Tell them or I will tell them

December 18, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More

I seem to attract a certain type of person. Every couple of days it seems like someone tells me that they wish they could tell someone X but that they “can’t.” One or two good questions later it is clear that they actually could tell someone X but they would rather not. They would rather not endure that short moment of discomfort, even though getting it off their chests would give them months or even years of sweet relief.

Instead of telling someone X, the typical complainer tells me that they can’t tell someone X, and I it seems that telling me about their unwillingness to tell another person who really needs to hear X, they get a small bit of relief. But this bit of relief for them is at my expense. It annoys me to hear that a complainer won’t simply tell someone else something that they need to be hearing. If this sounds nebulous, let me offer a few examples:

“I can’t tell my roommate to quit eating my food without paying for it.”

“The neighbor’s barking dogs are driving me crazy, but I don’t dare tell the neighbor to do anything about it.”

“My boss won’t give me a raise, but I dare not ask him for it, even though it’s been 10 years since I received a raise and I deserve it.”

“My 38-year-old child needs to move out of the house, but I cannot ask her to do so.”

“My husband is almost always 20 minutes late for everything we do, but I am unable to talk to him about this problem.”

“My coworker keeps hanging around talking and this keeps me from getting my work done, but she’s very sensitive so I am not able to say anything.”

Bullshit. You can say something. You should say something. Anything that can be said can be said by you, and it could be said succinctly and with kindness. And if you won’t say it because you’d rather complain to me about it, I’m going to start taking law into my own hands and I’m going to tell them.

[Knock, knock, knock].

[Door opens]

Erich: “Hello. You don’t know me, but I work with your upstairs neighbor. Almost every day she complains to me about your loud yappy dog. Your dog keeps my coworker awake, and it keeps her from concentrating on her studies. You need to do something about your dog. Do you understand? Good. I hope there will be no need for me to stop by again. Thank you. Have a nice day.

Doing this sort of thing is not difficult for me. Half of the advice I already give to people is to encourage them to go say the thing they need to say to the person who needs to hear it. Maybe I should monetize this service, charging the complaining person $20 to go say the thing that they can’t say. “Bob, please stop calling Amy because she really doesn’t like talking to you; you see, she’s afraid to tell you to quit calling her.” Or this: “Amy, Bob asked me to tell you to quit flirting with him if you don’t want him to call you.”

Actually, rather than doing the work myself, it might even more fun to drag the complaining person along and force the two of them to talk to each other. You know, teach a man to fish . . . I’d do that service cheap, for $20 per occurrence, and the world would be better for it.

Or does someone already offer a service like this?


Category: Communication

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Transactional Analysis 101, Erich. The fact is, they're getting something out of the situation as it is. The parent with the too-old kid still at home gets to be a martyr. As, pretty well, with all of them. And the ability to complain about their situation and get sympathy is a bonus. Not to mention they probably resent people who DO get things off their chests, especially if they do the off-getting to them.

    People stay in apparently lousy situations for reasons. Maybe not good reasons, maybe sometimes perverse reasons, but reasons. They get something out of it.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: I just realized that this is one of the reasons I am not interested in most sitcoms. Many of them use, as a premise for the entire story, that a person lacks the willingness to tell something they deem important to someone else. What a waste of time to watch 30 minutes of struggle caused by an unwillingness to communicate in a straight-forward way.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I recall a news article from a few years ago about a group of enterprising college students that offered, as a paid service, the anonymous delivery of unpleasant messages. For a small fee they would call your boss and call him a stingy bastard, tell a co-worker they have bad breath or body odor, or inform the receptionist that she dressed or acted slutty. They provided a channel for people to express their dislikes of others without fear of retribution.
    I think they named their business "Lip Service".

  4. Alison says:

    It takes a lot to get over all the fears that keep us from doing this stuff. Some are innate, some are programmed into us by outside influence, but they all make us imagine that the consequences from confrontation will outweigh the unpleasantness of keeping silent, or that the only thing speaking up will do is add anger and resentment to the situation that continues unchanged after saying something.

    Until you've tried it a couple of times and discovered that it's not as bad as you thought it would be, it's pretty scary. It would be a lot better all around if people would do this themselves more often!

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Alison: It seems to me that there is 10 times the pain and frustration that is caused by not shooting straight. But getting to a long-term better situation does take that elevated short-term unpleasantness, and so I understand the hesitation. But any sort of rational calculus would tell a person to confront the issue. Perhaps this widespread hesitation is yet more evidence that we human animals are not rational.

      Then again, maybe Mark has it correct, that the payoff we receive by complaining to OTHER friends is well worth not dealing with issues head on.

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