The Nausea of Misspeaking

Things happen in patterns, don’t they? I was driving home from New York City yesterday, turning some conversations over in my head like worry beads. Half listening to NPR and half replaying the day’s dialogues, my ears perked up when I heard the interviewee – the author of a new book called The Internet Police– shift to a discussion of “Tor,” otherwise known as “The Onion Router.” Tor is basically a matryoshka doll of computers, or an endless hallway of cyberspace mirrors in which the source of information is bounced from one machine to another, times a few thousand, until the origin is untraceable. Apparently it’s designed for covert government correspondence, and to let dissidents in North Korea contact the outside world, but it’s been appropriated by drug lords and terrorists who are able to operate in bottom-of-the-sea darkness through the layers of the interweb onion.

Was I planning on selling heroin on the Dark Web, and hence the sense of synchronicity, you might ask? Nope – shockingly. What I had been thinking of was the idea of overcomplicated communication, and shrouding one’s true meaning in layers of apology, or caveat, or even silence. I’ve noticed it with clients, with myself, and as a major part of my Civicization. My sense is that we all have our own personal onion routers to bear, if you will. Misspeaking and withholding are what’s on my mind, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

There are few things that fill me with greater dread than the sense I have misspoken. The gnawing, cloying, clawing, desperate feeling of having bad words tumble out makes me dry heave on a cellular level. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past week – too much, perhaps – and wanted to pose the question to you all:

How do you say what you mean, and what do you do when you’ve misspoken?

First let me share why I’ve been thinking about this so much, if I may. Two weeks ago I posted here about outsourcing volunteering, as something of a thought experiment. I’d had a fascinating conceptual conversation with two girlfriends over lunch – namely, where is the line between volunteering, philanthropy, and passing the buck? – and I was eager to write about it. I struggled with the tone of the piece, and worried that it would be too long and bore people, so I cut out a part that I felt could go, but which I worried was the chunk that really conveyed the main idea. Having not blogged for awhile, I was excited to start again, and, if I’m perfectly honest, was looking forward to the conversation that would ensue in the comments section. I’m Back! I thought.

The responses to my post confirmed my worst fears about the tone and gist – one family member said the idea was appalling; one close friend left me a voice message asking if everytihng was alright; another friend gently commented that perhaps I should rethink this somewhat colonial and slightly off-taste approach to philanthropy. I was horrified, to say the least.  I felt more like Rudyard Kipling than Jezebel. Or Mitt Romney stuttering to figure out how to unsay he doesn’t care about most of the country.

While I was licking my wounds and feeling a little ashamed, I decided this was a GREAT time to send out a major announcement for my business and launch my website. I wanted the email to go out before my birthday, and so at 6pm the night before I sent a blast to everyone I know, telling them that I am starting a coaching practice, and asking for their help in getting clients. While I received some sweet feedback around the site itself, I’ve now had at least seven conversations in the last week that have included one or many of these lines:

  • “So exciting! I’d help, but I don’t really know who you want to work with or what you’re offering?”
  • “So, can you tell me how this is different from being a friend for hire?”
  • “I want to help, but I feel like introducing you as a coach is a disservice to you because it sounds, well – you know.”
  • “Why don’t you just get your degree and be a therapist?”
  • “I’d like to help, but won’t I insult someone if I suggest they’d benefit from working with you?”

I realized that, to my horror, the email and website I’d been working on for months were, well, unclear. I was bereft; especially because just the week before, I’d been sharing one of my new favorite questions with Husband. The irony was not lost on me:

“If you could say whatever you truly want to in this situation, without having to censor yourself or maneuver – and you know that in this imaginary scenario whatever you say will be warmly and well received – what would you say?”

This question has helped tremendously in my sessions, because what people want to say is usually pretty tame, reasonable, and clear; however, they’re so afraid that it sounds outrageous/rude/too bold/confrontational, that they go to Cirque du Soleilian lengths to pretzel themselves linguistically around the point, and end up sounding much more confused, passive aggressive, or rude than they would if they just spoke honestly.

While it’s easy for me to hear what’s at the heart of a client’s comment, it’s more difficult for me to let what I really mean bubble up to the surface. I feel this is something I’ve noticed as I’ve become more civically engaged, too; part of the impetus for this blog is my sense that I’m somehow not “allowed” to enter into conversations around policy and politics, because I will inadvertently say something  a) ignorant, b) racist, c) classist, d) historically/geographically moronic, e) about a group of which I am not a part and therefore have no right to speak about, or f) all of the above. I sit in silence because I’m so afraid of this terrifying menu of faux pas. And much as I hoped writing this blog would help to give me more of a voice, moments like the one I mention with the off-tone post have made me turtle backwards into my shell of feigned opionlessness.

On Monday, I was reeling from the bittersweet feedback around my website, and feeling low.  I had to pull myself together for a meeting with the board of Young Involved Philadelphia, a fantastic organization whose Board Prep Program I help to manage. The discussion turned to the session on Fundraising, and the plethora of student requests for more training around how to craft an “ask” when fundraising. I recalled my conversations around “if you could say what you really want to, what would it be?” as we discussed ways we could help teach students about asking for a donation on the behalf of an organization they care about. The same thought crossed my mind – what if you just, well, asked? What if you just said it straightout? What would that sound like, and how would it be received? 

Whether it’s for volunteering or fundraising, for blogging or just discussing the day’s events, how much do our Onion Routers get in the way of being fully engaged?

And for your own work, and pursuing what matters to you – how does tripping over your words keep you from moving forward?

I’m curious as to what you think – is this something you struggle with, and what have you learned about the nausea of misspeaking?


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