What metamessage are you sending?

When you do something to accomplish your immediate goal, you may also be inadvertently accomplishing something else: telling people who you are. If you cut corners, you are telling them you’re lazy and inconsiderate. And that’s a reputation that will follow you.

This is the metamessage. The message is what you say. The metamessage is what the things you say and do tell people about about you.

For example:

If you ghost someone because you changed your mind about working with them, you are telling the world “I don’t care enough about others to even respond. I am too concerned about the negative feelings that might result.” The message is “We won’t work together.” But the metamessage is “I’m am thoughtless and insensitive, tell your friends.”

If you throw together a quick and sloppy little book and publish it, you may think the message is “I am an author now,” but the metamessage is “I don’t mind having crap associated with my name.”

If you respond instantly to someone who makes a connection on LinkedIn with a sales pitch, your message may be “Let’s be friends,” but your metamessage is “I think of people as targets, not human beings.”

And if you refer someone to a freelancer, and the person you refer behaves badly, your message is “I hope you get some business out of this,” but the metamessage is “I have bad judgment about people.”

Metamessages persist

Messages are often about facts. “I can’t make this meeting,” or “This is my price.” But metamessages are about feelings: “This is how I treat people,” or “This is how I think of you.”

Metamessages last long after messages are forgotten. You won’t forget the way somebody makes you feel.

Inadvertent metamessages often spring from habits. For efficiency, you ignore people’s feelings. You’re too busy for “Thank you.” You abandon relationships when there’s no further prospect of profit from them.

But because metamessages spring from habits, they persist, and they spread. Annoy one person, and they think of you as annoying. Annoy a bunch of people, and you get a widespread reputation for being annoying.

Maybe that’s why you have to work so hard to get anything done. Maybe your efficiency isn’t so efficient after all.

From inside your own skill, it’s hard to get a fix on how people perceive you. Ask somebody you trust. Listen to what they say about the impressions you are creating. Don’t defend yourself; this is about gathering data. Listen.

And next time you decide to cut corners to save yourself time and energy, take ten seconds to think about the metamessage. In the end, it’s worth it to make an effort to behave like the kind of person other people would like to work with.

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  1. Thanks for sharing, there is a valuable lesson here as perception becomes reality and what we say isn’t necessarily what is interpreted by others and how this “tag” can follow you over time.