Unintended Messages

This past week, my youngest brother and I had a fairly honest and direct conversation.  It was a couple days after my mom pissed me off with her phone call, and he had called.

Talk started turning to the family, and I had made a few comments that made him pause and ask what was going on.  So, being the blunt person I am, I told him.  And in telling him, I realized my general frustration with people – the fact they don’t realize the message they are sending, thereby damaging a relationship.

For example, my other brother and I have been close. We used to be really close in fact – not only in age, but also in how we supported each other. We respected each other’s opinions and paths. But, then, the relationship changed.  The message I was getting from him pretty loud and clear is “don’t call me, I’ll call you.” When I would reach out to see how he was doing, the response was “why are you calling?”  And, most recently, he has disappeared from my life.  Seems to have coincided with the fact Derek moved in thus making there no room in our house for overnight visitors.  Since that day, I have not heard from him once. Not a call. Not an email. Not even a Facebook note or comment.  The message he’s sent to me: if the hotel is closed, I’m not important enough to maintain an active relationship with.

Or my parents. They had a crisis the past week involving money. They called everyone. Except me. They know the bank is closed. My youngest brother said that it shouldn’t be an excuse for them excluding me from the crisis – but that they were likely trying to keep me from doing something. But, as I pointed out, the message they sent: if the bank is closed, then I’m not part of the family during crisis.

I asked my brother what message he sends me. I mean, I don’t usually hear from him unless he needs something.  He was silent. He had no explanation or response. So, I continued. And, I gave him other, non-family examples of where I’ve experienced this phenomenon. 

A friend who I would only hear from during a crisis or when a problem needed to be solved.

A friend who I only hear from when there is a computer problem or a technology one.

A friend who I only hear from when an ear is needed.

In all of these cases, the reciprocal is not held true.

My brother, to his credit, actually had a “holy shit” moment.  A moment, in fact, where he was going to actually go yell at my other brother and my parents.  I told him not to do it. I would handle them just like I had with him.

What is funny about the time that has past since the talk – I’ve heard from my brother two more times. He has called just to see how I was doing. No other reason really.  Clearly, he internalized the message.

So, I ask my readers – what message do you send those people in your life – friends and family? Are you inadvertently sending a message you do not mean to send? Are you okay with that message you are sending?

I guess I ask this question because life is so freaking short to lose people from your life through your own missteps. I have to ask myself these questions periodically, thus my reason for asking them aloud.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Dana says:

    Hmmmm …

    This is quite the thought provoking post on many levels. My first response was somewhat defensive as in “When did it become my responsibility for how others interpret the message?” And to an extent, I think there is middle ground in there. Let me give an example.

    Last week, at church youth group (of all places) Cam was sent out of his small group for being disrespectful and disruptive. It was a difficult moment for me as I volunteer during the youth ministry. I was EXTREMELY embarrassed. One of the other volunteers said to me, “He doesn’t go to [NAME OF SCHOOL] does he? Keep him away from my son!” She said this with a smile on her face and in jest, but the message to me (based on recent events) was “Keep your “bad” kid away from my “good” kid.”

    How much responsibility is hers for the message she sent, and mine for the way I interpreted it?

    I think it’s often difficult to “guess” how someone will interpret an unintended message. We don’t know what is going on in their life and how something “insignificant” might just be really big to them.

    I would say that it is *my* responsibility to communicate the message I am receiving (as you did with your brother) if I am getting a negative vibe. I would also say that we can all choose our words a little more carefully, thinking about what we say (and how we’ll say it) prior to allowing the words to escape our lips.

    Great post Emmy!

  2. Sexy PTA Mom says:

    I have experienced this with my own brother. It seems like he heard you, though, and I’m glad. Open communication is best, when you can, and you did a great job!

  3. I admire your “balls”. Sometimes it’s difficult to be so honest with family.

  4. I don’t think it’s inadvertant on my end. I think anyway, that I’m pretty advertant about expressing my joy or displeasure with people in my life. For my family anyway, I’m the LAST one they call in a crisis, and I’m okay with that. Most of their crisises are BS anyway.

    Damn! I AM cold! In my defense, i’malso the one in my circle of friends who keeps the circle together via phone calls, planned events etc. But my friends are far less annoying than my older sisters.

  5. Just me... says:

    Great talk with your ‘little’ brother and I’m glad he took it to heart.. Would suggest a similar one with the older brother.
    The parents, well.. That is the tricky one. No matter what you do, you’re still their little girl (even if you save the day often)… Good Luck!!

  6. You make a very good point. Most people *don’t* realize the message that they are sending other people. In fact, it’s one of the questions that i ask my clients the most. “What message does that send [person] when you do [behavior]?”

    We often don’t realize that our actions send messages to others and are interpreted by them in certain ways. It may not be our intended message, and that is where/when a problem comes in.

    Why is it that people keep treating you a certain way? Why is it that multiple people react in similar ways to you? Well, what messages are you sending to them that causes them to do so?

  7. Dana,

    Your example was one that was a little more clear cut of a “message” than what I think Emmy was referring to. Here’s another example, one that may not be so obvious as to the messages being sent:

    I have a crush on this guy. We hooked up a few times, but he only calls me at midnight or later to hang out. Never at normal times. I always go, because I want to hang out with him but I’m upset that he only calls me late at night, and so I’ve told him this. He apologizes and says that he will start calling me at a normal hour. He never does, though, and calls me again, at midnight. I go over, though I’m still upset that he didn’t listen.

    Okay, well WHY is he only calling me late at night? I TOLD him I didn’t want him to do that! My message was clear: don’t just call me when you want to fuck. Yet he’s still doing it! Why??

    Well, my verbal message said one thing, but my nonverbal message said another. He’s continuing to call me when he wants to fuck becuase he knows that he can. I’m letting him by continuing to go over there.

    So in this case, the unintended message I’m sending is that it’s okay for him to treat me like a fuck buddy because I’ll continue to act like one and come over any time he calls.

    And chances are, I’ve done this before, with other guys I’ve liked. So I think that I’m going over because I like them and I’m showing them I want to hang out, but what I’m really showing them is that they can fuck me whenever they want without putting any effort in.

    Just like Emmy’s parents didn’t call her for money because they knew she didn’t have any, but to Emmy, the message being sent was that now that she can’t give them money, she doesn’t deserve to know about family crises.

    Make sense?

  8. Secretia says:

    Family money issues tear families up, be careful.

  9. Vixen says:

    Excellent topic.

    I actually think about this quite often. How what I say or what I don’t say…. is coming across to someone else. It’s often someone’s actions that speak louder than their words.

    Good for you for being so upfront with your brother.

  10. Hmmm, I’ve never really thought about this before. I’d like to think that the messages I give out are mostly positive but now I’m gonna have to go back and think about it!

    I’m glad things are getting sorted with your younger brother – family problems can be almost too much to handle sometimes but you sound like you’re making steps forward – good luck with that!!

    —Amy xxxx

  11. Dana says:


    I understand the concept, I just think both the person giving the message as well as the person receiving the message has a responsibility for making the message clear.

  12. Ms Scarlett says:

    What a great post, Emmy! I think the message we send with our actions is something a lot of us don’t really think about as much as we should.

  13. garbonzo says:

    To quote the great Dr. Funkenstein himself, “If you don’t like the effect, don’t produce the cause.”

    Maybe we all should look at what causes we are producing.

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