Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Hollow "Yes"

When I ask a professor to do something, I can handle any of several responses:

1. Sure!
2. Well, okay.
3. If I have to.
4. I’d really rather not.
5. No.
6. Go *#$)@($* yourself.

The one that frustrates me to no end is a yes, followed by not doing it. A hollow yes. (One of my colleagues refers to it as “yes-sing you to death.”)

Any of the previous six at least give me a basis to estimate the likelihood of it actually happening. I know if I have to ask someone else, or reframe the task, or simply drop it. The hollow yes misleads me, setting me up for public embarrassment later. There are few more effective ways to antagonize your dean than to set him up for public embarrassment.

I still don’t understand the psychology of the hollow yes. It buys a short-term escape from the room, I guess, but at the cost of future trust. And given the turnover rate in academia, that future can be a long, long time.

An honest ‘no’ is far less frustrating. A professor with a generally good track record can use the occasional honest ‘no’ without consequence. At least then, I haven’t been set up to fail.

I’ll ask my wise readers: what’s behind the hollow yes?