‘Speak the Truth Even if Your Voice Shakes’
It is very easy to get irritated by the sort of cod-philosophical slogan that gets used on so many turgid ‘inspirational’ posters. I should know, because they irritate the hell out of me every time I see one. But on occasion a little bit of cod-philosophy can hit a personal nerve.
I must admit that I obsolutely love this phrase, I really wish I could find out if it is a direct quote and who first said it. It appears to possibly have been said in a slightly different form by grey-rights campaigner Maggie Kuhn but different versions pop up all over the place.
I remember the first time I saw it for myself, on the Katabasis blog. It really was one of those bullet-between-the-eyes moments when your hand hovers unmoving over the mouse and your eyes lose focus because you are suddenly far away inside your own mind, frantically processing the unexpectedly sharp reactions. It works so well as one of those golden rules for living like do-unto-others or always-reheat-rice-properly, but also connects on a very personal level, provoking us into recalling various times where we did, or didn’t, comply.
I am sure there have been far too many times in my life when I haven’t spoken up when I should have, or dissembled when I did, or even flat out lied to people. It’s difficult to remember too many major ones in my adult life (probably because my brain has swept them under the carpet of sub-conscious convenience) but I can clearly recall several from my childhood that still make me cringe today. I suppose they remain so fresh because they were what might be termed formative experiences: the lessons in what not to do that rattle alongside us all as we go through life.
As far as sticking to the truth even in unpleasant circumstances goes there was the time I finally told a long term girlfriend that I didn’t actually love her. But for me the event that provoked my thousand yard stare had literally made not just my voice but my whole body shake.
I was a graduate engineer pretty much fresh out of university, working at the European headquarters one of the world’s largest toy companies. I had been given the job of covering the engineering for jigsaw puzzles. Now, the astute reader will have instantly wondered how much actual engineering is involved in jigsaws. The answer is very little. Once the machines are set up at the factory, all you have to do is specify a puzzle and box size, and the picture you want to use, and off you go. It was pretty tedious updating the specifications and so the job got passed to me. I was quite happy because it gave me a little project all of my own.
Every year the sales office in each European country would load onto the computer system a list of the puzzles they wanted for the next twelve months. It was my job to update the specifications and fax them on to the factory in Waterford. Easy.
A few weeks after completing this task I got a call from the German office. They had received a box of pre-production puzzles, but they had been sent the wrong ones, presumably these were for one of the other markets, could I sort out the mix-up? So I went back to my paperwork, and found they had actually been sent the ones I had specified. As the back of my neck grew icy with increasing horror, I cross-checked against the computer system and realised I had told the factory to make the wrong puzzles. I had been copying and pasting between the specifications for each country and got lazy about checking my work.
I instantly phoned the factory, desperate to keep my voice calm as I enquired in an off-hand manner whether the German production run had finished yet. It had. I hung up like a condemned man, my first instinct to break for the door without even stopping to grab my coat. In a warehouse in Ireland sat forty thousand jigsaws: the wrong jigsaws.
What saved me was that I already knew that my manager was an exceptional calm man. Although understandably demotivated by over ten years working in an office riddled with interdepartmental politics and with little prospect of career advancement, he had guided me with a composed and experienced hand. If he had been a fire-breather I would never have summoned the courage to do what I had to do.
I found myself standing in front of his desk. I stared at the top of his head desperately, willing him to notice me. He didn’t, and I was forced to employ a particularly nervous here-I-am cough. He glanced up. Voice already slightly tremulous, I asked if we could pop outside for a chat, an unprecedented request. With a sideways glance under raised eyebrows I got a slow, quiet ‘Yeah,’ and he followed me out of the department and through the back door to the porch where the smokers would gather, now mercifully empty.
My voice shaking, I told the truth: the puzzles for Germany were wrong, it was my mistake and it was too late to do anything about it. My manager listened silently while he started at the ground. I kept my explanation brief, avoiding my usual tendency of throwing in a number of digressions of dubious relevance. When I had finished he stood in silence for a few seconds, glanced up at my face and then told me to leave it with him. Feeling both emotionally and physically wrung out, I followed him back indoors.
I spent the remainder of the day sitting wretchedly at my desk, awaiting the summons to a meeting room to be fired. Nothing happened. I went home as usual, returned the next morning and managed to complete a few routine tasks to try to keep my mind off the situation. By mid-morning I couldn’t bear it anymore, wandered back to my manager’s desk and politely asked what was happening about the puzzles. Never breaking eye contact, he told me that the Germans had been informed that the puzzles that had been made were the puzzles they would have to sell. He understood that they were now working on a quick re-print of their catalogue as a result.
That was it.
I hung around briefly expecting him to say more, but he just looked at me for a little while, then went back to his work. Somewhat shell-shocked I pottered back to my desk. I was far too surprised to feel any relief, just an easing of the all-encompassing numbness. It was a few days before I was remotely myself again.
Although at the time the resolution seemed very straightforward, in hindsight my manager must have had to field some extremely unpleasant phone calls, and expend considerable political capital to persuade the Germans to agree to take my puzzles. The company was totally marketing led, we engineers were viewed as simple handle-turners and usually had no say in major decisions except where product safety was concerned. It would have been pretty easy to throw me to the wolves, but he didn’t.
Why not? An easy answer would be that it would reflect badly on him to fire me, but his competence would already have been called into question anyway, by his willingness to let me run the puzzles on my own. I like to think that it was partly because he thought that I was developing into a reasonable engineer (within a couple of years I had become a bit of a trouble shooter, being given the most technically difficult projects to work on), but at that time it would have required some pretty handy foresight. Perhaps it was because he realised from the level of my mortification just how much I cared, because it wasn’t only the fear of losing my job but also my horror at making such a stupid mistake that got to me. I have always thrived on being given responsibility, and felt that handling the puzzles was a feather in my cap. My colleagues probably thought I was a bit odd, and looking back it was very small beer, but it meant a lot to me at the time.
I suspect that the real reason was because the moment I knew what I had done, and had checked the facts for myself, I laid the position out straight away with no flannel or excuses. Any attempt to stick my head in the sand or wriggle out of it would have been fatal, I am sure. I certainly wouldn’t forgive it in anyone that worked for me. We all tell the little white lies that grease the tracks of life and spare ourselves and our fellows unnecessary petty embarrassments and upsets, but when the stakes are high and the outcome really matters, speak the truth. Especially if your voice shakes.
I would like to finish by drawing attention to Jean-Claude Juncker, who when president of the group of European Union finance ministers said “When it becomes serious, you have to lie,” and allow you to draw your own conclusions.
In June 2014 Juncker was appointed President of the European Commission.