Phil VagueJan 17, 2024–“Are you busy Saturday night?”

This question is the poster child of vagueness.

An informed response requires additional context. If you want me to help you move and to bring my pickup, then yes, I am busy. In fact, I am so busy, beavers and bees will stand back in awe.

On the other hand, if you have arranged a private performance of Cirque du Soleil in my backyard, hosted by Dolly Parton, I might be able to clear my schedule.

Why don’t people tell you what they want, up front?

I came from a family where you asked for what you wanted, and got a yes or no answer.

“Dad, I’m buying a used car, and would like to borrow $1000, which I’ll repay with 5% interest in 6 months.”

The point was to deliver in one sentence all the info the other person needed in order to respond to your request.

I now understand that “being vague” is a strategy used by some in order to get what they want without having to endure the discomfort of asking for it directly. In the “dad/car” scenario, you got your answer, yes or no, then walked away. A savvy manipulator can stretch out the interaction to always obtain the answer they wanted.

“Gee, my daughter’s birthday is coming up and she wants to stay on the Riverwalk. I’ll book a room next week after I get paid.”

Grandma: “Oh, don’t worry about it, I’ll reserve a room there today. It will be my gift.”

The best example of the repercussions of being vague is the “where do you want to go eat” dilemma.

I learned early in my dating experience that there is no such thing as a collaborative decision. Each party wants the other to make the decision, although neither believes that is so. Proof? How many of you ever decided to be chivalrous on a special night and take your partner anywhere they desired?

The minute the words “where do you want to dine this evening” leave your mouth, you have lost the game and can never recover.

That speculation will be met with cold silence. By the end of the evening, you will have settled for Burger King drive-thru, returning home, and sleeping in separate rooms.

This scenario is not fantasy. There is a management study devoted to the social repercussions resulting from this seemingly innocent question. It’s called the Abilene Paradox. A summary is that when a vague and broad question “what do you want to do tonight” is posed to a group, the group’s decision is “counter to the thoughts and feelings of its individual members.” The group will end up doing what no individual really wants to do because they incorrectly believe other individuals in the group wants to do it.

We have all been in that group. Once while in college I ended up at a neighboring town standing in line to see a movie I didn’t want to watch. I had the temerity to announce I didn’t want to see a movie and was leaving. To my surprise, all the other guys felt the same way and we went to a bar, where we had a great time.

You would also be surprised by the prevalence of “institutional vagueness.” You would not believe how common it is for someone wanting you to promote their event to neglect telling you all the details of the event–the Who, What, When, Why, and Where. This is confirmed by any media professional you care to ask.

I recently received a beautiful, full color, scripted invitation for a community event. They neglected to include the date. After someone pointed this out, they hurriedly redesigned the invite. This time they forgot to include the location.

And when I say “location,” I expect them to include the name of the town. Not everyone reading your social feed knows you live in Forsaken Acres, Texas. And note I included the state. You know there are 67 towns in the U.S. named Springfield?

Want to know more? Just ask.