I was delighted: more feedback! I love opening emails from people or seeing blog comments; I like that sense of conversation. When people post, I know I’m not talking to myself.

Imagine my surprise in reading a comment that I shouldn’t have said in a recent newsletter, “Let me know your thoughts.” Instead, I ought to have said, “Please.” And he or she was right.

After all, why should you, my readers, bother to take your time to write? You have other things to do. If I expect politeness on your part, then I need to be polite to you. See, that is really what the function of the words, “please,” and “thank you” is. These words have no meaning of their own. Their meaning comes from the fact that the speaker or writer makes that extra effort to say a word or two and in return hopes the listener will make an extra effort to do the thing the speaker wanted. Tit for tat.

That really is the way all speech works. We need a few extra words to completely convert what feels like rudeness, selfishness, or thoughtlessness into something gracious, meaningful, and considerate. And with the magic of those few words, we have hopes of getting our requests met.

I had a conversation with a man whose wife was insulted. She wanted to discuss something and he wasn’t ready. Later, he said, “I’m ready now if you want to discuss it.” I asked him, “Where was her perspective in all this? This is about when you are ready or not. How about how she felt the first time? Isn’t it possible that this felt to her like you were dictating when that conversation should happen?”

He was perplexed and asked how he should have said it. I said, “Just add a few extra words before you make your own statement. A few words letting her know that you saw her point of view. Maybe something like, ‘Before, it must have annoyed you that I couldn’t discuss it. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to sound like I was calling the shots. I just couldn’t talk then because of [X, Y, Z]. I hope you’ll understand, because if you do, I’m ready now.”

Okay, maybe that’s more than a few extra words. Its three sentences. Look, maybe in the exchange of words for her hurt feelings, he owes her three sentences! How about if I revert back to my most difficult subject in school, math? Let me make a formula out of it:

The Number of Extra Words is proportional to the potential for hurt feelings or disrespect

In other words, the greater the potential for hurt feelings or for disrespect, the greater the need to use words to show you understand your partner’s position.

Let’s apply this to Gloria who was getting married. She was so excited. But she was also frazzled. Where to begin? She had to coordinate with her fiance’s family on the engagement party and the wedding. So much to do. Her brother, an artist, graciously offered to design the invitation. He would create a symbol that “married” the two first names. But he could not get any guidance from Gloria as to what she wanted. He emailed her and she just said, “Do whatever you think best.”

Now, what do you think? Was Gloria rude? Was she inconsiderate? Was she ungracious?

She was certainly not verbally abusive. But there is a continuum of possibilities between verbally abusive and genuinely nice. Gloria wasn’t nice. She wasn’t gracious. What she was was wrapped up in herself. She was not thinking of her brother’s time and effort, how busy he was with his own job and family, and how kind his offer was. There was no hint of appreciation in her response.

So what do you think Gloria should have said? I would really appreciate your responses. Please post them here. Let’s get a conversation going!

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