Hello? It’s me. You know, your mom?

This is what I typically see when I look at my conversation history with my 13 year old son. Sometimes it feels really lonely. Like I’m talking to myself. I know he has a phone because his nose is in it much of the time we are together. So what happens to it while we are apart? Strange, I tell ya. Maybe I should ask him about it…

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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!

 

Communication

I am a perfectionist when it comes to language. I speak very precisely and write even more so (since I have a chance to review before anyone sees it). I correct my children’s grammar constantly. Someday, my daughter will remember that it’s not “Me and Jennifer were talking.” There is constant grammar commentary running in my head. I mentally cringe at every mispoken word I hear or read. I have learned that people do not appreciate being corrected, however, so I’ve learned to bite my tongue.

An online friend who is aware of this aspect of my personality once sent me a T-shirt that said “I am silently correcting your grammar”. It’s true. I am. He also does me the tremendous service of sending me an email whenever he notices a mistake in my blog. Not because he cares – because he knows I’d die if it stayed there very long. In fact, I have actually received his email on my phone after retiring to bed and then jumped out of bed to go fix it. When I find myself needing to use lay or lie, I consult my favorite grammar resource just to make sure I have it right. Every time.

My children have become accustomed to me stopping in front of signs in public places and asking them to point out what is wrong. After they find the mistakes, they listen patiently as I rant about the state of American grammar and carelessness. Then they ask if we can move along.

Way back in the day, I had a Palm Pilot, as did several of my coworkers. It had a strange “writing” method – the precursor to today’s swiping, I suppose – that took some getting used to. A coworker came to the conclusion that as long as he could tell what he meant to write, there was no need to correct any of it. It made sense. It was logical. Practical. Time saving. And I couldn’t do it. I would fix every single mistake.

Today, I was adding some debug to my software. It initially looked something like this:

debug(“Collecting %d parts to path name\n”, argc-i);

As I verified that the math was right, it dawned on me that argc-i could possibly equal one, resulting in a print saying “Collecting 1 parts to path name”. And even though no one was likely to ever see this print besides me, I added parentheses around the ‘s’ in ‘parts’ so it would be correct even if the number of parts should happen to be one.

This brings me to my performance review this year – my first with this particular supervisor. At the conclusion of the review, as we signed the form acknowledging that we had discussed the review, he made a strange remark.

“Now,” he said, “I want you to understand that this is really the only formal interaction that you and I have with each other. Everything else can be laid back and relaxed, ok? I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to approach me in any sort of formal manner, ok? Sometimes when you communicate with me, it feels like you are having to present yourself very carefully. You don’t need to do that. No one else does.”

“Ok,” I said, slightly bewildered.

After deciding that night that I wasn’t sure what he meant, I returned to his office the next day for clarification. As he explained, I began to smile.

“I’m not crafting my emails to you that way because you are my supervisor,” I finally said. “That’s how all of my communication is. Even my text messages are complete sentences with proper grammar. I will always make sure I explain myself explicitly and I will always read over my email several times before sending it. It’s just who I am.”

He reiterated that it was fine but wasn’t necessary. I hope he can accept that it is necessary – to me. I’m honestly not sure how to communicate more casually and don’t think I’d want to even if I could.

When An Economy of Words is a Problem

If you are a man with good communication skills, I’ll apologize right up front. I know you are out there. I know you are real. I just don’t get to work with you very often. This post is not about you.

This post is about those men who believe that any question can be answered with a single word. Such men baffle me. Here is an email exchange I had recently with one such man.

Me: The following changes need to be made to a file that you have checked out. Can you either check in the file so I can make the changes or make the changes yourself?

Man: Done.

Right. I asked you to do either A or B and you respond that you are done. Wow. That really helps me know whether I need to make the changes. Let’s try for some clarification.

Me: You made the changes or you checked it in so I could make the changes?

Man: Both.

Yeah… see… those two choices were mutually exclusive. You couldn’t have both made the changes and left the changes for me to make. I’m not interested in trying again, so I’ll use my interpretive skills to assume that you meant you made the changes and you then checked it in when you were done.