What we say vs what we really mean

Wednesday, October 24, 2012    

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SOMETIMES we human beings have trouble saying what we really mean. We struggle daily to be polite and to say the 'right' words to people who cross our paths and who are either rude, obnoxious or just plain moronic. Mind you, some Jamaicans do not suffer from this malady, and will tell you exactly how they feel about you in a few short, hot words. However, polite society urges us to be, well, courteous and sensitive in our communication. The business world, and the workplace in particular, demands that we walk the line of proper communication, codifying the true meanings of our words. However, now that the recession has created a level playing field for all, can't we now just say what we really mean? Shouldn't there be a thinner line between the plain truth and politeness?

So for example, now that we know that jobs are scarcer than hen's teeth, should a rejection letter for a job application let down the job seeker easily? Under normal circumstance, the correspondence from the human resource manager thanks the applicant for his time and effort in applying for the job and then issues the poisonous kiss of death: "your letter is on our files for future reference" in the final paragraph. This sometimes conveys false hope for the jobless and is the unkindness cut of all. I think the time has come for all to know that we get it. Telling us that our application is on file really means that it has been placed in the dreaded and very huge 'file 13' from which not even Freddy Kruger comes out alive. Admit it and tell us the truth straight up, there is no job for me here, or unfortunately I did not make the cut. We will willingly move on if you tell us the unvarnished truth.

For those of us who have worked in corporate offices long enough we eventually discern what is meant when we are told that Boss man is 'in a meeting'. 'In a meeting' is one of those workplace words that has a wide variety of meaning, depending on who is asking, the time of day and who is delivering the message. The words 'in a meeting' are ones that secretaries and other assistants learn very quickly and love to throw around so much like confetti. It is a safe response to give to any caller and gives the distinct impression that 'Mr Big' is indeed a very busy and industrious soul who spends all his time in that mysterious 'meeting hole'.

Nevertheless, we understand this from the secretary's point of view, because at all times, the 'in a meeting' response is a cover all and is designed not to earn the wrath of the boss when he really does not want to the speak with the person at the other end of the conversation, but does not want to offend. But now that it's all out in the open, let us call a spade the shovel that it is. Is there really any shame in reporting what we truly mean: that the Big man is in the little 'oval office' that is within the Oval Office; is at lunch or playing online games? Or are we too timid to say that he is gone golfing (or fishing or dancing) because after all he really deserves the break from you all. I think the time has come to come clean as it is really not humanly possible for any one person to spend so much time in 'a meeting'. Good grief!

Another phrase with a sub-text that is used very often is the promise to 'take a message' so that the person for whom the message is intended will return your call. There are many times when the messages never get any further than the notepad or scrap of paper on which it is written. The hidden meaning from the message-taker is that they really do not have time for this unimportant conversation, and so, 'to cut a long story short, let me pretend to be helpful so that I can get back to my more meaningful existence'.

It is a given and it is wise thing to keep our words soft and sweet as we might have to eat them one day. Plus, it is not nice to deliberately hurt people's feelings by being blunt and unkind with our words, written or spoken, when with just a little more thought you could create a more encouraging environment. Some of us who care do not want to have the stain of hurt feelings on our conscience if our words do not 'come out right'. There are many times, however, that it is better to be kind than to be frank. If, for example your friend enthusiastically shows you (and the rest of the World Wide Web via social media) photos of her child who might not be the cutest button in the world. It might be a good idea, in order to keep the peace and not be offensive nor appear insincere, to jut smile and nod. That always works for me.

Yvonne Grinam-Nicholson, (MBA, ABC) is a Business Communications Consultant with RO Communications Jamaica, specialising in business communications and financial publications. She can be contacted at: Visit her website at and post your comments.





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