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Mind your Ps and Qs

My New Year’s resolutions take the usual form of promising to go to the gym, or to watch what I eat, or to be ridiculously positive in my outlook on life. But, for this new year I’m planning on another form of mindfulness -  minding my Ps and Qs.

Mind your Ps and Qs is an old expression in English that means to mind your manners, or to be on your best behaviour in the company of other people. And it’s usually thought of as a reminder to be careful with the way you speak.


So, if for example your auntie was heading off to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen (the lady, not the rock band), someone might call out, “Mind your Ps and Qs, dear”, as she was being waved out the door. The good advice being don’t drop your aitches, don’t slur your words, say “Really?”, not “What?”; in other words, talk posh.

While I will never sound posh, can I “watch what I say”, or mind my Ps and Qs? Absolutely. And not only with the Queen; most importantly, I’m also going to bring this mindfulness to the workplace this new year.

Why the workplace? Well, think about how often we repeat ourselves at work: the instructions we give for a task, the opinion we express on an issue, or the help we ask for with a problem. Is it the fault of the listener or of us, the speaker, if there is a breakdown in understanding? Were we being careful with the way we speak? Were we being on our best behaviour in the company of other people? Were we minding our Ps and Qs?

In our heart of hearts, we most-likely know that we don’t focus as much as we should do on what we say, we don’t process enough internally, before externalizing our thoughts, we don’t think through the consequences of what we are going to say.


If we all tried a little harder at work to mind our Ps and Qs, think of all the time that would be saved by not repeating ourselves, the improvement in the atmosphere at work as we all spoke nicely to each other, and the stronger and better relationships formed. Perhaps it’s a matter of respect: we don’t consider enough the other person to whom we were speaking.

But, who is this other person that we are speaking with? Well, you might be surprised to learn that theories for interpersonal communication suggest that even the simplest interaction between two persons actually involves six persons!

Let me explain: if you and I are speaking, it is in fact a conversation between 1) you, as you see yourself, 2) me, as I see myself, 3) me, as you see me, 4) you, as I see you, 5) you, as you think I see you and, finally, 6) me, as I think you see me.

With all of that to think about, it’s no surprise that we either feel paralyzed by indecision, or use all our mental energy trying to figure out how the other person(s!) will perceive what we are saying, instead of focusing purely on the words that come out of our mouth.


Maybe it would be safer and wiser if we all just communicated through electronic missive? Unfortunately, such things are outside of our control at work: we cannot avoid communicating directly with colleagues at work and, tragically, we can’t unsay a single word of anything we ever say at work (no matter how badly we may want to).

So, we often speak without really thinking it through first, even though for the listener those words shape their opinion of our level of competence (as Einstein said, if you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it yourself), our intelligence (think of all those times you’ve said something rash and stupid in a meeting) and our effort, or lack thereof (ever been told off by someone at work for not making something clear in the first place?)




Even if someone doesn’t think we’re an idiot, there are still many ways for things to go wrong: Osmo Wiio, in Wiio's Laws (Welin-Good, 1978), gave us some wonderful Muruphy’s Law-style outcomes for interpersonal communication:

  • If communication can fail, it will.
  • If a message can be understood in different ways, it will be understood in just that way which does the most harm.
  • There is always somebody who knows better than you what you meant by your message.
  • The more communication there is, the more difficult it is for communication to succeed.

While that’s all a little tongue-in-cheek, I can see many grains of truth to it. However, once we have navigated these hurdles, there are still language differences, cultural differences, and plain-old personal differences to potentially confuse and muddle things even more.

With so many people to consider, so many ways for communication to fail, and so many differences between people it may seem impossible to communicate effectively and efficiently. Perhaps, then, the only thing left to do is to mind your Ps and Qs and hope for the best!


Cultural differences Communication Working life Politeness

Glennon Kiernan-Lahti

Glennon Kiernan-Lahti

Glennon Kiernan-Lahti works as a Digital Marketing Specialist making educational, engaging and relevant content for our customers. He previously worked here as a Specialist Trainer - teaching business English to everyone from entry-level employees to CEOs. Originally from Ireland, he enjoys helping his clients to get their message through, living in a country with more than one season, and forcing Finns to make small-talk.

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