Beware When Verbal Graffiti Sounds Pretty

I’m fascinated by people who make it a standard practice to mislead people. They don’t mean what they’re saying because what they’re saying is not

Beware When Verbal Graffiti Sounds Pretty, LifeIsHOTBlog Brad W. Smith photographer

Whether verbal graffiti sounds great, or sounds hurtful, it never sounds honest.

honest. They want to prevent direct and useful conversation. I call this technique Verbal Graffiti. The first step to handling Verbal Graffiti is to recognize you’re hearing it.

I’ve identified four ways Verbal Graffiti can be used. It can be used to:

I have written about the first three kinds already. The fourth kind of Verbal Graffiti – the kind that obscures the truth – puts a veneer over something ugly.

Conversation Basics series LifeIsHOTBlog D'AnneHotchkiss

The veneer obscures the truth of what is happening and protects the speaker from having to take responsibility. You probably have encountered Verbal Graffiti that obscures the truth in your work and in your personal relationships.

Verbal Graffiti at Work

Consider these phrases that are common across corporate America. You may have heard these, and perhaps you’ve used them yourself.

Layoff. The term layoff is not dishonest. But there are many other terms that are used in its place: streamlining; right-sizing; restructuring; sidewalking; or, a permanent furlough. The honest truth is that innocent and largely well-performing employees are going to lose their livelihoods and their economic stability. But they are not the people who made the poor business decisions that have caused this action to be necessary.

Performance Improvement Plan. Wow, it sounds like your manager wants to help you do better, doesn’t it? What it means is ‘We’re going to fire you but first we will spend the next 30 days getting our paperwork in order so that you can’t sue us and we may even be able to stop you from getting unemployment pay.’

When you sign a performance improvement plan (and whether you sign it or not, your future with that employer is over), you’ve just legally admitted that you haven’t been doing your job, even if you think you have. The honest truth is that there is no intention by your manager or the HR department to work with you in your career growth. In fact, your life there is likely to get worse because they’d love for you quit and save them the paperwork.

It’s nothing personal, it’s just business. This is the rationale that people in business use to avoid acknowledging that real people are being hurt by a business decision they have made but do not have to experience first hand. Some examples are decisions to eliminate a job benefit, delay, reduce, or cancel a pay raise, change vendors, relocate to a different part of the country, or cancel a contract.

Verbal Graffiti at Home

Verbal Graffiti is not restricted to your workplace. There are other examples that are commonly used in personal relationships.

Bless Your Heart. Usually this one is delivered immediately after something that sounded innocuous, but the addition of this line is meant to tell you that the speaker meant an insult. It’s more common in parts of the south, where I now live, than in other parts of the country.

Then, there’s the broad range of deliberate mis-directions and false communications uttered to buy time, avoid consequences or deflect responsibility. Often they trigger an argument about something other than the main topic.

These are not pretty. They are ugly.

Some examples:

  • “I haven’t been drinking tonight.” When the truth is: “I was drinking earlier in the day.”
  • “I cheated on you because you’re ugly (or fat, or not willing, or no good in bed).” When the truth is: “I am placing all responsibility for our relationship on you.” Or, “I yielded to temptation to boost my ego or to settle a score in our relationship.”
  • “The check is in the mail.” When the truth is, “The check is still in my checkbook (and my bank balance is insufficient to cover it).”

Whether you encounter Verbal Graffiti at work or at home, you can protect yourself. The first defensive move you need to make is to acknowledge that you aren’t being told the truth. Sometimes, especially in the workplace, your next move is to plan your course of action based on the unspoken truth. In your personal relationships, your next move may be to confront the other person with a statement that shows you recognize the truth.

In response to the examples above, you might say:

  • “You agreed to not drink and you have broken our agreement.”
  • “Your decision to step outside our monogamous relationship has nothing to do with me.”
  • “I need to receive the money you owe me by next Friday.”

Live Honest, Open and True

Verbal Graffiti exists in four different forms, including the form that obscures the truth and misdirects the conversation so the speaker does not have to take responsibility for decisions or actions that hurt the listener. Your first defense against all Verbal Graffiti is to recognize when it is being used on you. Whether you acknowledge it to others depends on the situation.

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What have you done when you’ve encountered Verbal Graffiti that obscures the truth and redirects attention away from those who are responsible? Stop by our Life is HOT blog Facebook Group  and leave a comment or tweet me  @LifeIsHOTBlog with the hash tag #LifeIsHOT!

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