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Call Me, Tweet Me: Ditch the subtlety, just be assertive

Published: October 26, 2012
Section: Opinions


One of my friends just doesn’t get subtlety. At all. He doesn’t get some of the jokes his friends make, and he certainly doesn’t realize what’s happening when a girl is flirting with him, even if she’s making what might seem like blatant sexual advances.

For example, a girl he had been involved with sent him a text asking what he was doing later, because she was going to need some “serious stress relief.” He responded with an offer to get her ice cream.

Let’s just say that if confronted with a girl complaining about how cold it was, he’s the kind of guy who would instantly go to the thermostat—offering his sweatshirt or putting his arm around her wouldn’t even cross his mind.

“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness … Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate,” Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War.”

So my friend’s doing alright, yes? He controls the fates of those around him, thus controlling his own? Right?

Not quite.

If you’re trying to defeat an enemy, subtlety and mysteriousness are certainly two excellent defenses. If, however, you are trying to communicate with friends or other people you care about, you’re much better off skipping the subtlety.

Winston Churchill put it best: “When you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.”

Subtle communication certainly serves its purpose. Body language and the vibes we send out through our physical appearance, tone and expressions help others decode our meaning, but the words we say do even more. Being unclear with them only serves to complicate communication.

That’s one of the most valuable valuable lessons I’ve learned from being friends with him: It’s so much easier just to tell him exactly what I mean and exactly what I need. Being coy and subtly hilarious might work with other people, but when it comes down to it, it’s just easier to be completely direct.

Effective communication stems from a conscious effort to be clear, concise and direct, and is the best way to actually get a point across, and there are several things to keep in mind while doing so.

In order to make sense when you’re talking, you have to know what you’re going to say. You don’t have to plan out each sentence before it comes out of your mouth, but when you enter into a more serious conversation, know where you want to go with it. There’s no point going to a professor’s office hours or having a talk with your significant other about the future of your relationship if you don’t know what you want the outcome to be, whether that means an extension or exclusivity.

There are four main types of verbal communication: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. There are some styles that overlap, but generally all communication fits into one of these categories, with ranging levels of subtlety.

In an effort to appear easygoing, many people choose to remain passive in conversation. This does not, of course, mean that at heart they are passive people (though they may be), but rather that they are using subtlety or even being vague and noncommittal because they want to avoid conflict or don’t think the conversation is worth an argument. This is useful in some scenarios, like dealing with someone unreasonable by simply saying, “OK, you win.” Usually, though, being passive leads to unproductive discourse.

Aggressive communication gets an even worse rap, and is by far the least subtle—but not in a good way. It’s thought of and described as being crudely expressive, to the point of being emotionally and verbally abusive. It’s used to criticize and blame others, but sometimes, that needs to be done. There’s a fine line between aggressive and assertive behavior, and it needs to be carefully confronted: “This is your fault” and “I don’t think I should be blamed for this because x, y and z,” come across very differently to fighting friends and frustrated bosses.

Being passive-aggressive is perfect if you just want to tear someone down. It’s often too subtle for people to catch on (and often that’s the point) but when they do, you can really tear their heart out with one little “No, it’s fine, I guess I don’t mind.” Fun and fulfilling in the right context, but overall not a very productive mode of communication.

Assertiveness takes the best of each. While acknowledging your own needs, you also recognize the desires of the person you’re talking to, and the removal of subtlety from the conversation makes everything more understandable.

The other forms of communication have their place in conversation, but if you’re trying to have reasonable discourse with a reasonable person, your best bet is assertiveness. You will show that you are clear about your goals, and able to articulate them without getting carried away.

Subtlety is great if you’re trying to be tactful, but who has time for that? After all, if you want something, you should just go for it. If you’re subtle or unclear in any way, you might get lucky, but there’s a much better chance that someone isn’t going to understand you or your point.