When Shirley was growing up her mum once told her “Christmas is just around the corner.” Being a kid Shirley immediately ran out of the house and around the corner to see Christmas. Naturally she was really disappointed to see it wasn’t there and figured she must have run around the wrong corner. She was getting ready to run around another corner when her mum caught up with her to say that wasn’t what she meant to say.
I think of that story whenever I’m around the fabulous Emma Danger. It reminds me to be careful about what I say. Not just to avoid cursing or using rude words – though that’s definitely important – but to make sure that she understands what it is that I think I am saying. Kids that young are like sponges, but without any kind of sophisticated filter.
What you say is what they hear, whether that’s what you intended or not.
And the same applies to so-called adults. So often at work you think you are saying one thing only to have a big misunderstanding because someone thought you meant something completely different. Or you thought it was clear you were joking only to find out no one else thought it was funny – that’s when you end up with headlines that scream out “Sinead O’Connor: ‘I was only joking about wanting to murder the Pope.’
What you write can be wrong
That’s even more true for email. With in-person conversations you have body language to help guide your understanding; with phone calls you have tone of voice to give you a clue as to meaning. But with email there is nothing to go on except for the words in front of you, and your perception of the person writing them.
Or just your mood at the time you read them.
Words are tools. Use them well and the results can be amazing. Use them poorly and you can be surprised at how quickly they can blow up in your face.
Open mouth, insert foot
That’s a lesson I have learned painfully as a media relations spokesperson. You think you are saying the right thing only to see your words thrown back at you later and used to make you look silly, stupid or duplicitous. Or all three.
It’s not fun. But it’s taught me that it is so much easier to take the time to pick the right words, and use them in the right order with the right tone, than to spend a lot of time later trying to correct a false impression.
And if all else fails I fall back on the old Will Rogers maxim, “never miss an opportunity to shut up.”