Essays

Let Your Communication be Yea, Yea; Nay, Nay

Just weeks after my conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I read the following verse in the New Testament:

“But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” Matthew 5:37).

The instant I read it I thought I understood it, and I thought it was so brilliant I underlined the scripture so I could find it again.

To me, the Savior was teaching us two things about communication:

  1. Make your actions consistent with your words, and
  2. Communicate in ways that leave both parties with the same understanding.

1 — Make your actions consistent with your words.

Years ago my wife pressed me to replace the back yard with fresh grass. Honestly, I had zero interest in the project, but I could tell it was important to her, which meant I had a problem — and the problem had nothing to do with my wife. My problem was strictly internal: I had to find a way to get myself to a point where I knew I could act in a way that would be congruent with the answer I wanted to give her.

What I definitely did NOT want to do was let my communication be “Yea, nay.” In other words, I did not want to tell her yes, then do nothing about it.

Of course, the first “Yea” is relatively easy; it’s not that hard to tell people what they want to hear. It’s the second, “Yea” that is hard, and in this case that second yea included:

  • Taking days off from what I would rather be doing
  • Driving my pickup truck on repeated trips to a place that sold pre-cut grass squares
  • Hauling these awkward, heavy squares of grass around to the back of the house
  • Placing and cutting the squares of grass to fit our lot
  • Making in-ground sprinklers work with the new grass
  • Paying for the whole thing
  • Being genuinely cheerful through it all so the project would be somewhat fun and not a downer for the family

Notice that “always and forever mow the new back lawn” was not on that list. My wife, in her efforts to persuade me to do the project, promised that SHE would mow the back lawn and that I would never have to do it.

When the project was finished, my wife, kids and I were dirty and sore (especially our hands, backs and knees), but we were quite pleased with our new back yard. The very night we finished the back lawn project we had dinner on our new back lawn.

Life somehow tastes better when you’ve worked very hard to earn its fruits.

What about when our communication is not yea/yea? Is it really that bad? Is yea/nay communication really worthy of the label “evil” that the Savior gave it?

Hypothetically speaking…

Let’s say one Saturday I told my wife, “I went ahead and did the back lawn for you after I finished the front lawn, so you don’t have to worry about it this week.”

(By the way, I almost always do the back lawn for her, so this isn’t really that hypothetical a situation).

My wife could say:

Yea, yea:

She could say, “Thank you!” then go and do the other things on her task list.

Nay, nay:

She could say, “I don’t believe it!” then go to the back window to see if the lawn is mowed.

In both of those scenarios, her actions would be congruent with her words.

However, if she were to say,

Yea, nay:

“Thank you!” then walk to the back window to see if I really did mow the lawn…

… this communication would be “Yea, nay.”

Whether innocent or deliberate, “yea/nay” communication is devastating to relationships. In stealthy yet  clear terms, yea/nay says, I’m not going to come right out and tell you this, but I don’t trust you.

2 — Communicate in ways that leave both parties with the same understanding.

Years ago I got a phone call from my boss, the COO of our organization. “Tom, could you please come to my office? I need a quick favor.”

I need to mention that at this time I was the CTO (chief technology officer) of the organization, otherwise the rest of the story won’t make sense.

I hurried down to his office and saw him on the phone. He motioned me in, pressed mute and said, “I’m sick of this jerk thinking he is so much smarter than me. Listen to the conversation for awhile and when you see an opening, cut in and bury the jerk with as much technical jargon as you can possibly come up with.”

I laughed out loud and he laughed with me. Then I dutifully obliged him and went back to my normal duties.

We computer people are infamous for having our own “geek speak,” a way of talking that those who aren’t fellow geeks struggle to understand. What is odd about this is that many geeks are proud of it. It is as if having a nomenclature of our own makes us members of an elite club or something.

However, the “ability” to speak and not have others understand is nothing to be proud of.

If you are saying, “Yea,” your listeners need to be hearing “yea” as well, otherwise you are wasting everyone’s time, and worse, you may be creating problems you will have to sort out later.

My wife is a quilter. I am not, although over time I have been slowly learning to speak Quiltish. This has proven to be an important part of our marriage.

For example, my wife and I like to watch movies on television cuddled up under a quilt together. When we aren’t doing that, then we tend to work on separate projects until it’s time for scriptures and bed. If I were to ask her her plans for the evening, that conversation would typically go something like this:

Me: “Love, what are your plans for tonight? Do you want to watch a movie together?”

Her: I have 2 more rows to go, then I’ll be ready for binding.”

There was a time where I would say to myself, “I know she thinks she just answered my question, but haven’t the slightest idea what she just said.”

For those of you who don’t yet speak quiltish, let me translate for you.

“I have two more rows to go,” means “in about 40 minutes.”

“Then I’ll be ready for binding,” means “then I’ll be at a point where I can watch a movie as I bind the edges of this quilt.”

I confess that for a time I used to just wish she would talk to me in English, but then I realized that this woman knows an astonishing amount of geek speak. She can explain to any computer nerd the advantages of pure functional programming over object-oriented or imperative programming, and could tell you the pros and cons of JavaScript and how TypeScript is better…

Considering all she’s sat through with me, it doesn’t it seem petty of me to ask her not to speak so much Quiltish?

Part of loving someone is realizing that, if it is important to them, it is important to you.

Of course, ideally we should try to speak starting from our listeners’ point of view, however the reality is we are just guessing at their point of view because we are not them. On the other hand, the more we try to learn their way of speaking (and seeing the world), the more able we are able to make our messages clearer to them. What is more, our efforts to understand others on their terms allows us to occasionally decode what they are saying to us when the message may not be immediately clear.

State of Thoughtless Stupor

One of my favorite stories about yea/yea nay/nay communication is found in the Book of Mormon: Alma chapters 60 and 61.

Chapter 60 is a letter from Moroni to the Chief Judge over All the Land: Pahoran. In essence, Moroni rebuked Pahoran because Moroni thought the actions of the government was not living up to its words. You’ve got to love how Moroni said it too: “Can you think to sit upon your thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor, while your enemies are spreading the work of death around you?” (Alma 60:7, emphasis added).

Keep in mind that Moroni wasn’t just some whiner who was always finding fault with others. To the contrary, Moroni “was a man of perfect understanding” (Alma 48:11). In fact, “if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.”

But apparently even a man of perfect understanding can still sometimes misunderstand. Pahoran wrote back and explained how he was in exile thanks to a powerful insurrection and rebellion against the government, then asked Moroni for military aid. Pahoran was also generous with Moroni’s misdirected rebuke, telling Moroni, “I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul” (Alma 61:2), and “in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart.” (Alma 61:9).

I say that were it not for a lifetime of yea/yea, nay/nay communication on the part of Moroni, Pahoran would never have trusted Moroni enough to ask for troops. Instead, Pahoran would have wanted an angry and powerful Moroni, and his many armed soldiers, far from him.

In conclusion…

It has often been said that, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” And it has been my experience that when we fail to actively communicate, that vacuum nearly always gets filled with something dark and insidious. Sadly, when people let themselves slide into a “state of thoughtless stupor” about their relationships, and fail to communicate, some relationships never recover from the misunderstandings it created.

In fact, the truth is that we are always communicating, it is just a matter of what we are communicating and how well we are doing it. Therefore, let us be careful in our communication to always let it be, “Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” Matthew 5:37).