As my wife got home from work she greeted me with one of those kinds of questions that women often ask and that frustrate men. It wasn't a "How was your day?" or "What's for dinner?" (Cooking is my job since I get home first.) I could have answered any of those.
She asked me, "Did you notice anything when you got home?" What kind of question is that? There is no context. It is anything but direct. My mind started racing. I looked quickly around the kitchen. No good, nothing caught my eye. I heard her steps coming up the stairs. I was running out of time. I tried to picture the driveway. Did I forget to move the trash cans in? It wasn't that, wrong day. Besides she would have asked, "Did you forget something?" She wouldn't have just come out and said, "Hey babe, you forgot to bring the trash cans in." That would have been too easy.
Time's up. There she was, smiling, looking at me, "Well?" I had nothing.
So I said, "Give me a hint, point me in the right direction, something."
"You," she said with a smile on her face. "You didn't notice the new flowers I brought in from the garden."
She had me. I hadn't noticed. What a shocker! There they were. Right in front of me. I could have reached across the sink and touched them. My wife loves flowers and she brings them in puts them on the dining room table, in front of the sink, where ever. I get used to seeing flowers around. They're nice, nothing against flowers. Just because I see them, doesn't mean I will notice that one arrangement has been replaced by a different arrangement. I just see flowers. It has taken me over a year to tell the difference between a hydrangea and an agapanthus, neither of which I could spell without spell check. The flowers were beautiful. Lots of color and she grew them. I do appreciate their beauty and I'm delighted she gets so much satisfaction from the garden and the peaceful mood the flowers create in our home.
But why does she need to ask the question in that way? She could have asked, "Don't you love those flowers I brought in from the garden? I could have answered that. Or she could have just made a statement. "I think those flowers I brought in this morning are beautiful." I would have agreed and that wouldn't have been a lie. I would have paused from dinner prep, taken a moment and enjoyed them. Then I would have returned my focus to something just as wonderful, food.
But, "Did you notice anything?" It wasn't that big of a deal, but for a moment, I felt of on the spot. I felt like it was some kind of test. Questions without a context do that to me.
I'm sure I ask questions like that. I know she does a lot. But why, why don't people just come out and say it? Why do we choose to communicate indirectly?
I was curious so I emailed a friend of mine, Julie Davis (no relation, just happens to have a great last name) who is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist. The following is her reply where she defines some of the underlying motivations for indirect communication.
"Patterns of communication are etched in our brain from a young age. These patterns seem so 'right' that it's difficult to break them.
Indirect communication is learned when direct communication gets you in to trouble. For example, you say, I don't like this food. Father answers, 'How rude! Your mother worked all day on this meal for you.' Doesn't take long for a kid to get it.
Here are the ways we learn to communicate:
Playful: the child can't wait for you to notice the flowers that have been picked for you. When you don't notice, they hint and jest and nudge playfully. There is no expectation; just anticipation of you enjoying the flowers, whether you notice it by yourself or the kid brings your attention to it.
Passive aggressive: expectations that you will notice and comment on the flowers, and when you don't, it triggers a deep wounding that equates to: 'you didn't notice the flowers therefore you must not care for or love me.' Anger, blame, and sulking that seem way out of proportion to the event.
Ambivalent: an adult who puts out flowers for his or her own enjoyment. No expectations or need from you. If you notice, that's wonderful. If you don't notice, no big deal. May also share own feelings about flowers: 'I love these flowers' without need for agreement from you.
If there are expectations, a healthy adult will say, 'I put some flowers on the table and I want you to stop and notice how amazing they are.' If you don't think they are amazing, that's OK, too."
So, based on this information, I determined that my wife, in this case, was being playful and just wanted to share her joy of flowers with me. That's good to know. It was also good to realize that indirect communication will often be part of her communication style. Since communication styles are difficult to change, I'll learn to deal with it and play along. Understanding helps remove some of the frustration from indirect questions.
Unfortunately, whether the question was direct or not, I still wouldn't have noticed the fresh flowers that were right in front of me. Not noticing things is simply part of my DNA and therefore difficult, if not impossible to change. I wonder what my counselor friend would say about that. I'm not going to ask.
Greg Davis, is an Elementary Music Teacher in Pleasanton. firstname.lastname@example.org
Julie Davis, MFT, has offices in Los Gatos and Fremont. She is working on two books: Waterwheels and Hairballs: a Visual Guide to Feeling Good No Matter What and Face in the Mirror: Learning to Love What Is. She is also finishing her PhD in Psychology.