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How Missed Signals Show When We Don’t Understand Each Other

One day last week after lunch, while walking back to my office, I noticed a man parking in the last of four curbside spots in front of the Post Office. He maneuvered a bit and then stopped his car just as another car pulled up, right behind him where there was no official spot.

The windows in the second car were open, so I could hear the driver exclaiming to her passenger: “What’s he doing?! Why doesn’t he move up!?” Indeed, there was a spot open in front of the man’s car. She beeped once — and then really honked.

The man got out of his car and walked over to her, with what appeared to be completely non-ironic curiosity. “What?” he asked her. “Did you want me?”

He had absolutely no idea that what she wanted was for him to pull up into the third spot so she could legitimately take the last. She seemed convinced that her beep had been perfectly clear, and that he was an idiot. Meanwhile, he appeared to be going about his business, satisfied with his perfectly legal, acceptable spot, and not paying much mind to anything behind him.

Misconstrued, Misread, or Just Plain Missed

I’m not a rubbernecker by nature, so I didn’t wait to see how it ended, but the situation got me thinking. We’ve all been in both spots, haven’t we? We do something that seems normal and appropriate to us and don’t understand why someone else seems unhappy with us. Or else we’re unhappy with someone who’s standing directly and blithely in the way of what we want, and we don’t recognize that they meant no harm and never intended to cause difficulty.

We think our signals are unmistakable. But we’re so wrong! Sometimes you can only see the entire situation once you step outside of it. The workplace opportunities for crossed signals are endless:

  • Two meetings book the same conference room; the booker of the four-person meeting doesn’t realize she has blocked the 12-person meeting from the only room big enough to hold it.
  • A marketing exec insists on project deadlines that make sense only to him because he’s unaware of the competing commitments faced by the creative team; he assumes that the team is always completely available to him and ready to comply with his sense of urgency.
  • A midlevel employee openly resents not having the opportunity to meet with his manager more frequently. Meanwhile his manager tries desperately to preserve time for him in her excruciatingly overbooked schedule.

Are We Our Colleagues’ Keepers?

How much are we responsible for what happens to someone else? We can’t always be aware of their circumstances. There’s a tricky balance between being attuned to others’ situations while we’re claiming the spot that feels most comfortable and practical to us.

It makes sense to ask what’s happening, as the first driver did, whenever you realize you can’t tell what’s going on. Even if you’re sure you know what’s going on, there’s a humility and openness to recognizing that you could be wrong, or that you may not have complete information.

If someone seems aggravated around you — even if you’re confident you’ve done nothing wrong — it might be perfectly easy to accommodate their real needs instead of feeling wronged by their very aggravation.

So if you ever hear a colleague say, “Well, she knows what she needs to do: I sent her a message;” or “I ran up the flag; if he doesn’t take care of it, that’s on him;” or “We all signaled our disapproval when he made those inappropriate remarks; I don’t know why he doesn’t cut that out,” you could kindly let that person know how easily signals are missed, and how important it is to stop signaling and actually explain instead.

Onward and upward,


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