to talk to his employees like human beings (my bar was rather low. It’s a good thing that boss end up to be pretty awesome.)
That said, the day I went to tell that jerk of a boss that I was quitting, he looked stunned. He genuinely couldn’t understand why I would want to leave. I had practiced what I wanted to say to him, something along the lines of “I don’t ever know what you want, and I am tired of trying to catch up to your shifting expectations.”
The conversation went better than I expected it to, probably because by then I was the fourth person to quit that month. I was able to tell him why we all were quitting: he was a terrible person to work for.
I did not anticipate this jerk of a boss getting teary eyed. He reached under the blotter on his desk and pulled out the letter on pretty stationery I had written to him a year before.
“I could have expected the others to quit,” he said. “But what about this?”
Ugh. What about that? The note had been written at a time of crisis. He had been awesome in a moment of crisis. But he was a nightmare to work for the rest of the time. I wished I had never written that pretty note.
“Without electricity, and in a time of constant crisis you would be a pretty awesome person to work for.”
“I wish you would have told me sooner,” he said. “I didn’t realize how I was being perceived. I really meant well.” He defended himself by saying, “But I told everyone at the meeting about the accounts you brought in…” as if that would make up for all the veiled threats to my job and criticisms to my work ethic (which I will defend tooth and nail!) made by email. “Those were supposed to be motivating,” he argued.
I truly believe, after that conversation, that he really did mean well. He just didn’t know how to manage a team.
I don’t know if he would have listened had someone called him out on his management style. We just all up and quit instead. It was less scary than actually saying the hard things out loud.
Saying things out loud is hard. Especially when the person to whom they need to be said holds the power of the purse over us. But that ever-desirable virtue of Courage would have us do the hard thing anyway.
One thing that is for sure: no good thing has ever come from a text message or an email. I have a friend who, in the middle of a string of text messages, will send a voice message to say something really important. I treasure that. It’s a way to hear the voice, the intonations, the pauses, the punctuation. It makes the conversation human again.
I’m gonna go full Laura Ingalls Wilder on you for a second: technology, for all that it has made it easier to communicate with people halfway across the world, has sure made genuine connection more complicated. It has made it easier for us to hide our real thoughts behind inane chats with strangers and surface-level relationships, to the exclusion of the people who are flesh and blood in our own homes.
Courage is a strange virtue. It can be splashy, but it is rarely so. Courage is a virtue that could do so much to increase our sense of satisfaction, if we could just say the tough things out loud. I’m not saying I’ve got this. It’s a subject I am wrestling with, too.
What would it look like in your life if you actually said the tough things out loud?