Service of Speaking Directly

July 20th, 2011

Categories: Manner of Speech, Speaking


A client, boss or pundit gives you a memo, article, brochure, web copy or, God forbid, a book and says, “Please look it over for typos. It’s otherwise ready to go.” They think the copy is prizewinning but it’s indecipherable, convoluted, repetitive, and contains zero information. Do you say:

**I’ve never read anything so horrible, you are embarrassing yourself. Give me a {day/week/month} and I’ll rewrite it, and oh, my, it’s just SO BAD!
**Before you write another line, sign up for a writing course
**It’s fine and I have a few tweaks to suggest–OK if I edit a bit? Oh, and when you have a sec to speak let me know as I have a couple of questions for you as well

The scenario could fit any number of vocations not just writers, from cook to artist, carpenter, auto mechanic–you name it.

and-another-thingI know which approach I’d take and it wouldn’t be the first two. I’ve heard a person deliver the first. I don’t think such words, while direct and accurate are helpful to the writer or anyone else as true as they may be.

Women are said to have trouble being direct when saying or asking for what they want. Erica Martell alerted me to Peggy Klaus’s article in The New York Times job column that addressed the topic. Klaus pointed to typical feminine turns of phrase that do damage to credibility such as “speech peppered with tentative and indirect phrases that scream lack of confidence, such as ‘I’m not really sure, but you could try it this way’ or “‘I think this is a good idea–do you?'”

library-photoTo begin with, I question why Klaus directed her column only to women seeking C-suite jobs. If her premise is true, it applies to any woman in any job and in personal dealings too. Second, are women the only ones who silly sally around when asking for things? I have known both women and men who hope a situation will go away and don’t deal with it at all.

I don’t think that being respectful and polite translates to weakness though many do. I may punctuate “I can’t work on the project with so-and so” with an unnecessary apology or I may soften the message, but nobody thinks by the tone of my voice and my reasons that my comments are either insecure or tentative. I admit confrontation especially on my behalf is not easy for me but if not opening my mouth means that I’ll end up living with an impossible situation, I push myself. I am convinced that it’s my personality more than being a woman that makes such conversations hard.

stake-in-groundKlaus wrote: “The act of putting your stake in the ground–stating exactly what you want–is scary for most women. We worry that if we’re too direct, we’ll alienate the very audience we’re trying to win over.”

I get the impression that neither men nor women do very well in most companies if they are too direct too often. End up on the wrong side of the argument or back the wrong outspoken person could translate to death-by-commitment-to-a-vision.

I’ve observed both fuzziness and silence as a technique used by many in boardrooms and in companies of all sizes. Have you? Is speaking directly a personality thing or something most women still don’t do? Or is it the reality of working in certain places that determines how to ask most effectively and professionally to get what you want?


5 Responses to “Service of Speaking Directly”

  1. tpc Said:

    This is not a men — women issue.

    It is a cultural and often a class structural question. In some societies, like the ones in which the host says to you, “Would the honored guest be so gracious as to do my humble home the favor of accepting this chocolate?” instead of, “Have a chocolate,” you may offend by using the direct approach. In others, you’re a sissy if you don’t.

    From long training, I am crab like. When my doctor asks me, “What’s wrong with you today?” I answer, “My Aunt Bessie had warts, which made my Uncle Pete take to drink. I think as a consequence that I may have liver problems, but then why would I be sniffling all the time if that is what is wrong with me?”

    Probably the best answer is to let the approach fit the situation. Adjust your approach to what is likely to work best with the person you are talking to.

  2. jeanne Byington Said:


    I wouldn’t want to be your doctor! Would I treat liver disease or a cold? In the 10 seconds you get to see a doc these days, you might end up with “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” for an ear infection!

    Your nod to different cultures is apt and something totally missing from the WSJ article, which, in a global economy, deserved at least a word. In fact, I wonder if the indirect approach that women are said to use isn’t more acceptable than the one-two American punch when dealing with Asian executives.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    An emphatic “Yes” to having the approach fitting the situation. Basically the direct manner is best, but one must resort to common sense. One does not announce in loud tones that M’s fly is open or that J’s bra strap is peeking out from under a strap, nor does one ever correct anyones English or pronunciation.

    A direct response is called for when pertinent questions are asked, a quality that few politicians seem to possess. This does not apply to intrusive inquiries, be they made to public figures or private individuals. Then a flat “None of your business” to a refusal to reply will do.

    To sum it up, it’s best to apply tact and good manners to sticky situations, but to keep in mind many people are much more intelligent than they look, and it is in everyones best interests that they not be given a run around in most cases. “Honesty is best” works most of the time.

  4. jeanne Byington Said:


    I should do a post on ways to say “none of your business” without having to say those words to a client, fragile friend, in-law or other person you can’t be that blunt with!

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    A family friend advised a simple “I don’t know” when put on the spot. I feel that can get one into trouble. I don’t have clients, and fragile friends know better than to ask me nosy questions. However, if feeling compassionate, I find an “I don’t feel up to discussing that right now,” or (if I can get away with it) “I don’t remember,” is a great help. Healthy business relationships usually don’t involve intimate remarks.

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