“Did you feed the cat?”
It’s a simple question, right? My husband and I both feed the cat, though to be honest, usually these days it’s him.
So why is it that I feel guilty and defensive when I hear it? (Oh no, was I supposed to feed the cat? She wasn’t acting hungry, I thought he fed her already!)
“Did you scoop the cat box?”
Well, actually, usually my husband does that to. But when I get a text message from him, “Did you scoop the cat box?” I immediately feel defensive. Instead of a simple “No, do you want me to?” I’ve found myself typing, “No, you didn’t tell me it was needed! I thought you did it yesterday.” And he replies: “It’s okay! I just wanted to know if it still needs to be done!”
Or how about this: we had some guests recently. When they left, they made the bed nicely. We were having another guest, and weren’t sure if we needed to change the sheets. So we sent a message: “We were just wondering if the sheets on the bed were clean.”
“Oh no, sorry! That slipped by us! So sorry.”
Well, okay, they’re Canadian. Even so. We didn’t mean to tell them they were supposed to clean the sheets! We just wanted to know!
So what’s going on here?
Well, one answer is passive communication. But this is a totally normal way for us to communicate in North American society. The question “Did you…?” very often includes the assumption that the person being asked was supposed to do the thing in question; there’s often even a veiled recrimination in the question. If your response is no, it’s a confession, not an answer.
I’ve been pondering this over the last few weeks, perhaps because I’ve been asking “Did you…?” questions a lot. And I’ve realized something.
No matter what we say or how we say it, there will always be information missing from what we say. And our brains are exceptionally good at filling in missing information.
If I ask a question like “Did you scoop the cat box?” the missing information could be that I’m at home, contemplating whether to scoop the cat box. It could be that the cat has just pooped on the floor, and I’m trying to figure out why. Or it could be that I expected you to do it, and will be upset if you didn’t.
There is always missing information.
In my case, I guess I feel pretty guilty about never scooping the cat box, so it’s pretty easy for me to get defensive when asked if I did it. Funny how that works, isn’t it? My brain fills in the missing information—He asked if I scooped the cat box. OMG I never scoop the cat box. I AM A TERRIBLE KITTY MOM—and then inserts that information into his message, reflecting back at me.
We are going to do this. We can’t stop it; it’s how our brains work. And I think a big part of the difference between direct and passive communication doesn’t just come down to how completely or directly you convey information, but how you handle it when your brain fills in the missing bits. Do you recognize it when that happens? Do you check yourself and say, “Hey, why am I feeling defensive? Actually, they just asked for information.”
Our brains are buggy. They lie to us. Our feelings lie to us. Even our gut responses to straightforward statements or questions can lie to us. A big part of good communication consists of learning to identify the information gaps in what we hear, understanding how we’re filling them in ourselves, recognizing that we’re going to get it wrong, and asking the speaker to fill in the additional information.
Another good strategy is just to take the words at face value.
“Did you clean the cat box?”
It’s not always this easy, of course. Sometimes you really do need that bit of missing information. But it’s often a good way to start. And trust me, not filling in that missing information at all is a big step up from filling it in with your own story. If you’re not sure what to ask, taking their words at face value leaves space for the other person to help fill it in—if it matters.