For decades I have been watching people interact with each other. In the past twenty-five years especially, I have paid close attention, and my observations are not entirely complimentary of us humans. Without meaning to, we are constantly sharing irrelevant information, asking unnecessary questions, offering unwanted advice, and more. This lack of awareness causes us to miscommunicate, to be poorly understood, to fail in our attempts to connect, and to outright offend others.
The other day I was loading 130 bags of top soil into our minivan, and early in the process an employee—wearing the clothing of a supervisor—appeared at the back of the van. She was obviously agitated, pacing back and forth and mumbling to herself.
Among other things she said:
“That’s a big load.”
“Are you sure you can carry all that?”
“Do you think your axle will be all right?”
“Do you have very far to go?”
“Your tires look kind of flat.”
I was mildly amused at the grilling, and said nothing because none of her observations required an answer, none of the questions were any of her business, and I was huffing and puffing from loading the van. I knew why she was there: some check-out clerk must have told the lady that I was loading the van with material I hadn’t yet paid for. Was that true? Yes, I like to fill the van to capacity and then pay for it, rather than guess what will fill the van, pay for it, and discover that I’ve paid for more than or less than a full load.
Among all her comments and questions, she neglected the only two sentences that would have been helpful:
“Would you like an assistant to help you load that?” (Yes, I really would have liked that.)
“Could I see your sales ticket?” (At which point I would have explained my intention to one of the only two people in the garden center—the clerk being the other—who wasn’t well acquainted with me after my hundreds of visits to buy supplies and equipment).
The day before that I had a minor doctor’s appointment, and a ten-minute exam and treatment was extended to twenty minutes as the doctor told me about her sister, her boyfriend and their most recent fight, politics, her upbringing in New York City, her mother, her dog, the weather, and much more. Had I joined in the conversation, I might still be in the office.
It could be argued that my responding would have been simple courtesy. Possibly, but as we participate in such conversations, we encourage a pattern of speaking that is not meaningful communication. We also participate in a custom where meaningful communication is rare, if not extinct.
We need to be more AWARE of what we’re saying, and whether it matters, or whether it’s our business. Parents TEACH their children to talk incessantly by doing exactly that at home. The parents ask:
“What are you doing?”
“Why are you doing that?”
“Are you going to wear that?”
And then the children wonder why people find them annoying as adults.
We need to talk less but communicate more, ask fewer questions but listen better, move our lips more while typing less, and understand more while criticizing little to never.