Thursday, May 12, 2011

Say what you mean and mean what you say (1)

Years ago, my doctor (I’ll call her Carol) told me my blood pressure was too high. She suggested a better diet and more exercise.

I asked, “What blood pressure should I aim for?”

“The lower the better,” she said.

I asked, “Do you mean that literally?”

She said, “Yes. The lower the better.”

“But isn’t it true that blood pressure can become too low?”

“No,” she lied.

Analysis: Carol’s first answer to my question was too casual for the context (a doctor advising her patient). When I challenged the casual answer, she should have explained herself; for example: “I was using shorthand. What I meant is that you want your blood pressure to be as low as you can get it, unless you start experiencing dizziness. However, you are unlikely to get your blood pressure that low.” But instead of doing that, she retreated into a lie. Casual answers were part of Carol’s operating style. She appeared to be unwilling to behave professionally; for example, she wore sandals to work and took personal phone calls while examining patients.

Epilogue: Shortly after the blood-pressure discussion, I switched to another doctor. A year or two later, I heard Carol had been fired. I didn’t know if it was true, but it would not have surprised me.

The Takeaway: In casual conversation, we sometimes speak before we think. When we do that, what comes out of our mouths is usually nonsense. The nonsense is usually harmless, because the goal of casual conversation is entertainment, not communication. But in a formal discussion, we should think before we speak. We should say what we mean and mean what we say. People depend on us.

See disclaimer.

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