Within the last month the following quote by Maya Angelou has been referenced twice in
trainings and meetings.
“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel."
Each time I heard the quote I found myself asking, “Is that true?".
So I decided to outline some of my thoughts on it.
The Charitable Take
I don’t know the circumstances of the original quote. In the most charitable way, I think it could mean
simply, “Don’t sweat being exactly perfect in what you do or say, just try your best treat others right
and they will remember that you did.”
I think this is generally a noble and good take. It is far worse to fail to do anything good because
you were too worried about doing the exact right thing, than to fumble somewhat in the attempt.
Now some might argue that I should leave well enough alone here. Why bicker and quibble over the
meaning, when I have already put forward an interpretation that I agree with? Well I have two reasons.
First, the charitable interpretation is one that I can postulate in the absence of context.
It is good practice to be as generous as possible when you lack context. However, when it comes to the two meetings
that I had at work, such context is not lacking.
Secondly, even when context is or isn’t shared, there are other interpretations of the quote that
ought to be warned against. It is incredibly easy to misunderstand people,
even those whom we think we understand the best. Quotes are often the vectors of bad ideas, regardless
of the original intent. If we are to bandy them about, then it is worth inspecting the
ideas they represent.
The Devil is in the Context
First, lets look at the context surrounding the usage of this quote. In my first meeting, we were having a discussion about
professional communication standards and techniques. The quote was used to illustrate the idea
that we ought to frame our communications to have a positive emotional impact.
This is where I object. When it comes to professional communication,
I have a very pragmatic view: It ought to be clear, concise, and courteous. These
rules extend to many (but not all) other forms of communication. In the end whenever we
communicate, it is because we desire to relay information from ourselves to another. Explicitly targeting
emotions can often bring noise into the message being sent. Furthermore, if all our communications are
crafted to target positive emotions, it will in the long run only desensitize our readers to the positive,
and make them overly sensitive to the negative. It is better to be clear, than positive. It is better to be concise then flowery. It is better to be courteous than fawning.
Will everyone always feel good after such communications? No, but ideally you will be understood.
Ideally, they will remember what you said.
The Second meeting was during an employee all hands. The quote came up in the context of
“cultural” changes that management was seeking. We were going to be “Tough On Ideas” but kind
on people. This one strikes me as a better use of the quote, though still slightly misguided.
I know it hurts to say, but the cause all problems in the world are not
ideas. Being tough on Ideas is good, but sometimes it isn’t the Ideas that are
bad. Sometimes it’s us. When I was in the Army, I used to say “Every Lieutenant deserves to be
yelled at by their commander at least once”. I don’t mean to say that they
deserve to be yelled at merely for being Lieutenants, but that at that stage in
their career, part of their job is to be learning. It is the time for them to
make mistakes, and in awful fashion. Their careers can handle it.
It should be inevitable that they will be yelled at at some point, or else
they aren’t really taking advantage of the time to learn.
No one ought to feel good being reprimanded. It doesn’t feel good to get chastized,
and to be faced with your mistakes. But an organization that refuses to do so doesn’t really have
anyones growth in mind.
Context free objections
My first “philosophical” problem with the quote is, I don’t believe it is true. There are many
things that I remember exactly what had been said to me, both to my benefit and
my detriment. I remember things that people did to me, both to help and to
The next issue I have is with the moral underpinnings that could be taken away from it. That is, It
doesn’t matter what you do or say, as long as you make people feel good. I hope I don’t have to
explain why that is a terrible system of morals.
Finally, I find that life is often like walking through a field of roses. While you walk through
you can smell the beautiful roses, but you also have to endure the pain of the thorns. However
once you are past the field. You can turn around and admire the Roses, without feeling the pain
anymore. There are a lot of things that are worth doing, saying and being, that may not make others
or ourselves feel good in the moment, yet are still important to do.