An online colleague who I’m in regular contact with took me by surprise the other day when she said she had “a rough month but was getting over it” and I assumed that she had been sick with the flu. I told her I was sorry she was not ‘feeling well’; she emailed back that it wasn’t the flu, it was that her husband of 42 years had died last month unexpectedly. (!!)
While with e-mail it’s hard to accurately discern tone, I had the distinct impression that this was a fact that I already knew about (?)… Or maybe it was just me reading tone at the something that wasn’t there. Yet I immediately I wondered: did I miss knowing this? If so, how did I miss knowing this – did I dropped the mental ball and had I somehow overlooked this big point? Or was I really learning this for the first time? It can be so hard to know what’s ‘real’. In any case, how should I appropriately respond back?
Ambiguous communication happens when we are dealing with hard topics. At those times it’s not easy to be crystal clear in our communication, precisely because the subject matter is hard, may be recently raw, and the edges feel too sharp to address head on. To spare uncomfortable feelings we touch on the subject ever so lightly without pushing for details, which leaves one necessarily a bit in the dark.
Dealing with sensitive topics via email makes a hard job even harder. With only words and no soothing body language to get across the deep feelings, and no tone of voice to help, words can be so inadequate. When the gentle pat or soft tone or sad eyes are missing, the words are hard pressed to do an adequate job.
To make matters worse, words to communicate sadness are usually reduced to “I’m sorry for your loss”, yet the same “I’m sorry” words are used to also communicate guilt and remorse. English is way too ambiguous! With no separately distinct way to easily express these close emotions, no wonder we may have to throw up our hands and say, “I’m at a loss for words”. Indeed!
“I’m sorry to hear of your husband’s passing.” (sadness)
“I’m sorry this happened to you.” (sounds like guilt, guilty for being ‘spared’ which is foolish)
“I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner” (remorse)
“I’m sorry I was so insensitive to what you were going through.” (guilt for not acknowledging sooner)
And there are a boatload of other “I’m sorrys…” some more genuine than others, expressing various degrees of sadness, guilt and remorse (and sometimes shame is thrown into the mix) – whew!
COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: The hard stuff should be addressed in person, face-to-face, if the relationship is important, otherwise your written message has a hard time expressing accurate feelings fully. But if distance is a factor (either physical distance or relationship distance) then any support is better than silence. Carefully choosing the language is advisable, as some words like “I’m sorry” can convey several different meanings.