On being ... unspoken

By Ingrid Sapona

The word “innuendo” is lyrical sounding to me. Maybe it’s the meter – four sing-songy syllables: inn-u-en-do. Or maybe I like it because it sounds like it has something to do with music – it rhymes with crescendo, after all. But, for all the charm the word holds to my ears, I’ve become very wary whenever I hear something that smacks of innuendo. In fact, I’m on a campaign to raise awareness of the insidious nature of innuendo.

The easiest way for me to explain my concern is to give an example of how innuendo came up in a situation I was involved in recently. (Of course, just as I change the names of friends I mention in On being…, I’ve altered a few facts to ensure anonymity in this matter.) I’m on a committee that’s charged with choosing a service provider on behalf of an organization. The committee has narrowed the choice to two service providers – I’ll call them A and B. Some committee members are familiar with A’s work and some are familiar with B’s work. As is always the case, there are pluses, minuses, and unknowns related to both choices. 

I believe the committee members are all well intentioned and have the best interests of the organization at heart. Because we were entrusted by the organization with the task of finding and hiring a service provider, we all agreed that the ability to speak openly and candidly was important. In the process of narrowing the choice, the discussions were just that.

Eventually we narrowed the choice to the two and asked A and B to present their qualifications to the committee. They both did so, providing us with written information and meeting with us in person. After the presentations, we met to discuss the candidates.

I don’t mind admitting I was surprised at how very differently some committee members saw the candidates’ credentials from how I saw them. This was especially true when it came to assessing the written information. For example, at one point a committee member (Francis) said it was obvious Candidate B was not qualified. I couldn’t believe the statement, as there were numerous items in Candidate B’s written submission that showed that B had the requisite experience. It was almost as though we were looking at different documents.

I then pointed out some specific examples of B’s experiences, but Francis insisted that just because B had done those things it didn’t mean B was qualified. Interesting conclusion, I thought, but I felt that by at least drawing their attention to B’s experiences, other committee members would be in a better position to weigh for themselves the facts versus Francis’ conclusion.      

Eventually the discussion moved from examples of each candidate’s demonstrable skills to a discussion of interactions various committee members have had with one or the other candidates. In other words, to personal impressions people have of the candidates. While I think it’s perfectly appropriate for the committee to consider intangible opinions about the candidates’ personalities with a view toward considering how they’ll get along with members of the organization and how effective they’ll be, I think we also have a duty to attempt to explore the validity of these impressions – as they are just that: impressions.

As you probably guessed, it was during this phase of the discussion that innuendo reared its ugly head. First was Terry’s comment that she had a “concern” about Candidate A. On hearing this, Chris piped up with, “me too”. Uncomfortable with the vagueness of Terry’s comment, I asked her to explain the nature of her concern. Rather surprised to be asked such a direct question, she hesitated and said she heard of a situation where someone asked A to do something and A didn’t do it.

Then Chris obliquely said, “I had a similar experience”. Looks of concern flashed across different committee members’ faces. Then the committee chair said, “well, if two people are concerned, that’s concerning to me”. Neither Terry nor Chris gave details regarding what A had been asked to do. Even assuming the allegations of A’s failure to act were true, without any specifics, there was no way of telling if the requests were reasonable, or whether there might have been a simple reason Candidate A didn’t do it. Furthermore, when we were interviewing the candidates, neither Terry nor Chris asked A anything that would have given A the opportunity to explain or even respond to these alleged concerns.

As I mentioned, I do think it was appropriate for everyone to freely voice their opinions and for committee members to take these opinions into account as they cast their ballot, but when folks use innuendo to imply that their opinion is based on something real that they aren’t telling you, my suspicions are raised. When someone uses innuendo, I think they’re trying to sway others by implying there’s something substantive behind their opinion. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t – without specifics, how can you tell?

What people say about others can be harmful, but when something is spoken, at least it can be countered. Innuendo, by its nature, can have power beyond words and for this reason I think it’s important to guard against using it and against letting others get away with it.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


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