If you had to choose, absolutely required to make a choice, would you rather be held to always saying what you mean or meaning what you say. Conversely, if you knew that everyone you speak with can commit to only saying what they mean or meaning what they say, which conversation partner would you stick with. We’re not sure there is a right answer among all those choices. So not sure that we even cannot say that you must find your own right answer. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say is a pair that is as inseparable as the blades on a pair of scissors.
Saying and meaning what you mean and say are hallmarks to communication, most importantly now when word choice is so very important. Why now are words any more important than any other time? Because we communicate so seldom with anything but words. Think of how often you use any of the following to convey a message. Text, email, social media post, social media direct message, cellphone memo app, or electronic (or actual) notepad or whiteboard. What do all those forms of communication have in common? They transmit only words. Not tone of voice, not expressions, not gestures. Nothing but words. No nuances but whatever the reader wants to ascribe to them.
As speakers as well as writers, we recognize how much of our communication is not just words strung together. Words alone are not an effective means of communication. Communicating includes tone, movement, gestures, and pace to get the point across. Speakers are not alone in using non-verbal skills. Listeners use their eyes often as much as their ears to grasp the message. When you lose the visual and auditory cues to a message, the messenger has only words and context to get the point across.
In general, there are four types of communication – to motivate, to command or direct, to entertain, and to facilitate or educate. These different methods rely on how one presents the words, movement, gestures, and pace. All that non-word stuff is lost in a text message or email. Only the words remain. This is where context and word choice are important. “Empty the dishwasher,” can be motivating (you can do, you’re getting older and can help now), commanding (would it kill you to empty the dishwasher), entertaining (what did the dishes say to the human after their shower), or educating (and that is the last step to cleaning the kitchen at the end of the day). In the spoken message, the tone alone may be enough to narrow which of the four messages is the speaker’s intent. In writing, “Empty the dishwasher,” may need more words to go with it to convey the true intent.
Whether in writing or in speech there are other reasons why it’s always important to say what you mean and mean what you say. Not saying what you mean makes a lot of assumptions and places the onus for understanding on the listener. A classic example is found in the old joke, “I asked my wife what’s wrong and she said, ‘oh nothing’ so I knew right away I did something.” Trite and sexist for sure, but therein is a kernel of truth. We all know people who will not say something is bothering them, and we also know people whom nothing bothers. Neither is an effective communicator and both lead to resentment and distrust. Not meaning what you say opens the listener to having to guess what the intents are. The worst words one can say they do not mean are those of endorsement when the speaker knows the listener doesn’t understand or isn’t being correct about something. In this case encouragement would be the more appropriate response even if it means upsetting or offending the listener that they think you don’t believe they are not good enough.
What about from the listeners’ or readers’ points of view? Is it more important to know that someone says what one means or means what one says? That’s an easy question to answer. Both! Those who say what they mean will always tell the truth. Those who mean what they say will always be sincere. Remember this as a speaker/writer also.
Not saying what you mean, assuming the person receiving the message will understand what you mean, is an invitation to miscommunications. Not meaning what you say (or write) is an invitation to misunderstandings. Those are two invitations you would be best not making.