This happened at the New Delhi railway station. I was waiting to board the train for my return journey to Hyderabad. My uncle, who had come to see me off, and I were standing at the platform chatting & waiting for the train to begin it’s journey.
All of a sudden my uncle walked away from me, towards a group of railway attendants standing near the AC compartment. He bent down, picked up something, put whatever he had picked up in his pocket and walked back. I was intrigued. When he came back to where I was standing, I asked him what had just happened.
He told me that he had seen one of the attendants throw a chocolate wrapper on the platform (and not in the dustbin). He was upset that in spite of being railway employees (AC compartment attendants), they were littering the station. He wanted them to feel guilty and that is why he just went and picked up the wrapper.
I looked at the group of attendants and saw them looking at my uncle and talking, hopefully feeling guilty for what they had done. I felt proud of my uncle. It was great that he had chosen to do something, rather than just watch.
The train whistle blew, I bid goodbye to my uncle and boarded the train. A few minutes later as I settled into my seat, one of the attendants from the earlier group walked by, and then looked at me and stopped. I was surprised by what he asked me.
“Sir, the man who was with you, why did he pick up the chocolate wrapper?” He had obviously not gotten the message my uncle had hoped to communicate through his actions. I responded to the question, telling the attendant that he should not be littering, and that is why my uncle had picked up the chocolate wrapper that one of them had carelessly thrown on the platform. I was not prepared for what he said next. “Oh! Is that so! We thought there was some offer on the wrapper, you know something like where you exchange a number of wrappers for a prize, and that is why the man had picked it up.”
Not only did he not get the message, he had gotten it completely wrong. And had he not had this conversation with me, he would have forever believed that an old man had picked up a chocolate wrapper he had discarded for some random prize.
While this incident had taken place years ago, I am reminded of it every now and then when I come across instances when professionals expect their supervisors, colleagues, subordinates, and even clients to understand the (non-verbal) cues they give out, even though no words are exchanged. They don’t realize that the chances of miscommunication are exponentially high when they rely on non-verbals only to communicate. The best of actions (backed by the most virtuous of intents) may be perceived differently by the other person in a lot of these cases.
While actions may speak louder than words, let us not forget that action, backed by words, speaks the loudest.