The Hindrance of a Hint

Jun 29, 2012 |Carolyn McCulley

Indirect communication fuels the frustration many singles have with the opposite sex.

Kerry has a new friend in her church. He has been emailing her quite a bit about various topics, has included her in group activities that he's planned, and he's given her a book that she once mentioned she'd like to read.

He's been attentive but, until recently, she wasn't sure of his intentions. Lately he's been more personal in his attentions. He hasn't used any defining words like "date," "courtship," or "relationship." He's just asked her to go to dinner, the movies, or other activities with him. Alone.

She's left to interpret what this means. Her interpretation is that he's moving from friendship to something more.

But Kerry is not interested in her new friend, at least not in a romantic way. So she's been declining his invitations. "I'm hoping he'll get the hint," she says. "I don't want to hurt him, but I don't know why he keeps on asking me out when I'm always saying no."

Trina has a crush. A bad one. The kind that sends her back 10 years to a giggling girl in middle school. The object of her crush seems interested in her, too. He makes jokes about them in silly ways, hinting at his possible affection. He likes to spend a lot of time with Trina, and often talks to her about his hopes for marriage, his plans for the future, how he's trying to grow as a man in Christ, and so forth. He says he's a better man for knowing her.

But he doesn't directly pursue Trina. She's sure he's hinting at his interest in her, but she's confused about what to do if he's not clearly initiating something more. "Is he waiting for me to give him more encouragement? Why isn't he being direct?" she asks.

Kerry and Trina are not alone. Many of their single friends in their respective churches wrestle with the same scenarios. So much hinting! So little real communication. Ugh. No wonder awkwardness abounds among singles. Could there be a more elegant way for men and women to communicate? There is, but it doesn't rely this heavily on hints. A hint is only a glimpse of a larger statement. It is easily misunderstood because it is only a fragment of the necessary information. We hint because being direct seems so costly — even though in the long run, hinting is notoriously ineffective.

The Expectation-Experience Gap

Hinting makes the other person do the heavy lifting in communication. They must figure out what our expectations are and what we want to experience. Because there's precious little direct communication, there's plenty of room for both sides to feel defrauded, frustrated or disappointed. Tara Klena Barthel and Judy Dabler, authors of Peacemaking Women, call this tension the "expectation-experience gap."

Consider one example of uncommunicated and unexamined expectations from courtship. We have sometimes observed in the Christian community a rather specific but unspoken set of rules concerning courtship and dating.... Although some of these "rules" may have their foundation in appropriate biblical truths of manhood and womanhood, when "rules" become paramount and the focus is taken off of agape love and placed on a set of expectations, the foundation for a romantic relationship becomes shaky.

Frequently conflicts arise when men do not understand the implicit rules they are expected to follow. A huge expectation-experience gap arises between what a woman wants and what the man actually does. The woman gets frustrated and pulls back; the man is confused and pulls back; and the very standards of conduct that ought to control all Christians, male and female alike, go out the window. Instead of filling the gap with gentle honesty, mutual respect, genuine authenticity, and abiding mercy, relationships end with no explanation.

Indirect communication widens the "expectation-experience gap" and fuels the genuine frustration that single adults often endure. Consider the poor man who has been told that Christian women won't show any interest or encouragement. So he keeps asking out various women and getting turned down — by women who are hoping he'll "get the hint" and stop asking. How unnecessarily frustrating this is for both sides.

In saying this, I'm only addressing a pattern of ongoing indirect communication. I'm not talking about banishing the artful hint that has jump-started many a romance. I'm all for men initiating relationships — bring it on! And I'm all for women giving them a bit of encouragement to do so.

That's the fun side of a hint. But that shouldn't be our continuous mode of communication. There comes a time when we women need to consider the "speech commands" issued by Scripture and evaluate the way we communicate against the Bible's standards.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29 NIV, emphasis mine).

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue (Proverbs 31:26 ESV).

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:34-37 ESV).

Why is it that we are afraid to speak directly to someone? Why do we rely on hints and avoidance techniques? I would argue that this is a manifestation of what the Bible calls "fear of man." We are worried about what others think of us — either we crave their approval or we fear their rejection. There's also laziness involved. It's much easier to duck someone with an expectation of us than it is to gently and graciously talk to them about it. But does this build up our brothers and sisters for their benefit (Ephesians 4:29)? Does this follow after the Proverbs 31 model to speak with wisdom and kindness? And will we have to give a good or poor account of our careless words (Matthew 12:34-37)?

Christ's Ambassadors

To desire marriage is to desire the role of a helpmate. That is, we want to be a counselor, an encourager, a co-laborer in Christ who is a faithful intercessor, a cheerleader, and a skilled partner who collaborates with her mate to advance Christ's kingdom in this world. That requires clear and gracious communication, but it also requires that we know for whom we speak. As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:20 (NIV): "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us."

Paul Tripp and Tim Lane, the authors of Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, unpack that verse in this way:

God has an agenda for our relationships. For that reason, proper communication is not so much about getting what we want out of our relationships as it is being part of what God is seeking to do.... An ambassador does one thing only — represent. His job is to incarnate a king who is not present. Every word he speaks is directed by the king's interests and will. This is exactly what God is calling us to do. What we say must be driven by what God is seeking to accomplish in us and in the other person....

Here's the point: Your words are always in pursuit of some kind of kingdom. You are either speaking as a mini-king, seeking to establish your will in your relationships and circumstances, or you are speaking as an ambassador, seeking to be part of what the King is doing.

To represent Christ in our communication, we have to see the single Christian men around us as first and foremost our brothers in Christ. Evasive communication does not represent Christ. Neither do self-centered demands or threats. To build up our brothers, we have to cultivate humility in our own hearts and remember that these men are works in progress. Hinting is indirect communication driven by our own agendas. There's a better way to communicate in unclear situations and to reflect Christ. It is the gentle request for information.

The Power of a Question

Let's go back and look at the two situations I introduced at the beginning of this article. Kerry has a friend who appears to be asking her on dates, but has not directly stated that. She's hoping that by turning him down consistently, he'll take the hint and stop asking. Trina has a crush on a guy who seems to return her affection but has never defined his interest. She drops all kinds of hints trying to get him to clarify.

There's some risk in both of these scenarios, isn't there? Someone will get hurt or offended. Someone will not get what he or she wants. Friendships could be fractured. Being direct seems like tossing dry twigs into a roaring fire. Who knows what could go up in flames?

The reason it seems so costly is that we are thinking like mini-kings, rather than as ambassadors. As ambassadors, we need to understand the whole picture — to find out what resources, plans, and assumptions the other side has, as well as what our marching orders are from our sovereign Lord. The trap we often fall into is thinking that we already have all that information and so we can pass judgment without further inquiry.

But ... we don't know it all. We need to ask questions to make sure we have all the pertinent information. The beauty of a question is that if it is truly a request for information and not a judgment with a question mark at the end, we can gently influence the conversation without tempting defensiveness on either side. We are being — drum roll, please — helpers in these awkward encounters.

In Kerry's case, after affirming their friendship, she could graciously ask her male friend how she should view his recent invitations. Is he building something more than a friendship? If he says no, then she is free to take him at his word and accept or decline based only upon her schedule and other non-romantic considerations. If he says yes, she then has the opportunity to thank him for his interest, and to gently and clearly let him know she is not interested in pursuing anything beyond friendship.

Rather than relying on hints, Kerry has now had the opportunity to affirm a friend, express appreciation for his initiative, and gently help him understand the need for clarity in future invitations to women. The benefit to her is that these questions help her to remember that she does not know the motives of another human being unless she asks.

In Trina's case, the longer she indulges her crush without clarity, the harder it will be to guard her heart from sinful judgment and anger if nothing goes forward. Additionally, she may be indulging an unhelpful pattern in her friend's life. Men often don't realize that deep communication is the way to snare a woman's heart and that we build relationships through conversation. He may just be talking off the top of his head, but Trina (and 99.9 percent of other women) think he is being purposeful about these heart-to-heart talks. In my observation and experience, men who are more "relational" have the ability to cultivate deep friendships with women to whom they are not necessarily attracted. It's clear in their minds, but not in ours.

Trina has the option of pulling back without explaining herself, which would be awkward on both sides. Or she can ask a question that could open the door to defining their relationship, something like: "How do you think close friends of the opposite sex should build a wise friendship?" Or, "I enjoy our friendship. But I'm wondering if the time we spend together could be misunderstood by others? Do you ever get questions about our friendship?" These questions open the door for the man to lead in defining the friendship where necessary.

Both of these scenarios are awkward, but if we remember the brother-sister relationship in the Kingdom, we will be eager to do what we can to avoid any breaks in our fellowship due to incomplete communication.

As His ambassadors, we have the wonderful privilege of demonstrating through our words and actions the grace and mercy we ourselves have received — even in our bumbling, messy, and hope-filled relationships with single men!

Copyright 2007 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.

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