Grey Areas


I’ve always been fascincated with human behavior and how we, as unique individuals have markedly different ways of reacting to situations in our personal lives. For personal reasons, the topic that I ponder over the most tends to be that of grey areas.

I dislike grey areas. Intensely. I would much rather know, with utmost certainity the outcome of a situation than torture myself over possibilities. Not for me the slow, drawn out suspense that can be life. And yes, this is a failing. Due to their prevalence in life, communication and relationships its absolutely essential that I learn to deal with grey areas.

Now, there are two approaches one can take.

The first – simple acceptance. You accept that grey areas will occur and you approach with them on a case by case basis. You make no conscious effort to develop a set of skills to tackle them. In other words, you don’t care. They’re there and there’s nothing you can do to stop that.

Which brings us to the alternative. The route, I’ve chosen to take. Although I realize that grey areas exist, I try, through a variety of methods to mitigate their influence in my life. Some of these methods, while effective, can be quite indiscrimiate. In addition, I’ve chosen to observe, to consciously categorize people’s reactions. Its become habitual for me to dissect a conversation, pulling relevant phrases, expressions, context apart and searching for the subtext (or lack thereof).

Stressful? Yes.
Useful? Depends on your perspective.
Depressing? Very much so, at times.
Interesting? Always.

Why do I do it? I’m not sure when I started, but what I do know, is that its left me better equipped to deal with ambiguous situations – or at least I like to convince myself of that. It also puts some element of control of these grey areas back into my hands. By unearthing the implications in conversations I’m not as shocked or blindsided when bad things invariably happen.

Maybe, in some ways its my safety blanket. After all, the illusion of control does wonders to your morale.

Now, why bring the entire subject of grey areas up? Two days ago, while I was having a conversation, I mentioned that my preferred method of dealing with grey areas was to simply “clarify the situation by asking outright”. Now, as I look back, I realize that I was being less than forthright with that answer. There are many situations in which although I’m confused and would welcome, more than anything, a straight up answer, I won’t ask a clarifying question. Shocking. It’s the embarassment inherent in asking the question itself that puts me off. And that’s where my indiscrimiate methods come into play. I simply assume the worst. No ifs, no buts, I assume the worst and try to move forward. Yes, its indiscriminate, but it probably shields me from a lot of emotional upset. There’s a big difference in receiving the bad news from someone else as opposed to if its self-imposed.

But, as you no doubt guessed, embarassment’s only one of the factors. The other is the unfortunate fact that the solution to clarifying a grey area (asking away) is just as likely to leave you in the same situation as before – i.e. the answers can be just as murky.

When it comes to answers, a few scenarios come to mind. These are:

  • The runaround.
  • The incomplete answer.
  • The non-commital.

The runaround is fairly self explanatory. Whenever some potential for embarassment comes up, a technique that seems to be in common use is to simply…stall. Change the topic, cut the other person off, change your activity, anything that’ll delay a response for as long as possible. The longer you delay, the more likely that the questioning party will leave out of frustration. The disadvantage of this technique is that its purpose is fairly obvious.

The non-commital is slightly more complicated. I often have to be careful when classifying answers as this because I have to take into account the style of the person I’m talking to. I tend to think of non-commital answers as short, highly-factual, to-the-point answers to questions where I’ve generously left room for implication and interpretation. Here’s where your knowledge of the person comes into play – are they simply ignoring it, or are they the sort of person who doesn’t notice these things. It’s a judgement call.

The last method of answering questions in a ‘grey area’ is the hardest to spot and the toughest to decipher. The incomplete answer. For the interrogator, this answer poses a number of very tough problems in that it can deepen the murkiness surrounding a situation. I find it highly ironic that I, who deplore grey areas, often catch myself using this very answer.

That begs the question – why is it used? Probably because it answers, and yet it doesn’t reveal the entire backstory. The interrogator receives an answer that is, on the surface, satisfactory, but when considered in context, is curiously unsatisfying. Indeed, the worst part for the interrogator is to (on the fly) strip the message and decipher its implied meaning, what has not been answered (very important) and more. It can be dicey. For the interrogatee this method of answering can be the ideal one given the circumstances. It allows them to give information without having to explicitly specify it, trusting that the other person will pick up on the nuances.

There’s much more I can say on this subject, yet I am curiously tired and have a suspicion that my little treatise has devolved into a ramble. In addition, I’ve noticed (with some trepidation) that the size of this entry has grown rather unwieldy, so…



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  • I’ve often been the proud user of all three in more than one situation. Whenever you’re in customer services, you have to.

    “Why did the movie stop?”

    “There have been some technical problems (incomplete), that should be resolved as quickly as possible (non-committal… of course it’ll be resolved as quickly as possible), now you can use this time to go purchase something from our candy bar (runaround… how? Get’s them off topic)”

  • Well, so much for my wish to get 6 hours of sleep (read above).

    [laughs]Paul, that’s an extremely inventive example you have there. It’s funny but I never did consider how customer service requires you to use all three techniques.

    Actually, one of the regrets I do have is not taking the opportunity to go into a summer job in retail (salesman). I would have disliked it intensely, yes, but it would have thought me a fair bit about dealing with people.

  • I enjoyed my time at the movie theatre extremely. I love interacting with customers (good and bad) because it helps to improve my interpersonal skills, and professional relations skills. By the time I stopped working there, even a shouting customer could not frazzle me, because I had encountered almost every possible thing. In fact, visit my blog later today, and I think I’ll post some memoirs from my time at the theatre. Like, “Gilligan” or the Alien guy… oh, this’ll be fun to remember :)