Dogs That Don't Bark

I once had to end a very nice person's freelance work contract for a role which they were doing quite badly. I wrote them an email that tried to say only things that were both nice and true, such as some version of "we're wanting to move in a different direction" and "you've been a pleasure to work with."

To my surprise, this person wrote back and started arguing with me about whether they could continue doing the work. Among other things, they argued that I had already "admitted" they were doing a good job.

I was flabbergasted. I didn't necessarily expect that, when first reading my email, they would notice I'd said "pleasure to work with" and very much not-said "your work was good" – in some sense, the point of the email was to keep things nice and to let the person feel good about themselves.

What surprised me was that, when they went to re-read the email and cite it back to me, they hadn't then noticed: "oh, this email is generally positive but conspicuously lacking any comment about the actual quality of my actual work, that's a bad sign."

In some ways this is a complement to my previous post about If Not Could Nots. Namely: suppose that other people are saying the nicest true things they can. If there's an obvious nice thing that they would have said if it were true, the fact they didn't say it at-least-implies that it's false.

Other examples abound. One is the famous Sherlock Holmes mystery which he solves based on a dog that didn't bark, but should have:

Gregory: Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
Holmes: To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
Gregory: The dog did nothing in the night-time.
Holmes: That was the curious incident.

Another example is the archetypal vignette of one person saying I love you and the other not-saying I love you too. I think it's interesting that we're culturally well-attuned to this one; most people hear that particular silence quite clearly.

Of course, this is one of those things where you almost-inherently can't notice yourself failing to spot it in real time; at best you can realise belatedly that you were doing it in the past.

The other day, I embarrassed myself in just this way. For a long while, I had been mentioning my friend Alice to (I thought) our mutual friend Bob, and kept failing to notice that Bob never replied to these messages. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, Bob had some unresolved issues with Alice.

If Bob had truly been friends with Alice, presumably when I wrote "I'm just off to see Alice!" or "funnily I'm with Alice right now!" then Bob would have replied "oh fun!" or "tell her I say hi!" So the fact that he just didn't reply to these messages should have clued me in that there was more going on. But in fact, it took me many rounds of this non-conversation before I even noticed the absence of his replies. In a world of noise, it can be hard to pick out the particular silences of all the dogs that don't bark.

Subscribe to Atoms vs Bits

Receive our weekly posts by email