Could you close those hatches?

Bolt Bus Interior
I’m working at an essay on an early Greyhound about to depart Washington for New York City. All of a sudden, the driver stands up.  “Close those hatches, folks. That stuff is going to jump out on you,” he says.

Despite the groggy hour, passengers pop up to stuff in their duffel bags and coats and close the gap-toothed smile of the overhead compartments. Soon, we’re packed in and speeding toward the land of fast walkers and clipped talkers.

Later, I started wondering—did the passengers do that because the driver made such a convincing argument? Or would a simple “Close the hatches, please” have sufficed?

Addition of extra niceties or explanations goes on with nonverbal communication, too. Shoppers hold open the door for a stranger entering a store; cyclists on a group ride point out pockmarks in the road for the bike behind them. This annoys me. Thanks, I think, but I could have opened the door and seen that divot myself.

It seems like a small thing, and I may look like a grump writing this, but I can feel those unnecessary additions sapping my limited free time and energy.

Being a hearing person who interacts with the deaf community only feeds my feelings. If I could get back every moment I spent asking a fast-signing student to repeat a comment only to find it was something like “this is probably irrelevant, but…,” I would have had plenty of time to sleep on that bus ride.

Same thing for many acquaintances who lipread with nonsigners. They constantly face the dilemma of asking “What?” yet again and watching precious minutes evaporate… or just letting it go. If I had a dollar for every time I was out with a friend who was deaf or hard of hearing and a passerby or store clerk or server said something that neither of us needed to know, I could buy enough spray paint to mark every pothole in the Rock Creek Park trail.

I say this knowing full well that in many African, Asian, and European countries–not to mention parts of the U.S.—to forget to wish someone a good morning or good afternoon before making a request is tantamount to spitting in the person’s face.

I’ve even read a workplace communication study that found extra explanations help. Employees got their way more often when they said why they needed a favor—even when a request to use the copier was accompanied by some asinine elaboration like “because I need to make some copies.”

One can find an array of books, articles, and blog posts about strategic phrasing, mostly in the workplace: What to say to a slacking colleague, how to get more out of your underlings, when to bring up a particular reason that someone’s help proved valuable.

As it turns out, my hunch about extraneous info was right—in some cases. According to communications coach John Artise, it depends on the target’s communication style. Yes, I have detail-abhorring brothers and sisters out there. Even among those who want more, most respond to something constructive, like suggestions or a phrase that shows emotional empathy (“I know you’re feeling the squeeze from that deadline, but…”)

Adhering to a certain communication style can count as outright manipulation. But that may just mean the users know how to target their tidbits.

I can see why research goes so deep into the world of work. The art of extra words thrives where individuals can benefit professionally and financially.

So people would do well to take some of this workplace communication advice to heart. But please make it strategic. You shouldn’t go into great detail about why this time is better than that time for a meeting because your dentist appointment should be over by then and you will have about an hour before picking up little Becky for her Qi Gong class. Just tell me when and where! And with complete strangers—well, don’t get me started on how I feel when a bank teller asks me, when I thought the transaction was over, “What do you think of this rain?”

I do appreciate a certain softening, like “Could you guys close the hatches?” (the conditional or subjunctive voice, for you grammar nerds) or, in face-to-face communication, the furrowed eyebrow raise that says “Hey, I hate to ask this when you’re all settled into your seats, but…”

I admit that I even add extra “Good mornings” and “How are yous” when I pass people on the street or run errands. Silence, especially in this politically-, racially-, and economically-divided city, could mean an affront or a missed opportunity. Not only that, but I never know when, to one of these passing strangers, my brief communication will warm them by acknowledging their presence, their validity as a human being. Sometimes, despite my logical judgment, I even feel that warmth myself.

As annoying as they may be, extra exchanges are one way we show each other that we care—that we inhabit a wide world and respect others’ right to share it. The content of the communication matters less than the fact. A server who mumbles that she’ll be right back with your drinks is flinging a throw-away line. But even if someone at the table misses it, the message is there in her spirit and body language. “I’ll be back to take care of you,” she is saying. “Your time and your humanity are important to me.” And a good tip wouldn’t hurt.

This post originally appeared on DeafEcho.com. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

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Filed under DC, Humor, Language

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