Imagine you made dinner plans with your acquaintance, Jill, a few days ago. One hour before it was time to meet, you receive a message from her saying “Sorry! I have to bail on dinner tonight. Stressed out from work. Maybe next week!”. Your goal is to express that you’re skeptical that her excuse warrants the last minute cancellation and that you’re somewhat upset about it. You could either respond with:
- “I’m kind of upset. Just being stressed out from work doesn’t sound like a good excuse for making such a last minute cancellation.”
- “No problem, next week sounds good”
Option 1 gives Jill little room to interpret your message to mean something other than what you intended to communicate. This unambiguous message pretty much guarantees you’ll achieve your goal, but you’d be naive to ignore the risk involved.
You might make Jill feel uncomfortable or guilty for knowing you think negatively of her. She may also resent you for undermining what may be a legitimate excuse in her mind. Since she’s only your acquaintance, she may feel you’re being too nosy and don’t deserve a more detailed explanation. On the other hand, she may not respond negatively at all, and possibly respect you more for enforcing your standards and being a direct communicator. But since you don’t know her well, nor have you developed a high level of trust with her, option 1 is a high-stakes gamble.
Option 2 lets you avoid the risk of option 1 entirely. But it guarantees you won’t achieve your goal. There’s virtually no chance Jill will interpret your message to mean what you intended.
Both options 1 and 2 seem suboptimal. You’re forced to either go all in or fold. Fortunately, there’s a third option that lets you figuratively “stay in the game” without risking it all. This approach uses the social skill of ambiguous communication, i.e., crafting and sending ambiguous messages that blur the meaning and intention behind what you say and offers you and your communication partner competing interpretations to choose from.
When you communicate unambiguously, you’re introducing a single, high-evidence, and rigidly-defined interpretation of your message. If you can’t confidently predict your partner’s reaction to the message’s interpretation, then you’re risking negative consequences that may be irreversible or hard to undo.
When you communicate ambiguously, you’re sending a message that can be interpreted by you and your partner in more ways than one. With enough uncertainty in any one particular interpretation, both of you can benefit.
With ambiguous communication, you have a third option:
3. Ambiguous message: “Wait until next week? That’s going to cause me too much stress” or “You should buy a stress ball for next week”
Option 3 is like a combination of options 1 and 2. You reduce the risk of option 1 because the ambiguity leaves Jill with some uncertainty about whether the interpretation that you’re upset and discredit her excuse is the right one. The ambiguity also frees you from committing to that interpretation too.
If you find that Jill’s reaction to your intended interpretation is causing damage, you could convince her that a different interpretation was the true one all along without having to contradict your past self. For instance, Jill might interpret “Wait until next week? That’s going to cause me too much stress” to mean that you don’t care about her well-being. If she communicates that sentiment, you can deny her interpretation and convince her of a different interpretation – like that you just wanted to see her this week and not next week.
Besides reducing risk, option 3 also gives you a chance to achieve your goal. Jill is likely to correctly interpret your message to mean that you’re upset and discredit her excuse. And she might bring up the subject in conversation on her own accord. She might, however, make the wrong interpretation (intentionally or unintentionally) and start a conversational thread that won’t help you reach your goal. For instance, if you say “You should buy a stress ball for next week”, she might think you’re trying to offer genuine advice and initiate a conversation about stress-management strategies.
In summary, here’s how Jill and you benefit from your ambiguous message:
How Jill benefits from your ambiguous messages:
- Reduced suffering from insults
- Given opportunity to choose an interpretation they’re more comfortable with
- Less obligated to meet expectations they don’t want to meet
- Less obligated to make decisions in the moment
- Can use plausible deniability for their benefit
How you benefit from sending ambiguous messages:
- May be given the benefit of the doubt
- Opportunity to deny damaging interpretations
- Opportunity to choose a new interpretation without contradicting your past self
- Less likely to say something hurtful
- Less likely to appear to be overreacting
Expressing your thoughts and feelings to others can be risky. You need to develop a certain level of trust before candidly divulging your thoughts and feelings. And you need to understand them well enough to know what hurtful things you should avoid saying. Without trust and familiarity you’re more likely to accidentally say something that puts you and your conversation partner at risk of harsh psychological pain. Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of committing these blunders by making your messages more ambiguous.
More examples of ambiguous communication in practice
When reading these examples, try imagining what the outcomes of saying the unambiguous and ambiguous messages might be. Then decide which outcome you think is better.
Your new friend from school scheduled your next lunch hangout 3 weeks from today. You want tell her that scheduling a casual hangout so far in advance is suspicious/odd behavior. You don’t want to make her uncomfortable by making her feel obligated to explain something she may not be comfortable talking about.
Friend: “How about June 27th?”
You: “Wow, I’ve never had to whip out my calendar for a lunch appointment”
You’re trying to tell your co-worker that he’s missing out on building relationships with other co-workers by never joining company happy hours. You don’t want to make him feel pressured to attend.
Co-worker: “I don’t think I’ll go this time”
You: “You should at least make an appearance, people are forgetting you work here!”
On their first day on the job, your employee took a lunch break that was 15 minutes too long. You want to tell him that his tardiness isn’t acceptable. At the same time, you don’t want them feeling like they’re in big trouble on their first day.
Employee: [Comes inside the office]
You: “[Look at watch] Let’s get a smaller lunch next time, yeah?”
When not to use ambiguous communication
You shouldn’t have to use ambiguous communication with people who you know and trust. Direct and precise communication is more efficient and exchanging information and grants you more express power. Otherwise you’re at risk of practicing the kind of counter-productive passive communication people frown upon.