HR, Subtlety and Conveying Difficult Messages
I’ve been living in the South now for a bit and it has taught this little Midwestern girl quite a few interesting things. Such as the bugs down here are HUGE and that Gators can climb fences. Scary. But besides that, I love learning more about the cultural differences. It’s endlessly fascinating to pick out all the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences. We may all live in the same country, but it doesn’t always seem like it.
Now, one difference that amuses and intrigues me to no end is the way people down here can say things without actually saying them. I’m a very blunt person by nature so it took me a while to pick up on all the layers of subtext that Southerners use. Frankly, I’m sure I’m still missing a few things.
For example, the phrase “bless your heart” may sound sweet, but oh, the meanings behind it! Usually I’ve heard it used when someone thinks a person is doing something crazy or stupid, or they feel they mean well but keep messing up, and so on. Such as “Mary just got engaged for the 6th time, bless her heart.” I swear that phrase makes me want to giggle every time I hear it now.
I also love “They are proud of (fill in the blank).” Basically, the phrase is used when you are trying to convey that someone thinks too highly of something or places too high of a value on something. For example, “I went to the neighbor’s garage sale and they are very proud of their things.”
Surprisingly, I think phrases like these, for all their subtlety, actually cut through a lot of nonsense simply because you can convey a depth of meaning rather quickly and politely. And I think that is a skill all HR professionals could use.
In HR we need to be circumspect in what we say, how we say it, and often have to convey big concepts to a variety of audiences. A little subtlety and manners might go a long way in saying what we need to say, but can’t actually say. We already do this to some extent when we send out generic rejection letters and ask “would you rehire” employment verification questions, just to name two examples. And what about when you need to talk to an employee about bad body odor? Sometimes when you have a difficult message to convey, the best way to help everyone “save face” is by not being too forthright.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be straight forward in our communication or that there aren’t times when you do have to come right out and be clear, such as during a layoff. Layoffs don’t need subtlety in your message; they need no nonsense clarity and compassion. And if you are in front of an unemployment judge you are better off sticking to the facts.
There are right ways and wrong ways of communicating all this critical information we have to share. The challenge as HR professionals is learning the best ways to do so and that takes time, experience, and the ability to learn from our mistakes. Because when communication goes wrong…well, bless your heart.
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