At the same time my friend was showing a photo to her pregnant clients – and they did see women “in the family way”.
This hosiery confusion was a potent reminder of the sometimes fraught issue of communication in the workplace. Human beings are instinctual pattern makers. We seek to structure the information we perceive around us, to make meaning. Of course when we do this, we do not merely passively process the incoming signals to get a true picture. We have preconceptions, memories, past experiences, prejudices and our current emotions and needs all acting as filters.
Imagine that your smartphone camera was set up to edit automatically every picture you take – so when you first see the result, it has already been cropped to remove the friend you don’t really like, and zoomed in on some favoured feature, and recoloured to make it look sunnier (or more drab). That is kind of what happens when we process information from others.
This is a recipe for miscommunication which is at the heart of so many problems between people in organisations. One person thought they were saying one thing, the receiver got a totally different message.
Some people default to interpreting nearly all messages as threatening – a sign of anxiety or depression. Some (though they are rarer in my experience) are almost genetically incapable of realising that what is being conveyed is actually meant to be negative.
Obviously, words cause the most problems, spoken and written in emails and texts, or even in newspapers. However, my socks have also been loudly broadcasting, and frankly I knew they were, which is why I choose them.
I have also become interested recently in how the body conveys and betrays emotion and trauma. Not only through facial expression, but posture and gesture.
If we look and listen, and try very hard to be aware of our own filters, preoccupations and prejudices, we can see each of us is broadcasting more about ourselves in social interactions than the most narcissistic Instagram influencer.
When communicating with others, putting our best foot forward and looking to our feet can be most insightful.
Jim Bright, FAPS is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright