Loose Lips Sink Ships

Gerwig 2015-02-06

Have you ever heard the term “loose lips sink ships?” The term originated during the Second World War and simply reminded others to be careful about what they said in public. Military and civilian personnel alike were warned to avoid talking about ship movements in public because if the wrong person overheard the information (e.g. a spy) then they were endangering the ship and those on it. Ring a bell?

Today the same temptation exists for business executives, government officials, athletic directors, sales representatives, engineers, and so on, to talk about work while at their favorite local restaurant, while waiting in line at the post office, while having a glass of wine or beer at their favorite bar, while riding public transportation, while ordering an espresso at their neighborhood café or while waiting for their connecting flight at the airport.

I’m amazed at how often I hear folks talk about private, confidential, or sensitive information in front of me (and scores of other strangers). I’ve heard account representatives negatively describe a large corporate customer. I’ve heard university professors disparage a student’s paper. I’ve heard military officers describe when their unit was being being deployed (before it was public information). I’ve heard coaches explain why a given player was left out of the starting line-up. I’ve heard one neighbor criticize another neighbor. I could go on and on and on.

I’d go so far as to say it’s reached epidemic levels. Have you noticed? If you frequent places where others congregate and open your ears, you’ll hear it. In fact, you’ll hear it even if you try to ignore it. People are talking about private matters in public and they’re doing it loudly. It’s everywhere. On the airplane. At the grocery store. In line. In the bleachers. At the mall. In the lunchroom. In the office.

Modern technology has enabled this behavior to a degree. People are talking on their smart phones everywhere (including public toilets!). They are using Bluetooth headsets, wired and wireless ear-buds, tablets, and laptops.

Two recent examples come to mind. One, while recently at the airport, a man a few seats down from me (I would have moved but the waiting area was packed) was having a video conference call on his laptop. He didn’t have a headset or microphone so he was practically shouting. He was clearly bothering everyone, including me, within 30 feet of him. To make matters worse, he was discussing the terms of an account he was trying to close with his home office. Everyone within earshot knew what company he worked for, the customer, the terms of the agreement and the open issues. It was a disgrace. It was rude.

Second, I was driving home in my neighborhood a couple weeks ago and came to an intersection. I heard a woman telling me the details of a disagreement she was having with her sister. I looked out my window and saw a woman walking two dogs and bundled up in a coat. She was out of breath and trying to be heard over the cars driving by (my assumption). Regardless, she was practically shouting and several drivers parked at the light looked out to see what all the ruckus was about. Did I mention that my windows were rolled up and I even had the radio turned on? Clearly I need to listen to my music more loudly.

A quick note to those who may have experienced hearing loss: Recognize that not everyone has experienced this same loss. I’ve noticed that people who have experienced hearing loss but don’t know it are guilty of whispering in a shout. Now there’s nothing wrong if you’ve experienced some hearing loss. And thankfully there’s great technology available to help. But if anyone has ever told you that you’re “hard of hearing” (including your doctor), please take extra precaution. Your whisper sounds as loud as regular conversation, sometimes louder. Don’t whisper sensitive information in public. Period.

Allow me to share 5 quick tips that will help:

1. Remember that you’re not that important. Be humble. It’s not all about you. Whether it’s confidential business information or the details of your recent trip to the Caribbean, remember that all of us in the coffee shop don’t want to hear it. We’re trying to read, talk quietly with a colleague, or write a paper and you’re practically shouting about how you got upgraded to first class on the trip to St. John.

2. Remember not to say something that is confidential in public. If the right person hears you, you could be reprimanded or fired or jailed. Think about what you say, especially in public. The same applies with gossip. Perhaps you won’t receive a reprimand, but you might hurt or destroy a relationship with a family member or neighbor. Is it worth it?

3. Remember that all those strangers around you don’t want to hear the intimate details of your professional or personal life. You’re creating noise pollution. Stop.

4. Remember that when you talk loudly in public you’re preventing others from having a normal conversation. You’re preventing others from thinking, from writing, and from enjoying their time. Be considerate. If they all talked as loudly as you, you wouldn’t be able to have your own conversation.

5. Remember that how you behave in public helps define your reputation, good or bad. I remember running into a woman at one of my children’s sporting events. I don’t know if she recognized my face, but I definitely remembered hers. She went to the same coffee shop I did and, at least twice a week, she would stand in line talking very loudly on the phone with a friend of hers who lived in another state. Everyone groaned when she got into line because it was almost intolerable. She had a reputation. When I met her at the soccer game, I had difficulty talking with her because I already “knew” her. She had a well-deserved reputation whether or not she knew it.

How do you behave in public? Are you respectful? Loud? Is your conversation appropriate? Have you experienced others who aren’t? Do you have loose lips?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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