Friday, August 3, 2012

The Impact of a Few Words

Having grown up in Newfoundland, where years ago English was considered a second language to the local “Newfinese” dialect, I am fascinated by words.

Phrases such as “me mudder and me fahder” (my mom and dad), “side be each” (side by side), “got ‘er scald” (got it made) and “how yer gettin’ on, me ol’ cock” (how are you doing, my friend) always bring a smile to my face.

Sometimes when we find ourselves in a new locale, words that seem innocent to us can also get us in trouble.

In my early Wall St. days, one day I was delayed for a meeting by a subway breakdown.  When I arrived, I stuck my head in the boardroom door, apologized for the delay and said I would be right back after freshening up.

When I returned to the boardroom a few minutes later, everyone was very concerned.  Apparently the phrase “I got held up on the subway” that I had dropped before stepping away meant a lot more to them then it did to me.

Then there was the time when, as a very young consultant (and still learning mainland English), that I found myself in Austin, TX.  I was working with a client who loved to take the team out every night for copious quantities of tasty chilli and cold beer.

On my third or fourth day there and after having been awakened very early every morning by intense thunderstorms, I happened to remark to a few team members how the morning thunder was particularly wild in Austin.

There was silence in the room and then someone remarked that a comment like that wasn’t necessary.  After some further exploration and a clarification on what I meant, I had provided them with a humorous story that I am still occasionally reminded of 20 years later.  If I have to explain it to you, I will refer you to this entry in the Urban Dictionary – this is a family-friendly blog after all. :-)

So even a few words can get us in trouble when they don’t seem that impactful to us at the moment.

Where it really matters

I was in a small coffee shop not long ago where the owner had introduced a new contest that made use of QR codes.  There were some technology issues with it and wanting to help, I happened to mention to the owner what needed to be done to fix it.

Her reply “I don’t really care about it – I’m just experimenting with it and don’t have any intention to do anything with it” spoke volumes to me about not wasting my time and I quietly unsubscribed from the contest.

The next day, in the same coffee shop, a woman struck her head severely on an object protruding from the wall and was dazed by the impact.  I happened to mention the incident to the owner and advised her to take care of the object to avoid liability issues in the future.  Her response was “I don’t really care about it – each person has to be responsible for themselves”.

While disappointed by the response, I did notice a common theme in how the owner responded to comments from customers.

“I don’t care.”

So when I received a lecture from an employee of the same coffee shop a short time later slamming “you elite people who spend time in coffee shops instead of working hard like others”, I never even bothered to tell the owner. 

Why should I – she didn’t care.  I took my business elsewhere, as I understand others have as well after receiving similar comments.

A few words is all it takes

All it takes is a few words to show a client, a customer, a colleague, a friend or family member or a complete stranger whether they matter or not.

A few words that only take a few seconds to toss off nonchalantly can mean the difference between a relationship that lasts and produces mutually beneficial results or one that ends early without producing anything of a positive nature for either side.

I find that this is particularly true in business.

The phrases “the client / employee / customer matters” and “I don’t care” only take a few seconds to speak.

What we say reflects what we believe.

What we believe will be reflected in the actions we take.

Therefore, it stands to reason that our choice of words will speak volumes to others about what we expect to contribute to and get from a relationship.

A few words, spoken sometimes without thinking, will produce a result of much longer duration and greater impact than we realize.

Whether it’s a good result or a bad one will depend on the words we choose.

“Let ‘er slide” (“Take care and create a great day” for you non-Newfoundlanders). :-)



From the funny folks as

Apathy Demotivator

1 comment:

  1. Hi Harry,

    As you have observed, it is simple for a person to destroy a relationship with thoughtless words. However, for business leaders, there is an additional problem to be aware of. If a business leader doesn't care, it becomes literally impossible for the business that he directs to care.

    There is an old expression in business: "The fish stinks from the head down." This means that a poor leader will often fail to produce good results regardless of how many good people he has working for him.

    As a result, you can often "reverse engineer" the situation. If you find an organization that is systematically deaf to the needs of the customer, or the quality of the product, or the operational efficiency and effectiveness of the organization, it is because you have leaders who don't care about those elements of business.

    From coffee shops to the Fortune 50... this principle is remarkable easy to observe in action.