“Some day your mouth is going to get you in trouble,” my mother would say. This wasn’t such a difficult prediction given the number of times I brought home a report card from elementary school with a check mark next to the words: “does not exercise self-control.” That was Catholic school code for “doesn’t know when to stop talking.”
The nuns were just agreeing with what a school psychologist had told my parents earlier. “Julie’s mouth and brain don’t operate at the same speed.” This led to talking without filtering, speed talking, and non-stop talking. And to check marks and verbal gaffes. Gaffes that could have been avoided if I had just known my audience
Understanding whom you are talking to is the key to effective communication. Talking without understanding often leads to unintended consequences.
If I had known my manager at one of my first jobs, for example, I would not have confronted him after he reprimanded me like a drill sergeant in front of a row of administrative assistants.
I understood that he was upset. I understood that there was a check mark next to my name for “did not meet deadline.” But if I had understood his management style, I would have known that ignoring his outburst versus asking him to not talk to me like that was the key to keeping one’s job.
If I had understood the makeup of a typical comedy club audience I would have never entered the contest to find Jay Leno’s sidekick when he took over the Tonight Show in 1992. I headed to my hometown, Dayton, Ohio to perform a two-minute stand up routine. Mind you, I wasn’t a stand-up. I had studied and performed improvisation sketch comedy. I gave 20-minute talks as a business humorist. I was just a marketing consultant looking for a creative outlet.
I whittled down my material, donned my red power suit, and froze when I entered the club. I was not like this hometown audience. This audience did not work in corporate cubicles or talk corporate speak.
This audience laughed till they cried and ordered another beer throughout the stand-up routine before mine – which was filled with tales of working for the man, men behaving badly, and scatological asides.
This audience did not smile when I performed. Thankfully, they didn’t laugh me off the stage. Thankfully, I still had my day job.
Just two weeks ago I accompanied Husband to the Principality of Liechtenstein for official diplomatic business. Husband is the Honorary Consul of Liechtenstein to the Midwest, and I his unofficial chief of staff. Our program included meeting the Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, which I was excited about, until it came to packing. What do you wear when meeting a prince?
On the first day of our visit, a young diplomatic officer met our group at breakfast and accompanied us to the Prince’s castle for Liechtenstein’s National Day ceremonies. The young diplomat sat next to me on the bus and I asked him how to spell his first name.
“U-l-r-i-c-h,” he replied and then asked about my family and work back in the States.
“I’m a former advertising executive,” I said. “Currently I teach on the university level and I’m a freelance writer/blogger.”
“What do you write in your blog?”
“I write personal essays and cultural commentary for women of a certain age who are reinventing themselves. Going through transitions.”
“I imagine there is much to write.”
We talked easily about my writing, my teaching, and my impressions of Liechtenstein.
If I had known my audience I would never have told Ulrich that the title of my last blog post was: What to Wear When Meeting a Prince”
‘Well, I can imagine that might be difficult to determine,” Ulrich, the diplomat said.
“It is. I’ve never met a prince before. I don’t know anyone who had met a prince before. I want to be appropriate”
I proceeded to give him a synopsis of the endless options listed in my blog:
Formal or semi-formal, long or short, pants or skirt, cocktail, business or business casual, and so on. I did not share my quandary about whether or not to wear pantyhose.
“Later this week I’ll be posting about what I wore when I meet the prince.”
“I will read your blog. Perhaps you will write and tell your friends that you have already met a prince,” Ulrich said, and smiled, and bowed with his head.
And I remembered that when he introduced himself at breakfast I thought he called himself Something Something Liechtenstein, but I thought that can’t be right and let it go and focused on the pronunciation of his first name. Ulrich.
“You. You’re a prince. Of course, you said Ulrich Liechtenstein. Are you a cousin? Oh, I am so embarrassed. Have I hurt Husband’s appointment?” I stammered along until I just had to ask: “Well – what do you think – how am I dressed to meet a prince?”
“Quite fine,” Ulrich, the Prince said.
“You’ll learn your lesson one day,” my mother would say. The best connections are made when you know your audience. Whether it is one person or a group. However, some of the best consequences happen serendipitously when you are just truly yourself.