Know What You Mean

Monday, March 03, 2014

Karen Cheng reports that the question, "What do you mean?" can stop someone who is being rude in his tracks. She gives a couple of examples, including this:

I stopped him and said: "So you said that your employees are behaving like a bunch of women. What do you mean?"

Immediately he apologized, said it was the wrong choice of words, and said he meant to say "stop behaving like a bunch of children."
This example is actually better than the earlier one she gives, which inspired her to try it herself. In that example, an investor admits he might not have funded a startup whose founder then became pregnant. As a parent of two young children, I know how their arrival can radically alter one's time landscape and priorities. As I see it, the investor's worst sin was being too blunt. (At least he tries to be careful with his money.) Indeed, one could even make the case that he did the pregnant founder a favor by helping her see why she has lately had/might have future trouble raising money. Absent further context (See P.S.), I think implying that this investor  is an "asshole" is inappropriate.

This is not to deny that Cheng's question is valueless: There are many times that putting someone on notice that his attitudes are out of line is warranted. But one must weigh whether his evaluation of that person as immoral is correct and further consider what raising the issue might accomplish. Simply getting an apology over the phone may feel good -- but if someone really is a jerk, the chances are that he knows he can make himself look good to most people by apologizing.

The question is better in a few other situations I can think of off the top of my head:
  • The "asshole" is an employee of yours, in which case he now knows you will not tolerate him acting this way on your watch.
  • There are others around who might need to hear that they now have an ally against such a person.
  • He is a friendly acquaintance who you know probably didn't mean what he said, and whom you'd like to gently help realize how badly he is coming across.
On the other hand, firing this question first and asking questions later can be worse than saying nothing in several situations I can think of off the top of my head:
  • You seem offended (and not merely confused), giving the impression that you are prejudiced.
  • You put on notice and antagonize a powerful opponent -- and also immediately cede any advantage that might be gained by patience or camouflage.
  • The frequent and careless use of this one-liner can make you look like you will use any random utterance to blackmail any random acquaintance.
Neither list is exhaustive. I like the one-liner, but it can't and shouldn't be used  in every situation. The real lesson is to think before one speaks in all situations.

-- CAV

P.S. Glancing back at the Cheng post and seeing who the founder is, I think the term more likely to apply in that case...


Today: Added P.S. 

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