Let Them Eat Cake… Or Not

Non-verbal communication is fraught with peril.

I arrived at work to find the place in quiet chaos Monday morning. The server migration that the system administrator had attempted on Sunday had not gone well. Rather than revert to the old one, he had stayed the night attempting to fix the problems.

He had not been successful by the time I arrived at 8:30 and I got an earful from my disgruntled engineers unable to make progress on their own tasks. After getting the state of things, I was standing in a hallway talking to some of them when Sam arrived at work.

Sam is very knowledgeable in all things sys-admin and is often pulled in to help when things go awry, as is Bob, one of the people I was talking to. When Sam came into view, Bob drew his hand across his neck in a slashing motion.

Sam stopped about 20 feet away and raised his eyebrows.

I widened my eyes and shook my head.

He gave us a questioning look and raised his hand, as if gesturing toward his cube.

I gave a thumbs-down.

Bob shook his head and mouthed Not Good.

I waved my arms in front of me.

Still a third person indicated the situation was not good.

Sam looked unhappy but shrugged and entered his cube.

When he exited to put his breakfast in the microwave, I approached and said, “Even though the server migration didn’t go well, I need you to stay focused on your project. We can’t afford for you to help out.”

“Ok,” he replied. “But what does that have to do with my cake?”

“What?” I asked.

“My cake. Why was my cake bad?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I walked in and everyone started making all these gestures about something being bad so I held up the cake I was holding in my hand {which he had retrieved from the front sharing table} and everyone made more emphatic gestures. And I didn’t see how the cake could be that bad but figured if you guys felt that strongly about it, I’d just throw it away.”

“Wait. You were holding cake in your hand?”

“Yes and I threw it away.”

“But we were talking about the server migration!”

“I see that now.”

“The cake is wonderful!” said Bob.

“Well it’s in the trash can now and I don’t think they change the liners that often so I’m not going to retrieve it.”

“Oh man, we didn’t mean that!” one of us said as everyone dissolved into laughter. The laughter resumed when Sam returned to the table to find that all the cake was now gone.

Meanwhile, in a nearby cube, Dan glanced at his cake sitting next to him. He didn’t catch the whole conversation but heard that the cake was bad. He pondered for a moment. And then he broke off a small piece and tasted it. He shrugged. Tastes fine to me! he thought before quietly consuming the cake.

So the lesson for today is this: Don’t attempt silent communication unless both parties know sign language… or you are an accomplished mime.

Oh, and trust but verify. Be like Dan, not Sam.

Or be like Sam… life is a lot funnier for the rest of us!