Thursday, December 5, 2013

Indecisively Impolite

Friends B and C are visiting Friend A, and dinner time rolls around. Friend A starts a discussion about what to eat, knowing she has nothing to serve in the house. Has this type of scenario happened to you?

A: "I'm having such a great time, I'm so glad you guys are visiting; how about we get dinner together before you go. What would you like?"

B: "Oh, I don't care, anything is fine."

C: "Me, either. I'll eat anything. I'm really hungry."

A: "I'm hungry, too, so let's make a choice so we can get food faster. Should we go out, or order in?"

C: "Doesn't matter to me."

A: "Didn't you just say you were really hungry? What do you guys think will be faster?"

B: "I have no idea. What do you think? Is there anything either of you would like?"

C: "Yeah, let's just eat."

A: "That's what I want us to do, "just eat." Please, guys, what would you like? There are so many choices: pizza, sushi, and Thai take-out; we could walk to the diner; we could get in the car and go to that place you liked so much last time...have you guys eaten any of these foods lately? Is there something you don't want?

B: "It's your place, A, why don't you decide?"

A: "Okay, sushi."

C: "Really?"

A: "Are you not in the mood for sushi? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE?"

C: "No, that's fine." (averts eyes, crosses arms across chest.)

B: "Sushi is fine if that is what you want." (sighing)

A: "Do we NOT want sushi now, or do we want sushi? Do we want it from another restaurant? Forget it, get in the car, I'm driving us to the place we went last time."

B: "I can't remember if we liked that place or not...hmmm..."


I'm not sure at what point we all decided that the best way to get along in the world when asked our preferences is to say, "Oh, I don't care! Whatever you'd like would be fine."

I get the premise: if you subordinate, then you don't have conflict. If you really don't care much, why should you be the one to assert yourself, right, and "make trouble?" And of course, no one wants to be THAT PERSON, you know, the one who is bossy and mouthy and says exactly what he or she thinks. The one who "always wants to get his/her way."

You know what, though? I want you to be that person, at least when you are making a decision with me. Why, you ask?

1) People always have an opinion; not stating it doesn't mean it isn't there.

2) You cannot possibly meet anyone's needs if you don't know what any of them are.

3) You cannot make compromises, (i.e., "Jim doesn't care much about XYZ, so we'll go with Sara's plan for that, but Sara isn't even going to attend ABC, and that's Jim's favorite, so we'll follow his lead there,") if no one states what they believe, or how important that belief is to them.

4) You will always find out later how disappointed everyone was, often when you can do absolutely nothing to assuage the sentiment.

When trying to make plans, nothing aggravates me more than working to create consensus with a group with seemingly no opinion about anything. I'm annoyed by myself when I find that I'm shying away from asking for what I really want, worried to state what I would like or need in order to ensure I don't upset anyone.

In grad school, we studied the Abilene Paradox, the story of how a family, all wanting to make each other content and not "rock the boat," end up going on a miserable roadtrip in a sweltering car for a yucky meal that none of them enjoys. It is not until after arriving home that each of them realizes that none of them had wanted to do this in the first place; no one stated what their preference was, each choosing to say a variation of "Sounds good," despite the fact that they were all happily playing dominoes when the idea for a roadtrip was pitched, and none of them wanted to leave their pleasant afternoon. When we read this story in class, you could hear laughter and sighing all throughout the room—how many times could each of us describe a moment with family, friends, or coworkers that felt like a hot, dusty ride to and from Abilene that no one really wanted to take.

Have we become so decision-averse or conflict-avoidant that we can no longer state an opinion about something as banal as take-out food without feeling anxious?  And if we can't be honest about the little things, how on earth do we expect to be able to manage the discomfort of our big choices?

So, here's my decisiveness experiment, should you choose to join me: for one week, be honest about what you want/don't want.  Don't be afraid to state those preferences, politely, and see what happens. Be vulnerable, and share what you think and feel.

Don't worry, this won't mean:

1) Being a pest about everything: if you truly don't have a strong preference, and someone else has stated that they do, let people know that you are very flexible, and don't care much about what is decided, but wanted to contribute. Feel free not to fight for anything; just say what you'd like or dislike. See if others chime in once someone has broken the decisiveness ice.

2) Having a fit if you don't get your way: not getting your way is going to be the reality a fair amount of the time; being a jerk isn't any more polite than saying nothing about what you want, then simmering with resentment.

3) Giving up on being kind: honestly, if stating, "I've had pizza twice this week, and I'd really like something a little lighter,"  or "I'd like to go shopping, if others would rather rest, I can go by myself," feels offensive to others, there may be a problematic dynamic in play that has little to do with you, or anything you say or don't say. Being honest and decisive, continually, may set the stage for others to break out of the communication breakdown; if it doesn't, at least more of your own feelings and wishes will be considered.

One final note: as the mom in this household, I think the most tiring thing I have to do all day, everyday, is manage a thousand points of scheduling/decision-making/planning, all at once, all in my brain as a running monologue. At any given moment, I am thinking something like this:

"I've got to get the laundry in right away, because I have to leave early to pick up groceries on the way to school dismissal, and won't have time to run the dryer if I don't start the wash now...I was in the middle of this freelance work when I went to bed last night, so should I finish that first then run the washer?, start the washer now and then work, as EJ needs her ballet outfit clean by tonight—wait, I should find her gym clothes, now, too, so those are ready for Friday?—what should I pick up at the store that I can make quickly after ballet is done?...we had chicken twice this week...Mike prefers the beef from the store further away, will I have time to get that?"


So, when I have the opportunity to make decisions with others, and not have to manage all the choices and contingencies by myself, even if I don't get exactly what I want, I am so happy. Maybe that's the heart of the problem—we are all so mentally taxed with decision-making fatigue, none of us want to take charge when we have the opportunity to let others take the lead. In this way, saying "I don't care, whatever you want!" becomes our default. The problem is that, whenever anyone has to cajole opinions out of a group in order to make simple choices, everyone feels more exhausted, especially the person kind enough to try to move the process along in the first place, knowing a decision must be made. Personally, I can verify that my brain is already full, worn-out, and spinning much of the time, especially during the holidays. The kind thing for you to do for me, I promise, is to tell me what you want, even if you think I won't like it. I can take it. I won't think you are being a jerk, or emotional, or pushy. I will say, "thank you."

If we all just tried to say what we'd like—kindly, respectfully, but honestly—then dealt with whatever discomfort might follow, what could happen? Could we ease the manic brains of millions? Of ourselves? Could we find out that, more cases than not, we can all agree on something that works for everyone, and when we don't, we can find a way to make further compromises on other issues so that each person gets a turn at maximum happiness?

Join me. One week. Say what you want. Really. It is a holiday gift to everyone. Then please share stories of either your past experiences with maddening indecisiveness or current discoveries with newfound outspokenness here, in the comments section, and watch tomorrow for a post on what I don't want for Christmas this year (in the spirit of sharing the truth.)


  1. Thanks Kori. Saying what I want can be very difficult for me sometimes. Like you said, I have opinions about everything. But there are 2 things I hate doing: deciding on what's for dinner, and asking for what I need. Because, medically I'm not doing so hot, I need to ask my family for more than they are used to. I'd sometimes rather lose a leg than ask for help. So I vow to ask for what I need this week, and also tell them they have to decide on what's for dinner. Wish me luck.

  2. This is always a challenge in our house, especially when it comes to food. I have a very picky eater for a husband and I'll try just about anything. After many nights of having my husband not eat what I've made for dinner, I try to have him decide what we are going to be eating because there is nothing more frustrating that planning a week of meals, making the shopping list, doing the shopping, coming home and preparing the meal, only to have someone look at it and basically say, "Eww." So we have gotten to a point where no one ever wants to decide what to have to eat. My husband feels pressured when I ask him what he wants for the week and claims he really doesn't know until the day of the actual meal. Unfortunately, this doesn't work when both of us work full time and two children with busy schedules.

    I am going to try your challenge this week in this situation and others that I may find myself in and will let you know my results. :)

  3. I like how you shared something from your corporate learning and change program (is that what it is called?) and I would love to read more about that.

    I know we have talked about how tough it is to be a habitual leader, and then to have people complain about it later when they were nowhere in sight when it was time for someone to step up and make a plan. I say, if people find themselves in this situation where everyone is being indecisive, they should step up and take the role of leader. Groups are like children -- you can't ask them open-ended questions and expect them to make a good decision. You need to give them options.

    In the scenario you described, the host is not stepping up to her responsibility to lead the group. Friend B and C are perfectly correct to say they're fine with anything when the host asks them such an open-ended question. They are being put in an unfair position, because the hostess has so much more information than they do. Since you are a great hostess, Kori, when we are at your house I know I can count on you to say, "I was thinking of making taco soup, does that sound good?" or "We have a great noodle restaurant in the neighborhood with a short wait," or "Both the sushi and the Mexican are good and they deliver," instead of "What do you want to do about dinner?"

    If I'm at someone's house and they say "What would you like for dinner?" I would say, "Whatever you think is fine." Because how am I to know if the hostess has chicken in the fridge she was defrosting for dinner, or if the sushi place down the block is awful, or if parking in the neighborhood is impossible and takeout is the only practical option?

    When people are out as a group with no host, it's tougher. I think we did a good job taking turns taking the lead when we were on our vacation. I'm sure there were times when people did not get to do their first choice, but I loved it that I could say, "I want to do a ladies' brunch," and make it happen, but then at the zoo, just sit back and let others take charge because honestly I could care less what animal I saw at the zoo.

  4. Carrie, if you type "Abilene Paradox" into google, you'll get a bunch of great applications, particularly some for women in leadership. The (very short) story that is the Abiliene Paradox is on the Wikipedia link I cited, and might be all you need. It is one of those great examples that really explains itself.

    Lack of leadership is a the vacuum where indecision lives, and I agree: if I don't know what the host can offer, I might be quiet. I get nuts when NO ONE will get the ball rolling, then when someone starts, and earnestly wants feedback (read: HELP), everyone thinks they are being super-flexible by saying nothing.

    Also, our vacation was awesome on all accounts, and you are so right; no one really fussed because everyone got what they needed. I also think we were all so darn excited to be there, we were particularly helpful with each other.

    1. Also we are all bad ass bitches who tell people what we want and don't want :-)

      I meant, with my feedback, more that I'd love to hear more of your expertise from your field in general, and I love reading about how an everyday life situation brings up an academic smartypants thing. But I will look up that Abilene Paradox.

  5. My grandmother has the best, best manners about these types of things. I envy her phone manners and her group-decision manners very much. She has a way of SHOWING that she is polite and willing to be flexible without SAYING as much. If she truly doesn't care, she'll say so. If she has an idea, she'll kindly introduce it without too much of a qualifier. If her idea gets nixed, she'll be ok with it. So for example, instead of saying "I like pizza but I really don't care, anything is fine," she'll say "I could go for pizza" and then just maintain a good attitude if someone else's idea carries the day."

    I like this post quite a bit. I am always trying to remember that making preemptive apologies and adding endless qualifiers is not the best way to be polite - in a lot of settings, not just with decision making. It's best to state your perspective plainly and without apologizing (if you have one and when it's called for) but then DEMONSTRATE willingness to ultimately lose the consensus.

    Hard to do though. I usually err to one extreme or the other.

    1. I think I would love meeting your grandmother, and having pizza with her. And I agree: being clear and decisive does not mean being inflexible; I think we all avoid it because it is more vulnerable for people to know what we want, and then to watch us deal with potential disappointment.

  6. UPDATE: I asked for more help around the house, and with the kids. This tends to lead to a fight, hence why I avoid doing it. In the past I have tried asking him to sign up for weekly tasks. I even offered to pay for a house cleaner—he said no.
    I'm paraphrasing here, but I was told that he does help but I will always think it's not enough. Apparently I'm too needy. I am really mulling over his comments, trying to see things from his point of view. My mother says she used to have that same fight for years. Then she just had to accept she was responsible for all the kids and the household and working a full-time job, while trying to maintain her sobriety.

    1. Hill, I'm not sure what your next step is, here, on a lighter note, I can tell you that, when Mike and I went through pre-Cana (Catholic pre-marital counseling), they had us do a Myers-Briggs tests, then went over our preferences together. One thing the Myers-Briggs facilitator said to us was that "each of you will think that you are doing more of the housework than the other, all the time," then he pointed to me and added, "...but it will bother you more."

    2. I am so sorry. I read your challenge and took it off track from indecisive visitors!! But I think you are right. It would be interesting what section he would be in. I can update you further but it's probably best if I did it privately ;-)

  7. This is so true. And I feel like it's even worse in California, where everyone tries to be laid back and nice. I'm so with you...candor cuts through the clutter. Thanks for this SPOT ON post.

    1. Are you telling me this will be WORSE if I move to California? Awh, shucks, I still want to move there. I'll just have to start my own decisiveness movement.

    2. Oh God, people in Cali are total flakes. (Sorry Californians, but come on, you know you are.) I have noticed this problem so much because, well, we almost never go out and if we do it's with people we're so tight with we can all say exactly what we think. But what I KNOW is worse in Cali is how you say, "Let's meet at 4 at Burger King," and they text you while you're standing outside Burger King in the rain at 3:55 and say, "Don't think we're going to make it, sorry, day got crazy."

  8. It took a while to work this out, but I now understand that while I habitually ask my husband about his plans or preferences first because I think that's considerate, he actually feels more burdened by the request to choose or state a preference and would really and truly feel relieved if *I* choose and present him with my plan for him to approve or nix. It took some practice to overcome my reflex here, but now I can say, when we need a game plan for a particular period of time, "What do you say to this: I will make X for dinner. When you get home, I'll need to you supervise Kid for 20 minutes or so to get it cooked. After dinner, how about if you do bath and I'll do jammification/bedtime?" More often than not, he'll say, "Sounds good to me." If there is another consideration for him, like he needs to stay later at work, he'll let me know then. But it is easier for him to raise an objection to all or part of my plan than it is if I ask, "So what are you up for tonight?" and put the burden on him of deciding.

    Seems like that's in keeping with your polite decisiveness idea.

    1. That's brilliant that you were able to figure out how the two of you can communicate best. No easy task, but I think this would work in my house too, so I'll give it a try. I fear I'm burdening him with too much, which could lead to resentment. His way of showing me he objects is to sometimes not say anything, which leads my brain in a million directions.
      But "jammification" has just made my day. Hope you don't mind, but I'm stealing it—with credit.