Now before you howl ‘I told you so’ while high fiving your buddies, allow me to say that those two words – “I’m clueless”- is how l feel when someone exposes one of my embarrassing bind spots. Strange way to start off a column, huh?
But the fact is that there’s something healthy about self-deprecating storytelling, especially if it can be a teachable moment for others. So let me take you to one of my blind spots.
You see, my bride is not only dealing with a clueless spouse, but she’s also dealing with a hearing loss. It’s hereditary (her hearing loss, not her clueless spouse). As frustrating as it is for her to have to constantly respond, “say that again” when she doesn’t hear something clearly, it’s as frustrating to me to have to repeat myself. Of course, my frustration pales by comparison to hers and scores of others who experience a loss in hearing.
Now I’m ashamed to admit that there have been times when I just waved her off with a ‘never mind’ when she’d ask me to repeat myself. Never did I realize how condescending, insensitive, and callous that was, that is until I got the following email a while ago:
“Mr. Terry, I started reading your articles and instantly got hooked on them. Thank you so much for your thought-provoking articles. I have learned a lot from them, and they have helped me a lot to understand other people and cultures.
As an immigrant to this country with English not my first language, sometimes I come across people – even friends – who sometimes say things I don’t understand (usually unrelated to work, maybe a joke or a comment about a football game). When I ask them to explain it to me, usually they say, “NEVER MIND” which leaves me thinking, “why would you say something and then not want to explain it?”
I feel that people think that I should have all the knowledge about what they are discussing. For example, take a television show which aired 20 years ago when I was not here and knew nothing about when they used it as a reference. When I asked for an explanation, I got the same answer “never mind,” which made me feel stupid.
I hope I have explained to you my problem and request you to write an article to address this issue as this is not only me since I have been told by many immigrants that they feel the same way. Please do not publish my name.”
Suddenly the juxtaposition of the experience by this emailer and my wife’s forced me to reflect on something related I’d read previously, “Dismissive Gestures,” by Rich Brenner of Canyon Creek Consulting. He wrote, “humans are nothing if not inventive. In modern organizations where verbal insults are deprecated, we’ve developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently. When we insult each other, we damage relationships and make achieving our shared goals more difficult.”
Like language, humor and most customs, dismissive gestures vary from culture to culture. While the meanings of various gestures are intuitively clear in your own culture, they can be mysteriously unfathomable in the cultures of others. And they slowly evolve with time. By examining these tactics, says Brenner, we can take some of the sting out of them and reduce the urge to use them ourselves. He lists the following dismissive gestures and their possible interpretations:
Heavy-lidded glances to a third party – When one listener looks at another with a heavy-lidded glance, and possibly a tilt of the head, the message is, “Gimme a break,” or “She’s gotta be kidding.”
Heavy sighing – A heavy sigh, sometimes combined with an exaggerated lift of the shoulders, can mean, “I’ve had enough of this trash.”
Eye rolling – Typically, eye rolling is executed out of the awareness of the target, and that’s bad enough. But sometimes we do it face-to-face, and then it’s especially stinging.
Looking at your watch – Checking the time can be interpreted as “I wish this boring fool would give it a rest.”
Shrugging – A shrug communicates, “I don’t care.” For extra punch, combine with a facial expression of boredom or disdain.
Disgusted laughing – There are laughs-with, and laughs-at. The disgusted laugh is a laugh-at, and there’s nothing funny about it.
Checking a hand-held device instead of paying attention – This can communicate, “I have something more worthwhile to do than to listen to this drivel.”
On reflection, I believe that most of us don’t wake up in the morning wondering who we should insult today. There’s something inherent in us that makes us want to rethink how we may, albeit unintentionally, damage someone emotionally with a dismissive “never mind,” its variations or others on or not on the above list.
In the end, sharing this blind spot is an uncomfortable reminder that I can’t escape my own demons, the biggest of which is why it took hearing from someone I didn’t know, Rick Brenner, to realize how hurtful I’ve been to someone I do know, my wife.
Yes, I have work to do …. once I crawl out from beneath the nearest rock!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.