My husband complains that I am too focused on reading between the lines when it comes to communications with extended family members. I believe it’s a side effect of my job, but maybe it’s what attracted me to law in the first place. When someone mentions how busy I am, I assume they really mean that I’m too focused on work and not being a good enough mom, wife, sister, daughter, etc. Logically, I know that it’s stupid to create criticisms that no one is speaking, but I also know that I see these same hidden communications in offices everywhere.
For example, if a supervisor says “We really need to get some fresh talent in here,” does that secretly mean that workers over 40 should beware? Or, if a colleague says “I hope you got some rest during all that time off,” when a woman returns from maternity leave, it sounds a little like saying, “I can’t believe you took 12 weeks off!” The list goes on and on.
Are these innocent comments or thinly veiled expressions of bias? The answer is, most likely, “both.”
Communication is complicated and there are historical reasons why we interpret certain communications as secretly negative. We all have the ability to eliminate (or leverage for that matter), the hidden communications in our lives. If there are hidden communications in your office, find a way to make them beneficial to your life or career. How you respond can change the meaning of the entire conversation. You can use humor. You can be direct. You can document the statement for future reference.
Or, if the “hidden meanings” are like the hidden meanings I manufacture on behalf of family members, let them go and move on.