My mother loves cryptic crosswords, so when I was reading New Statesmen recently, I came across its contribution compiled by the intriguingly named “Anorak” I thought I’d give it a try. After looking at for about half an hour with little or no understanding of what on earth was expected, I called my mother for a quick lesson. Now, anybody who knows anything about the mysteries of cryptic crosswords will know there is no such thing, it seems that, whilst there are certain traditions and rules, there is no substitute for experience when looking for the hidden messages in the clues.
This got me thinking about the hidden messages in our communications with each other.  Some may be familiar with the well trodden path of Mehrabian’s research which, when simplified, posits that more than 90% of communication is delivered by facial expression and tone of voice with only 7% by the actual words. And yet, we persist in using text, email and Slack (a new fad in office comms) – is it any wonder there are breakdowns in business relationships and misunderstandings of intent? Even using the phone you’re still getting less than 50% of message if Mehrabian is correct.

 Newspaper, News, Media, Spectacles, Glasses, Paper

So what do we do? Email, text et al is the lifeblood of the workplace today, after all, if we have to walk to someone’s office just to ensure we’re not misunderstood, it’s not a great use of time and anyway, their office might be in Edinburgh and you’re in Penzance!


As HR professionals it’s important to consider this when delivering information to the workforce. Due consideration to the possibility of being misinterpreted thus giving rise to unintentional employee disquiet could well result in unintended consequences. A very simple example of this is one senior HR person who dropped a note to a junior colleague reading “You were late today – want to tell me why?” Take a moment to say those words to yourself in a variety of tones and the results range from challenging (I demand an explanation) to concern (I am worried about you but don’t want to pry). The difficulty is, the intention (in this instance positive) easily gives the wrong idea if the recipient puts a different “tone” to it. Hence the sender has no control.
There is no magic formula I can offer other than if the message you wish to give is significant, think about how the recipient might “hear” it and word it appropriately or better still – give them a call!
Hunting for the hidden hints in crossword clues is one thing but do we really want to have others guessing what they think we mean?