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“I Know I Shouldn’t, But . . .”

A couple of weeks ago, my niece Denise was in the hospital with a serious liver problem and complications. A nurse walked into her room and found Denise crying. It seems that several doctors had been standing outside Denise’s hospital room, talking softly. Phrases Denise overheard included "Done all we could" and "Nothing else we can do for her." Thus Denise’s tears.

The doctors were talking about a different patient down the hall. Because they were out of earshot of that patient’s room, they thought they could get by with whispering in the corridor rather than walking to a staff lounge to talk about the patient’s condition.

They knew better, but they still whispered in the hallway. And their behavior hurt someone.

It’s the same in writing. We often know better, yet we ignore our better judgment. If we are lucky, nothing bad happens, but often it does. 

We send an angry email when we know we should let time pass and either talk to the other person or craft an unemotional message. That angry email causes another one and another until the situation careens out of control.

We put in writing something we know we should say in person. The reader takes the written message the wrong way, and a working relationship turns sour.

We take the easy way out when we know we should edit a wordy memo introducing a new policy. Because of the unedited memo’s length and thickness, no one reads it. That important new policy might as well be locked in a secret vault. 

We write a silly remark about padding a client’s bill, hoping it will be read as a joke. But the auditor and eventually the newspaper reporter don’t see it that way.   

In all these situations, we know better. We just need to listen to that still, small voice that says "I know I shouldn’t." And then we need to add "so I won’t."

As for the doctors on Denise’s hospital floor, the nurse chewed them out good. Then a hospital administrator came to talk with Denise about whether she wanted to file a complaint. Always a cheerful, gentle woman, she said no. She was discharged from the hospital and looked brightly ahead to a possible liver transplant.

Sadly, Denise died today at the age of 40. This reminder to do the right thing is in her memory.

Syntax Training   

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

6 comments on ““I Know I Shouldn’t, But . . .””

  • Lynn,
    I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your niece. Condolences to you and your family.

    Such a shame that any additional stress was inflicted on your niece by carelessness. It does reinforce how important each action we take can be. Unintentional consequences seem to be a common way we hurt each other. Thanks for reminding us.

  • Christine, thank you for reaching out with your comment. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. It brightened my day!

  • My condolences to you and your family as well Lynn. So sorry to hear about your niece, but what a lovely story to leave behind to show her graciousness. She sounds like she was a wonderful woman.

  • Patricia, thank you for your kind words. For me, her death also goaded me to be kind and gracious NOW, not just when I have time for it. Thanks for modeling that behavior!

  • Lynn, let me add my condolence to these posted online. How brave of you, to use this time of personal loss to help us remember a way to add light instead of darkness to our world. Thank you for your graciousness and wisdom.

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