A few days ago my husband and I were on a morning walk. As we crossed the street, after having looked both ways, a car zoomed around the corner in a fast right turn, nearly hitting us before the driver realized we were in the crosswalk and slammed on the brakes. Startled, we scurried across to the other side, giving a reflexive apologetic wave for the near collision—though it was not our fault.
The driver reciprocated, but with the familiar one-figure salute which was definitely not an expression of remorse for his careless driving. Our “politeness” had given him license to believe that he’d done nothing wrong, that we were careless pedestrians impeding his progress. That’s when I started thinking about how much misunderstanding and resentment is created by unclear communication masquerading as good manners.
Now, I’m not advocating that pedestrians take a stand for straight talk by calling out drivers bearing down on them in SUVs or giant trucks. Nor am I saying that civility should be abandoned and we must unwaveringly opt for brutal honesty in all encounters. But I am leaning toward cleaning up some of what passes for politeness, when it’s really just avoidance of the awkwardness of direct confrontation.
Some years ago I was unhappy with the way my stylist was cutting my hair, but I found it almost impossible to tell him directly. It seemed rude, harsh and uncomfortable. I ended the problem by never making another appointment with him and going elsewhere.
But it wasn’t really a solution, because I didn’t give him the true courtesy of honesty. I didn’t say that after years of cutting my hair, I felt he’d become half-hearted, disinterested and disinclined to listen to what I wanted. And equally important, by avoiding an open exchange, I didn’t give him the chance to tell me his perspective—maybe my expectations were unrealistic, maybe I wasn’t clear about what I wanted. Because I didn’t have the conversation, neither one of us had the chance to learn anything, and both of us were probably equally dissatisfied with the way a long-term professional relationship ended.
A similar thing happened not long ago when I contracted with someone for a service I needed to publish a book. The person was a casual acquaintance, not a friend exactly, but someone I knew and liked. When the project took much longer than expected I became frustrated.
However, because I wanted to be “polite,” ( but really because I didn’t want the awkward feeling conflict engenders), when I finally addressed the situation, I wasn’t direct. Instead I apologized for “pushing” on the deadline, said I was sorry to be a pain, but I needed the project finished. I didn’t say that the slow pace of the project and the lack of updates on progress had caused serious problems for me. I came away sensing that despite my careful tippy-toeing around the issues, I’d upset and irritated the person.
In the end, the job was well done, but our working relationship became a casualty of misunderstanding and avoidance. Neither of us took the opportunity—uncomfortable and difficult though it might have been—to clearly express the issues as we perceived them and work through them. So we just walked away.
It’s hard to be direct when we’re trained to be nice. But the short-term discomfort of a truthful conversation can contribute to the long-term comfort of a healthy relationship in work and in life. With one important caveat. If we screw up our courage to speak honestly, we have to be prepared to listen openly should the other person decide it’s time for a few home truths as well.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The shortest distance between two people is a straight talk. Ultimately that might be the greatest courtesy of all.