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The Message Behind the Message

By: Dr. Jim Goldstein

The Message Behind the MessageA while back, a friend told me an interesting story about his family’s new car with a built-in GPS. This was before GPS was so widespread. It was a big deal that this car had one and that it worked so accurately. After he had owned the car for a few weeks, I asked him what it was like for all the drivers in his family to be able to be guided to their destination audibly. He hesitated and then said, “Uh, funny thing about that. We all recently admitted that as good as the GPS system was, one by one, we had stopped using it altogether.”

When I asked, “Why,” he said that it had something to do with how each of them felt during the ride. He said, “We talked about it because it puzzled us that no one wanted to use it anymore. What we came up with was that it was the lady’s voice that got us to quit using it.” I was amazed. “What was wrong with her voice? Was it her accent?” “No” he said, “It was her tone. We each felt like when she told us to make a correction in our itinerary, she was actually scolding us or was disgusted with us. She seemed intolerant of our mistakes or the quickness with which we responded to her instructions. Instead of, ‘Make a U-turn,’ we all started hearing, ‘Make a U-turn, you idiot!’ This was just from her tone of voice.”

Of course, GPS units are more sophisticated now and the voices are much more pleasant but I saw from his example how important the subtle non-verbal messages are that we all give when we speak or even when we send e-mail. When you aren’t in front of the person, your tone of voice is critical in creating and maintaining relationship. I recommend that people ask for feedback on their tone of voice, especially on the phone or on an answering machine. It speaks volumes about who you are and how you feel about the people you are addressing.


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