A Skillful Answer

In an interview on Full Stack Whatever (by the way, one of my favorite podcasts this year), Rachel was talking about her experience working in a startup, where early in her career she was looking for someone to help “carve the path forward”. Maykel the host asked, “Were there any people you worked with that were very good at carving the path forward for you?”. Rachel in response:

I think because it was such a young company, and my manager at the time was also a psychology background rather than a design background, so I think the expectation was for me to carve that forward.

I marveled at this answer when I first heard it. Before explaining why, let’s consider some alternative ways of answering this question.

If it were me, I’d probably just say “Because it was such a young company...I had to carve the path forward by myself.” Notice how there’s a slight negative connotation that paints myself as a victim. The subject was “I”, and I “had to”—unwillingly, being forced to—carve the path forward by myself. I wasn’t sound quite happy about it.

Another way: “Because it was such a young company...there wasn’t a lot of support that help me carve the path forward.” “Wasn’t”!? A negative sentence. The nightmarish negative, a subtle connotation that blames on the absence of support, which includes, if one takes too much liberty to read into it, the coworkers.

To my obtuse ear, a question of “were there any” either yields “yes” or “no”. However, Rachel’s answer has neither. She neither paints herself as a victim nor blames on the situation. The skillfulness of her answer lies in saying “no” without saying “no”.

Rachel first explained her manager’s fault away by introducing their background, and then—wait for it: “The expectation was for me to carve that forward.” My! The subject here: “expectation”. Well, whose expectation? It’s unclear. The expectation of the situation, maybe. The key here is that nothing is directly pointed to. “The expectation” is a nebulous subject, abstract and invisible. What was the expectation, then? Not “I needed to carve that forward”, but “for me to carve that forward”. There isn’t another clause with a people subject (“I”). Instead, the emphasis is on “expectation” all along. No one is blamed, no one is hurt. Phew!

I wasn’t able to put my finger on why I admired Rachel’s answer until this morning, when I revisited the topic of active and passive voice reading Writing Tools. In Politics and English Language, George Orwell describes how passive voice is often used by corrupt leaders to obscure truths and shroud responsibility for their actions. “They say, ‘It must be admitted, now that the report has been reviewed, that mistakes were made,’ rather than, ‘I read the report, and I admit I made a mistake’.” The obscuring of subject is similar in effect in Rachel’s answer, though for very different purposes.

I can see both the reasons for and against such an effort to avoid speaking something negatively and make it sound as neutral as possible, but this is not my concern in this post. There’s also a culture factor at play, I think. If “directness of speech” is a spectrum with the Asian on the most indirect end and the European on the most direct end (over-generalizing here), American is probably somewhere in the middle. In this case, it falls more to the indirect end than I thought.