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17. The Trouble With the Things Unsaid

A friend recently told me this story. As a teenager, he was living in Nottingham, and one day the council was putting up two signs as part of a local campaign to reduce road traffic accidents. One of the signs said 'SPEED KILLS', and the other said 'COURTESY SAVES'. Because they were in large letters both signs were in two parts. As the man was putting up the signs, the clouds gathered and the heavens opened. He hurriedly climbed down his ladder, gathered his equipment and drove off in his van. It was several days till he returned, and in that time the people of Nottingham had to make do with the two signs he'd put up before the rain came. And this is what they said: COURTESY KILLS This week's tip is about euphemisms, courtesy, etiquette, silence and all the other techniques that we use to avoid saying what needs to be said. My life has been devoted to not saying things that people don't want to hear.' Anonymous (obviously) Here's a story about what can happen when people don't say what needs to be said. A number of years ago my partner and I became friends with a couple, John and Joan, who frequented our local pub. Over time we started to invite each other to our houses for dinner. I always liked John but as time went on became less certain about Joan, mainly because I wasn't sure she liked me. One thing that seemed to annoy her enormously was that I didn't drink wine. As a student I had applied myself to fulfilling the tradition that medics must drink a great deal perhaps a little too assiduously, and my body had finally told me, a few years earlier, that it had had enough abuse. The sad reality was, and is, that more than a few mouthfuls of wine makes me feel unwell. John accepted this and would kindly buy in a couple of beers when I was coming over, but Joan didn't like it at all. It became increasingly awkward going to their house, where my partner was welcomed warmly as a generous imbiber of whatever was offered and I was treated as if I had a faintly unpleasant smell. It came to a head one evening when were sitting down to dinner and John asked me if I'd like a beer. Before I could answer, Joan said, in tones that Queen Victoria would have been proud of, 'She'll drink wine.' That was the last time we went there. I am ashamed to say that I never explained to either of them why we no longer accepted invitations to dinner, or why we never invited them again. I thought of writing a letter to explain, but never did, the reason being that too much unspoken unpleasantness had passed between us, and there was too little affection remaining for me to want to build bridges. We could have spoken earlier. Joan could have explained to me why it so annoyed her that I didn't drink wine. I could have told her how uncomfortable I felt being invited to her house and yet treated with hostility when I was there. But both of us preferred to be 'polite' and act as though there was nothing wrong. But I regret it. Feelings were hurt on both sides, a friendship terminated, and a conflict never resolved. We could all have done better. Here are some of the problems that can arise when things are left unsaid: Small irritations assume huge proportions because, instead of talking about and resolving them, you spend time ruminating and embellishing them. You don't give people the chance of explaining or putting things right. You miss opportunities to grow yourself by avoiding difficulties instead of facing them. You can't check what people really think, and are left with what you think they think. You limit intimacy within your relationships. Your relationships may be fragile because you haven't built the foundations that come from resolving conflicts. When to speak and when to be silent? It would be wonderful if we knew the answer to this question. A badly phrased or destructive complaint can be just as damaging as silence and it's true to say that life would be pretty awful if everybody said what they thought all the time. So how do you know if saying something would be a good idea? Here are some circumstances where speaking up is more likely to be constructive: You value the relationship The relationship is long term The issue between you is continuing or recurrent You feel resentful about it It is adversely affecting your relationship (resentment always has this effect) It is within the other person's power to do something about it Try this: 1. Think of the most important people in your life - partners, parents, children, other family, friends, close colleagues and so on. Scan through them in your mind and for each one ask yourself, are there any important things that are unsaid between you? 2. Take one where you know there are unspoken issues, and ask yourself: What is unsaid between you? What's good for you about not saying those things? What is the price you pay for not speaking? What is the price the other person pays? What other effects have there been? If you brought this issue out into the open, what might you both gain? Do let me know how you get on, and have a good week!