“Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.” I learned this phrase in an anonymous group, although it may have come from their local tradition. Whatever its origins, it’s been a powerful message in my life. It functions as both a way to check myself and a way to clarify a matter if a conversation partner seems to be skirting an issue in an effort to be “polite.”
In recent years I’ve realized that behaving in what I believed to be a polite manner has often led to deep frustrations and even resentments — especially in long-term relationships. When I ask a round-about question rather than saying what I mean, the other person doesn’t get a fair chance to respond to me. I’m leaving out critical information. For example, I could ask my husband what he’s doing this afternoon, find out that he has plans to help a friend, and politely say, “Okay,” and walk away. Scenarios similar to this happened multiple times throughout our marriage, and many of those times I would walk away feeling lonely, unimportant, invisible — you name it. And I would tell myself it was my husband’s fault for not spending enough time with me and for not knowing that he should.
Employing “say what you mean,” when the situation warrants it, I now try to make my needs clear. I might say, “I’ve missed spending time with you lately, and I hope we can do something together later today.” This clarity also gives the other person a chance to respond to the actual need rather than keeping them in the dark and hoping they’ll read my mind. My husband might now respond that he has plans but maybe he can change them, or that he can’t change his plans, but he’ll make sure to leave tomorrow open to spend together. Here we see that saying what we mean also invites the other person to be honest about their own needs. And as it turns out, no matter the answer, just having the other person respond to the actual need is satisfying.
I also believe that it is more honest to state our intentions and needs clearly than it is to acquiesce to someone else’s plan and then feel frustrated that they didn’t take us into consideration. I submit that it is not polite or nice to be dishonest, and to be honest doesn’t have to mean being brutally honest — “don’t say it mean.” To refer back to the previous example about wanting to spend time with my husband, if I didn’t express my needs over the course of time eventually I would, and it would come out mean, “You never spend time with me. You need to stay home today.” This is clearly the start of an argument where each person must defend their position and it will be difficult to have a satisfying outcome — unless one person stops to say what they mean, nicely.
This technique is not just for long-term relationships, but is highly effective in curtailing stress even during brief encounters. It has alleviated mountains of frustration that I brought on myself (and blamed on other people) over the years. It can be scary not to hide behind what we’ve been taught to believe is politeness. Will the other person be offended, will they think “Who does she think she is?” Maybe they will, and that brings up a topic for another day. Let me just say for now that I’m learning to let people have their own thoughts. As for me, I’m going to continue to try to say what I mean, mean what I say, and don’t say it mean.