In the absence of mind reading

There was a cup of tea and a message not delivered - and a lesson to glean

All of us have quirks. One of mine is to tap on things to refer to them when I'm in a conversation. Like, instead of saying, "Hey, remember to drink your tea," I'd establish eye contact with the person and direct their attention to the cup of tea by tapping on it with my finger. Yo, drink the tea, I'd gesture.

How weird is this? To be honest, I never pondered this until my partner pointed it out to me. So, it's not weird to me.

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"Can't you just speak?" Charlane would ask, slightly annoyed.

"Ya I could," I'd reply. Realising she was annoyed, I pause for a moment to consider why I tapped her teacup instead of opening my mouth.

The first thing that came to my mind, which I blurted, was "But this way is more effective!"

Judging by the look on Charlane's face, I don't think she bought my argument. So here's me presenting what I think is my public defence, whatever that means. Or maybe I'll discover that it's a stupid thing I'm doing and I should stop. Let's see where this takes us...

The 'more effective' argument

I'm a big believer in the importance of clear communications. Of the things that I consistently find difficult to deal with when working with others, unclear communication stands right up there.

Okay, but how is tapping on a teacup a clearer way of communicating "drink your tea" than saying so?

In my mind, I saw the task of communicating "drink your tea" in two parts:

  1. Don't forget that you have tea and you should drink it before it's cold!
  2. Your tea is over there, sitting on the dining table just to your right side, in case you didn't know.

Most things we try to communicate have these two parts. In generic terms:

  1. What's the thing?
  2. Where's the thing?

Right? Right.

So, what happens if what I did was to say, "drink your tea"?

Nick: Hey, remember to drink your tea.

Charlane: Adjusts attention and makes eye contact. Registers what I'm saying. Tea? Oh yeah, you made me some. Right. Where's the thing?

Charlane: Looks for tea.

Nick: Idling, waiting for Charlane to find her tea. Readying to point out where the tea is IF she doesn't find it in a reasonable amount of time.

Nick: Checks and confirms she found it.

Charlane: Sluuuurp.

/end scene

Now, by comparison, what happens if what I did was to point directly at the teacup?

Nick: Establishes eye contact. Turns eyeballs to the teacup and taps it, confirming Charlane saw my finger.

Charlane: Follows eyeballs. Sees tea.

Charlane: Ah, tea. I should drink it!

Charlane: Sluuuuurrrp.

/end scene

Boom! Wasn't that better? I did both things at one go - more effective! I didn't have to sit idling, waiting for Charlane to figure out where said tea was, preparing to point it out if she doesn't what's in front of her. (Let's be honest, this happens so much more than we care to admit)!

I rest my case.

Well, I did until Charlane retorted, "How am I supposed to know what you mean when you tap the thing with your finger? Am I supposed to read your mind?"

We both knew how ridiculous we sounded at this point, talking about something as trivial as how we communicated the reminder to drink our tea. But we press on because we know this is the kind of simple but profound thing that has been keeping our relationship healthy over the last 15+ years.

Anyway, she had a point. Tapping a teacup doesn't always mean "drink it." It could mean several reasonable things, like, Nice, I see you're having tea; where's mine?, or, I wonder what this teacup is made of, let me tap it to hear the sound it makes and make an educated guess, or something else.

Alright, let's pause for a moment here and take a detour. Come on, hurry along!

Communicating online

In the online world that I increasingly inhabit as a software engineer working remotely, I would always include a link to 'The Thing' in my messages to people.

For example, if I'm trying to remind my teammates that a particularly popular JavaScript course is going on sale for the last day today and that we can expense it as part of our professional development fund, I would write that AND include two links: one to the course sale page and another to the internal Wiki page describing our expensing policy.

Whenever people I work with communicate without sharing links, a part of me disappears into a daydream that resembles that panda ad:

Never say no to panda. Haven’t seen these ads? Watch them all on YouTube - it’ll be a fun 2 minute break.

Kidding. I'm not a panda in my daydream! But really, I don't see why you would want 10 people to search for those links themselves after they read your message rather than taking the time to do it once for them and including the links, saving 10 times the effort and time! Panda.

But I digress. Panda. What?

My point of bringing up how I usually communicate online these days is to point out a parallel between my tapping 'The Thing' with sharing links in a message that I've been subconsciously drawing. That's possibly where I've gotten this tapping habit from in the first place!

Alright, let's pop back to the main train of thought about how pointing out the cup of tea doesn't automatically translate to "drink it."

New and improved formulation

So, now what? To take stock of our discussion:

  • I tap the teacup instead of saying "drink tea" because I thought it's a more effective communication style
  • Charlane got slightly annoyed, explaining she can't read my mind to understand what that tap meant
  • I uncover the association I made between links (online) and tapping (offline)

One last bullet point that is missing, I think, deserves to be this:

  • I realise I need to include a message with the link

Right? It seems that in real-life communications I've been omitting the message part and going straight to sharing links. It's like that colleague who would share a link to an article in a Slack channel and not say what that article meant to her or should mean to the group. That's a different kind of poor communication and I need to stop doing this! As George Bernard Shaw said:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

And you know, Charlane is right - she is not expected to read my mind. Why would I need to be reminded of this? I'm usually the one to remind her of this, seeing that I value clear communications so much! Alas, we're all just fallible humans and our partners, if we're lucky enough to find a good one, help us become our ideal selves. It's called the Michelangelo phenomenon, apparently:

The Michelangelo phenomenon is an interpersonal process observed by psychologists in which close, romantic partners influence or 'sculpt' each other. Over time, the Michelangelo effect causes individuals to develop toward what they consider their "ideal selves".

So, my new and improved formula for communicating shall be this:

  • Say the thing (answering What's the thing?)
  • Tap the thing (answering Where's the thing?)

New me would do this...

Nick: Makes eye contact, turns eyeballs to teacup.

Nick: Hey, remember to drink your tea. Taps on the teacup.

Charlane: Follows eyeball movements. Hears tap. Also understands the meaning of the tap because of the spoken words.

Charlane: Oh ya, thanks! Drinks tea. Falls deeper in love.

/end scene


I think that for the average person there are countless scenarios where they think they’ve communicated the thing but really they haven’t! This was just one example that I happen to have written about - there are plenty more examples from my life at home and at work. Is there a recent example from your life? What did you learn?

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