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How do you effectively deal with people who are indirect?
September 27, 2005 9:21 PM   Subscribe

How do you effectively deal with people who are indirect?

I almost called this question:
"I should be a native speaker but... teach me Womanese."
But I don't want to be sexist or patronizing, and I do want to know! And actually my boss is like that, and he's a man.

How to react to people who hint around about things they'd like you to do, but won't say it, and who act surprised when you ask them directly whether they want you to do it?

The direct approach I use naturally doesn't seem to be the best way, because I find that I am volunteering for things I don't want to do -- suddenly, it's my suggestion. At the same time, I don't want to just play dumb, because it feels dishonest.

For example:
This co-worker has dog-sat for me, and this weekend I'm cat sitting for her.
Co-worker: You're welcome to spend the night Wednesday if you want.
Me: Nah, I'll just come over Thursday after work.
C: My plane leaves really early Thursday -- 7. So I'll have to be at the airport really early, like 5.
Me: Mm.
C:
C: I guess I'll have to call a taxi or something.
Me:
C:
C: Well, OK, just come over thursday, that'll be fine.
Me: Do you want me to call you when I get to your place?
C: Yeah, you can call me. If you want.

Etc.

What works?
posted by Methylviolet to Human Relations (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
That tag? Not helpful at all.

And to your question? Just say, you know, I'd love to offer you a ride, but I'm not coherent enough to drive at that hour.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:35 PM on September 27, 2005


You use directness to cut through the BS.
posted by 517 at 9:40 PM on September 27, 2005


This happens with either
a) people you have just met who are slyly seeing if they can get their way with you.
n) people you have known for a while who know they can get away with this.

The solution is actually simple. Be clear and forthright about your preferences (though polite) and, in general, people wont try this on you more than once. To be blunt: People are showing you disrespect for some reason.

"Apologies. I'd love to help you out but I absolutely cant make it on Wednesday."

Also, like flamingbore said, that tag you added gives me some doubts about how you are coming across in this exchange.
posted by vacapinta at 9:45 PM on September 27, 2005


Yeah, I'm with 517 on this.

Just call her on it.

You: "I can't drive you, that's just too early and I've got to make the donuts / take my mom to church / sleep."
Her: "Ok."

See, just like that.
posted by bshort at 9:45 PM on September 27, 2005


Look. If you don't have an answer, don't answer.

If you do, I'd love to hear it.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:45 PM on September 27, 2005


517 has the right idea. You're being just as much to blame in the above conversation as the other person. Yes it's annoying that she is indirect, but you just make it worse when you don't confront it. It's your responsibility to say something like, "Do you need a ride? I can give you one." or "I wish I could give you a ride, but I really need my sleep." She's being indirect because she lacks courage to ask for what she wants. You're not even being indirect: you're being nothing. That's an example of a failure of courage, too.

I work in a small office and one of my co-workers is so indirect that it makes my brain hurt. He mght come in and ask "What did you have for dinner last night?" as a prelude to some lengthy chain of thought that ultimately arrives at "Can you loan me five bucks for lunch?" It drives me nuts. As soon as I have any inkling of what my co-worker wants, I say "Do you need five bucks for lunch?" If he says yes, I either loan him the money or tell him I can't. If I can't figure out what he's after I tell him to get to the point, and then he does.
posted by jdroth at 9:50 PM on September 27, 2005


Meanwhile...

Hmm.
Vacapinta, you may be on to something -- I had not thought about the disrespect angle.

But that was not a good example, I fear.
What about when you aren't necessarily defending yourself against something you don't want to do, but just want to get something on the table so it can be discussed?
posted by Methylviolet at 9:54 PM on September 27, 2005


Yeah, just state that you can't do it. And if nagged again, repeat the identical statement with equal calmness until you are home free.
posted by johngoren at 9:57 PM on September 27, 2005


Jdroth just told me.

I guess I forget that it is possible to say "do you want five bucks for lunch?" and also "no, I can't give it to you."

Maybe it is that simple.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:59 PM on September 27, 2005


What about when you aren't necessarily defending yourself against something you don't want to do, but just want to get something on the table so it can be discussed?

I still don't see the problem with being direct: "I want to put this on the table so we can discuss it." "What do you think about this thing on the table?" "Have you thought about the thing on the table?"

Again, it seems to me that while you're not indirect, you're not direct. You're nothing. You're simply not communicating. If you have something to say, say it. Seriously. You may be surprised at how effective a technique this is.
posted by jdroth at 10:00 PM on September 27, 2005


I hate when people do that. HATE IT.

From your example, your discomfort with the idea of refusing someone's request is pretty equal to someone's discomfort with asking others to do icky favors like drive them to the airport at ungodly hours. As for what you should do in the situation, are you asking how to avoid acknowledging their beating around the bush in order to avoid the discomfort of saying no? Because you weren't exactly straightforward with her if you understood what she was getting at. If it does bother you so much that you feel the need to call someone out for their indirect style, just clarify what you think they are requesting and request that, in the future, they ask for things in a more direct way. Then refuse/accept their request based on your desire.

Finally, the whole "teach me womanese" bit is so offensive. If you didn't want to sound sexist or patronizing, you probably should have just deleted it and moved on with your question. The fact that you added that in, was almost like saying "some of my best friends are [insert any minority group] after telling an off color joke." For the record, most women I know are direct to a fault. The majority of indirect questions/requests that come my way are from men.
posted by necessitas at 10:00 PM on September 27, 2005


(I don't mean to sound harsh. Re-reading my answers, they sound a little strident.)
posted by jdroth at 10:01 PM on September 27, 2005


The direct approach I use naturally doesn't seem to be the best way, because I find that I am volunteering for things I don't want to do -- suddenly, it's my suggestion. At the same time, I don't want to just play dumb, because it feels dishonest.

Your "direct" response is phrased the wrong way. Apparently you are being snookered into making offers. Here's a tip - just because you have identified the offer your interlocutor wishes for, you do not have to articulate that offer. Instead, force them to acknowledge the request, or respond to the implict request.

Wrong
A: My plane leaves really early.
B: Would you like me to drive you to the airport?
A: Thank you, how kind.

Better
A: My plane leaves really early.
B: Are you asking me to drive you to the airport?
A: Yes, would you?
B: I'm sorry, but I can't.

Sneaky alternative
A: My plane leaves really early.
B: It's too bad I can't drive you to the airport.
A: Yes, that is a shame.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:03 PM on September 27, 2005 [1 favorite]


Indirectness curbing alternative
A. My plane leaves really early
B. If you want me to drive you to the airport, why don't you just come out and ask instead of beating around the bush.
A. I probably should have. So can you?
B. I'm sorry, but I can't.
posted by necessitas at 10:08 PM on September 27, 2005


Kinda disagree with ya, jdroth - sure, if I'm talking to someone who I know I'm gonna have to drag information out of, I'll beat them to the punch, but only so that I can get on with my life and live it before I die, not because I perceive that a colleagues' poor communication skills is my responsibility. Essentially what I hear the co-worker saying is, "I want you to look after my cat, take me to the airport at an ungodly hour, oh, and could you also extricate this information from me because although I want all this stuff from you, I'm not prepared to present it to you in easily digestible form."
posted by forallmankind at 10:08 PM on September 27, 2005


Why are you all so confrontational? She wanted a ride but was unable to ask for it directly. Perhaps she realized that it was a big imposition and felt embarrassed to ask directly. Perhaps she was raised with the belief that being direct is just rude (this is not uncommon). Maybe she is shy, or simply unassertive. In short, she may have perfectly acceptable reasons for being indirect (you shouldn't just assume that she doesn't). You people act as if being indirect is some great and horrible social ill.

Guess what? It's not. Many people prefer to employ a subtler method of asking for things. It gives the person being asked the ability to deny the request without forcing them to be an outright jerk. Furthermore, many people like to engage in idle chatter. I for one would prefer that someone butter me up a bit before asking me for something inconvenient.

Seriously people relax. Not every single social interaction needs to be acquitted as efficiently as possible. Social interaction is just that: social and interactive.

Ok, now Methyl, I'd suggest simply listening to what she has to say and then responding with a similarly circumspect explanation for your inability to take her to the airport. Something like "Oh, I'm sorry I would take you myself but I have plans until very late at night on Wednesday. That's why I couldn't spend the night at your place. Maybe, I can pick you up."

Notice that you are able to turn her down with a little white lie, while neither offending her nor coming off as an abrupt and anti-social clod. Further you've left the door open for a future favor in case you decide that you like this person and you wouldn't mind doing things for her. (Of course, you are not actually obligated to perform any favors. You haven't committed yourself to anything.)

Sometimes you just have to respond to people in the way that they approach you. Being flexible in how you interact with others is one of the keys to fitting in with the people around you. (I am totally aware that this last paragraph sounds more than a bit condescending. That really isn't my intent, I was just trying to summarize my points. If you already know all of this and I've misinterpreted your question please let me know. I'll try again (or, you know, I'll admit I don't have an answer)).
posted by oddman at 10:13 PM on September 27, 2005


Lots of good stuff here.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:13 PM on September 27, 2005


oddman, he was asking how he can get people to be more direct with him not why people were indirect or how he can be less direct with others.
posted by necessitas at 10:17 PM on September 27, 2005


Indirectness curbing alternative

So satisfying. In my experience, attempts to modify the behaviour of humans who are not your children may cause distress or offence, so I'd be careful about that.

I did in fact once undertake a program of forcing a nervous project manager to say what he wanted explicitly, and the poor guy had a breakdown and had to be replaced. So I sympathise. But not everyone deserves this. Some people just have misguided notions about politeness and deserve your tolerance (but not free taxi services).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:18 PM on September 27, 2005


A nervous breakdown! That could be a drawback of the direct approach.

And I'm a she -- that's why, if you can agree that indirectness is stereotypically feminine, I think I should be a native speaker.

But I wouldn't like to tell a white lie. That seems like worse BS than mere indirectness BS.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:24 PM on September 27, 2005


In my experience, attempts to modify the behavior of humans who are not your children may cause distress or offence

Too true, too true. I never start out with the indirectness curbing alternative, I usually go for the more subtle approach the first, second and third time. After that . . . I demand directness.

At the end of the day, I generally don't mind helping people and I am usually up for doing things like taking people to the airport at ungodly hours, etc. I find that it accepting people's requests tempers my demand that they ask for things in a direct way. Then again, for all I know, there is a broken-down person somewhere out there in an insane asylum muttering my name.
posted by necessitas at 10:26 PM on September 27, 2005


So satisfying. In my experience, attempts to modify the behaviour of humans who are not your children may cause distress or offence, so I'd be careful about that.

True, but you can make things Not Your Problem with this approach. Adults are quick to learn, for instance, that you are not a malleable all-hours free tech support person once you say No a few times.
posted by dhartung at 10:50 PM on September 27, 2005


It's probably from before your time, but consider checking out Games People Play.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:55 PM on September 27, 2005


I sort of agree with the dircteness responses, but only sort of.

If you really need things right out in the open, then I guess you should do it. But understand that some people are just different than you. Whereas your ignoring the implied request for a ride might be no big deal, it might really hurt feelings to bluntly make her ask for a ride and be turned down.

Which is all fine and dandy, you're not required to care about someone else's delicate sensibilities, but be aware of the possibilities.

But, in the boss/worker situation: do not be direct. If the boss is hinting around at something, do not offer directness. You will only get yourself in trouble. You could very well end up 'volunteering' for something you didn't have to. I would only violate this if your boss is a proven weasel that holds it against you when he/she beats around the bush and you don't take the bait.

But all of this is part of the complicated politics of human interaction. You need to learn to deal with it if you have any desire at all to be politic. Human beings are not simple, the ways in which we interact with each other are not simple.
posted by teece at 10:58 PM on September 27, 2005


Oddman has great things to say. I would add that there is no need to curb the indirectness. It assumes that directness is the default moral and cultural position. People who use indirectness (such as above) often wish to avoid the awkwardness and icky mess posed by the situation -- or they come from a background/culture/social hierarchy that necessitates indirectness. In the case described, the co-worker probably expects that, if you are willing or able to take them to the airport, you will offer. If you are not willing or able, you will just continue the conversation. It's not clear to me why so many people in this thread feel a need to confront or re-educate the indirect co-worker. However, I live in a multi-cultural society.
posted by acoutu at 11:03 PM on September 27, 2005


I think some people are down on indirectness because it can take so damn long to get to what the person is getting at. Is indirectness any better than directness? Not really, but there's some tipping point at which it's just taking too long.

On the little white lie front, I've found that less is often more. "I'm sorry, but I can't take you to the airport." Most of the time, that level of excuse is going to be enough for people. They're probably not going to ask "Well why not?" but they might ask "Are you sure you can't do it? I'd really appreciate it." I think that if someone is uncomfortable just asking for a something they want, then they're probably also going to be uncomfortable asking you to explain why you can't help them out.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:27 PM on September 27, 2005


"I live in a multi-cultural society."

So do I. It is definitely a matter of judgement.

I think we should distinguish between merely teasing out the implicit request, and aggressively pointing out the indirection. The former is a good thing for the avoidance of confusion and ambiguity. The latter may be bad.

It may be *useful* to a person from an indirect culture to be told that their behaviour is not the norm in the society they find themselves in. Otherwise that person could be going around wondering why no one is meeting their needs, or why everyone behaving with such ill grace. I can easily imagine a Japanese person dying of thirst in a room full of New Zealanders, waiting for someone to offer them a drink.

Some people though are just manipulative and rude and need to be schooled, eg an ex of mine who used this technique to try and make it seem as though her needs were my idea.

In the case in point, I would advocate the example I labelled as "sneaky" as being both polite and meeting the poster's needs.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:37 PM on September 27, 2005


What 517 and necessitas said. These people are just one of life's annoing petty irritations and they should be dealt with accordingly. Actually, this is true of all people who play games instead of being open in communication; whether those games involve passive aggression, insinuation, playing "hard to get" or whatever. God, I hate them. I usually rely on two techniques: the blunt challenge or the absolute refusal to play. In the scenario you describe that goes something like this:

1. The blunt challenge.

C: You're welcome to spend the night Wednesday if you want.
M: Nah, I'll just come over Thursday after work.
C: My plane leaves really early Thursday -- 7. So I'll have to be at the airport really early, like 5.
M: Are you asking me to stay Wednesday night so you can get a lift Thursday morning, is that it?
C: No no... well, uh, if...
M: Sorry. Can't do Wednesday night. You'll need to get a taxi, probably.


2. The absolute refusal to play.

C: You're welcome to spend the night Wednesday if you want.
M: Nah, I'll just come over Thursday after work.
C: My plane leaves really early Thursday -- 7. So I'll have to be at the airport really early, like 5.
M: Is that relevant to anything?
C: I guess I'll have to call a taxi or something.
M: I guess you will.


They only control you if you let them.
posted by Decani at 4:34 AM on September 28, 2005


You can't change others, but you can change your reaction to their behavior. Some folks just cannot be direct because they're afraid of rejection and/or can't ask for help.

Your best bet is to continue being direct with others. After a while they'll learn that you will always do that and they'll stop hinting around.
posted by Serena at 6:32 AM on September 28, 2005


Re: the little white lie of "plans"

Not a lie, in my book. You're not obligated to give up any free time that isn't booked. "Plans" can be a plan to go home and do whatever TBD activity.
posted by desuetude at 6:37 AM on September 28, 2005


Necessitas, methyl asked for advice on how to deal with indirect requests. You interpret this to mean he wants them to be direct. However, I offered different advice. Namely, a bit of insight into that kind of person's mindset and a non-confrontational way of dealing with it. Don't like my advice? Too bad, but don't claim it's off-topic when it's not. (Please note the bold question at the end of the orginal posting.)

Decani, why do you automatically assume it's a control issue? Why can't the coworker be acting in a way that she/he views as polite and appropriate?

In general, I'll repeat my question to those of you advocating immediate and abrupt responses. Since when is aggression (and make no mistake reponses like Decani's are aggressive) considered an appropriate response to circumspection?
posted by oddman at 6:37 AM on September 28, 2005


I almost called this question: "I should be a native speaker but... teach me Womanese." But I don't want to be sexist or patronizing

So you're a lady then? This can be a hard trick for women only because there can sometimes [more in offices than IRL] be a weird balance between trying to be direct and assertive and having people think you are a bitch, shrew, harpy, you name it. I have never been good at it. Also, tags can be helpful for finding similar posts, yours is not helpful.

I worked in an indirect workplace for a few years and never felt that I fit in there. It was frustrating because I felt that a lot of the assigments and understadings of how things worked there were all conveyed in indirect methods. So we'd have conversations exactly like you described only they'd relate to something like office policies where I was sure they were stating one thing, but expecting the other and I was also sure that the results mattered.

I dealt with it by being moderately direct, but more importantly by conveying my understanding of the situation to the person I was communicating with, so instead of totally putting them on the spot, I was just trying pretty hard not to be misunderstood.

Boss: We've had some problems lately with people not being polite at the reference desk.
Me: Am I the problem, or are you just relating an office story to me?
Boss: Well there have just been some comments from people who talked to the director.
Me: OK, I try pretty hard to be polite to people and I'm pretty sure I'm doing a good job. Unless I hear otherwise I'm going to assume that what I am doing is fine, but if you'd like to talk about my job performace, let's set up a meeting.

I feel like the surprise that comes from people when you're direct is often the result of them being sort of surprised that you broke etiquette for your own "selfish reasons". I mean, some people are just passive-aggressive but I think for a lot of people it's much more polite to say "Hmm it's getting a little hot in here" than "Can someone please open a window, I'm dying in here!?" It's certainly not my culture, but if I understand them, we can fix the problem with no one feelign bad. With partners and work people this can be more sticky, but in run of the mill interactions, it just seems prudent to just get the interaction over with.

I think one of the other tricks to being direct is to make it absolutely clear that you're being friendly and not aggressive yourself, but at the same time trying to figure out what's going on. I sometimes treat it as if I'm a little dim "Let me see if I understand you correctly..." So I'd rewrite the little exchange like this

C: You're welcome to spend the night Wednesday if you want.
M: Nah, I'll just come over Thursday after work.
C: My plane leaves really early Thursday -- 7. So I'll have to be at the airport really early, like 5.
M: If you're asking for a ride, normally I'd be happy to but this week I have a late night poker game and can't get up that early. You might need to get a taxi. Ask me next time?

No BS back and forth and the issue is settled. You don't have to put them on the spot, just give them your response the situation. Keep in mind, my Mother calls me the rudest person she knows.
posted by jessamyn at 7:13 AM on September 28, 2005


In short, she may have perfectly acceptable reasons for being indirect (you shouldn't just assume that she doesn't). You people act as if being indirect is some great and horrible social ill.

Foo. Someone creating an opportunity for someone to offer rather than impose wouldn't leave pregnant pauses in there because they expect the offer. I give Methyl credit for knowing the difference. Jessamyn's example with her boss is a perfect example of the difference between a polite angling and being a wuss/jerk. It's not an ill, it's selfish behavior: an attempt to minimize their discomfort (asking for a favor/being a proper manager) by putting that discomfort off onto someone else. It's rudeness dressed up as courtesy.

My personal strategy with these folk is not to play along. You say you don't want to "play dumb" but you're not being dumb if you say "I don't understand." You DON'T understand - you suspect what cruddy game they're playing but you can't tell what they're really saying. You can certainly help them to become real human beings by smiling and being accessable to the right kind of questions and talk. I personally am not a fan of Jessamyn's strategy in the second case - I am not going to be a translator for these folk. With a boss you often have little choice. With other people... I choose not to play.
posted by phearlez at 7:41 AM on September 28, 2005


...if you'd like to talk about my job performace, let's set up a meeting...

Jessamyn, I had almost that exact conversation a couple of weeks ago. I started working with a second supervisor on a project in an area where there are many warlords in charge of tiny fiefdoms. My supervisor, too, was the indirect type. She couldn't just say, "I need A by X date," but had to couch it in jargon, double-talk, and paragraphs of conditional tense, which allowed the warlords to roadblock, stonewall, and dither. They also expected obeisance, deference, and acquiescence to their methods--even groveling--from me. My direct, get-to-the-point behavior did not fly well at all with her or the warlords. So the supervisor called me about "everyone being angry."

This particular situation was compounded by the fact that such indirectness, to me, is often accompanied by vagueness in other areas. People who make vague requests for action seem to also be the same kind of people who say things like "a lot of people" or "everyone" when they mean "two" or "constantly doing X" when they mean "twice" or "never" when they mean "not today."
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:11 AM on September 28, 2005


Decani, why do you automatically assume it's a control issue? Why can't the coworker be acting in a way that she/he views as polite and appropriate?

Because in my experience it usually is. Even (perhaps especially) when the person has a real pretty justification for it along the lines of "oh, I'm not very comfortable asking for favours". Sorry, you're an adult not a child. Learn to get comfortable with it if favours are what you're really after. These people are angling for a favour instead of asking for it. They're trying to get you to do something by being sneaky and indirect. Whatever the deeper motivations, that's a control issue.

I understand that a cultural factor may be involved (although I haven't seen anything in the question to suggest that it is in this case) but I take the somewhat unfashionable (amongst people of my political persuasion) view that the onus is more on the cultural stranger to adapt to the mores of the predominant home culture, so this sort of thing can be a valuable education in that circumstance.

Aggressive? Not in my book. I prefer to think of it as assertive, no-nonsense, cut-the-crap sort of behaviour. Aggressive behaviour is threatening behaviour. There were no threats involved in my suggestions, just a refusal to play time-wasting games.
posted by Decani at 8:13 AM on September 28, 2005


Just so that we are on the same page "assertive, no-nonsense, cut-the-crap sort of behaviour" is often equated with aggressive behavior by people who don't subscribe to that style of communication.

As teece pointed out, if you are comfortable with being seen in a poor light for behavior that makes them uncomfortable, feel free to be as direct as you'd like.

But there is the rub, what we intend to convey (whether it be politness, no-nonsense attitudes, or passive-aggresivness) is not always what people take us to be conveying. No one ever said that we all have to prescribe to some exact standard for social behavior. So, it is generally best to respond in kind, thereby avoiding presenting a poor character to others.
posted by oddman at 9:02 AM on September 28, 2005


Great thread, very enlightening. I think I would fall into the "be more direct" camp but it is certainly worth trying to understand the situation from the indirect person's point of view.

I haven't read the whole thing but The 48 Laws of Power is a book many of you may enjoy.
posted by jacobsee at 10:23 AM on September 28, 2005


Yes, fear of appearing bitchy is huge -- I hate to admit it, but it's true.

I have been suffering under this crap from that particular co-worker (hence the unhelpful tag -- alright already) for weeks without really being able to see what was going on. From reading the insights here, I've finally got it: she owns me, because she has dog sat for me for so long, and despite expressing profuse gratitude, buying her the odd plant, doing favors -- she wants to snooker me into "volunteering" so nothing I do for her will ever count in the karmic ledger. Man.

I know that there is culturally-based indirectness, as oddman points out, but that is different. It feels different. When people are of goodwill, indirectness doesn't seem to be a problem. If anything, you find yourself in this sort of unspoken shoving match over who can be more accomodating. Goodwill is the key there. Apples and oranges, I think.

Thanks all.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:39 PM on September 28, 2005


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