Frank Chimero Writing Archive
This an archive of old writing. Visit my main site for current work.

Three Things to Say

Communication in the city is so frought with bruskness, and words at work can be so soulless, so I’ve been searching for ways to eliminate pretense and increase warmth, all while ensuring good outcomes. Here are three I keep in my pocket. I hope they’re handy for you.

“I usually xyz, unless you recommend something else…”

A way to express preference, while leaving the door open to the expertise of others. For instance, I go to my local wine shop every week to buy a few bottles, and if left to my own devices, I’d be worse off than a chimp playing darts. Luckily, I’ve built a great relationship with the two employees. (I call them my boozey Click and Clack.) Everyone’s a sucker for talking about the things they love, so if you ask people to share their discoveries, you’re going to be taken on a magical, drunken journey with some new friends.

“Can you say that in more/different words?”

I love saying this, because it has two possible applications.

First: it is a very polite, productive way to explain to someone that they are being vague. Or! That they were not vague, and you are behind, and need some background. I do this a lot with clients, because I’m fresh on the scene and don’t speak their language yet, or they forget that there is a backstory to which I’m unaware. It’s difficult to communicate with a gap in knowledge, so sometimes it’s best to point out the gap and hope that a few more words can act as a landfill. Sometimes waste is productive.

Second use: if you’re an evil teacher, art director, or in any other position where you must pull coherence out of other people, this simple request can give someone permission to blah-blah their way to clarity. Even the best of us sometimes need to talk things out.

“I don’t know.”

This is especially potent in professional contexts. Imagine this: you are dependent on someone else to do quality work for you. Would you rather hear an answer that’s an improvised reply dressed up as a solution, or a simple, honest, “I don’t know”?

Give me the latter every time. Not everyone feels that way, but I’ve found that a tolerance for doubt serves as a great litmus test to help me find “my people.” It helps everybody if you can explain why you don’t know, and express what you need to come to a conclusion. Usually, folks need more time, information, or help—or some mix of those three things.

If you’re still uncomfortable with “I don’t know”, think of it this way: a person can only have so much expertise, but if you can sell your ignorance and ability to root out answers, you’ll be employable forever, understood frequently, and relatable always.

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