Probably the best-read Writing Boots post I ever wrote is one from five years ago, in which I explained my "everybody knows everything" theory of communication, which holds that people in our workplaces and personal lives gather so much information about us over time—so much evidence of our true aims, our attitudes and values—that they really know essentially everything about us, whether they acknowledge it or not. Therefore, "our essential responsibility as personal and organizational communicators is not to spoon out information slowly to babies with weak digestion systems. Rather, it’s to try desperately to keep up, verbally, with the massive flow of unvarnished truth that our behavior is sending, and that our family, friends and colleagues are receiving every day."
That's a tough assignment, even for the most public relations minded among us. (Or the most gentle-minded. Who wants cousin Bill to know you think he's dumb?)
And get this: I've come to think that the problem is even tougher than that. I think I've concluded that it's not so much your regular behavior that communicates most strongly. It's the things you never do that say the most.
That's how we sum people up when they're gone. Of good people, we say, "she never had an unkind word to say about anybody." Of bastards, it's, "he never did anything for anyone but himself."
How can I most economically tell you about my father? He never swore, he never got drunk, he never farted in front of us, he never left his bedroom without his shoes on. (And somehow, he never managed to communicate to his kids—perhaps he tried, perhaps he didn't know he had to, or perhaps we didn't rate!—that we measured up to his compelling standard for what a person should be.)
It's not what we do that means the most, it's what we never do: The couple knows we don't like them because though we play euchre with them at soccer tournaments, we never ask them over to dinner. The CEO has a blog on the intranet and shows up regularly at all the employee town meetings, but she says so much more by never eating in the employee cafeteria.
The parents who get along most of the time but never hold hands, the mother who never said she loved you. The supervisor who never sought the spotlight for himself, the friend who never let you down. The friend who never calls you first, the colleague who never asks your opinion, the client who never asks how you're doing. Specific and general, these "never" behaviors are the ones that say the most, because they're the ones that speak the truth far more powerfully than the things we consciously do.
The question is, what are you going to do about it? And the answer is, you aren't going to do anything about it. Because what you never do is the most reliable truth about you.
What do you never do?