The Subtext of a Sigh

Do you ever think about subtext? I know, it’s probably not on up there on your top ten things to think about. I learned a lot about subtext when I studied acting back in college. It’s that whole concept that what you’re saying and what you’re communicating can be two different things. It’s been said that most of what you communicate is through body language, but when customer service happens on the phone, all you’ve got is your voice – what you say and how you say it.

In the last coffee time links, I pointed to Lori’s post about "sighing". One of the things that I’ve learned from analyzing countless phone calls through the years is that you can’t make a sigh sound positive. Sighing communicates a negative to the customer on the other end of the line, who will hear any number of negative messages in the CSR’s subtext:

  • "I don’t want to be here"
  • "I’m frustrated"
  • "Something’s not going right"
  • "My computer’s not working"
  • "I hate my job"
  • "I could care less about you and your problem"

A sigh is a little thing, but the negative subtext it communicates can be a big thing in the mind of the customer as she walks away.

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  13 comments for “The Subtext of a Sigh

  1. Ken
    July 8, 2006 at 10:47 am

    Tom –
    Usually I think about sighs as involuntary things. Just yesterday, however, I clearly recall choosing to sigh as my response to a response from someone I wanted something from. I wasn’t getting the satisfaction I felt I deserved and let fly … needless to say the conversation went downhill from there. No profanity or raised voices or anything – just a general increase in the friction of an already downward spiralling failure to communicate.
    At the time, in the aftermath, I was acutely aware of the impact my decision to sigh had on the rest of the discussion. Then, today, I run across your post and link. I can be a little slow but I think Someone is trying to get my attention. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to be totally together to write about leadership issues or I’d be hosed …
    Thanks for the post. And thanks to Chris Cree for It’s how I found you …

  2. July 8, 2006 at 11:27 am

    Thanks for stopping by, Ken – and for sharing your experience. I’m glad I’m not the only one out here writing and not being “totally together!” At least we’re in good company on the journey!

  3. July 8, 2006 at 10:12 pm

    Tom, this is a big bugaboo (that is a word, right?) with my wife – she has the best “sigh detector” I’ve ever encountered. She catches me more often than I care to admit. That and the “eye roll” (which is a companion piece to the sigh in many cases). I cringe every time I see one of our counter personnel do this – it just negates any goodwill that might be coming out of their mouths. Body language indeed speaks louder than words. All the best.

  4. July 9, 2006 at 11:30 am

    makes a person wish you could go back and collect all the sighs that leaked out in conversation…. Thanks for the light on this one Tom…I’d never thought about it. What…in your opinion does a sigh look like in the body language of online tone…? Now that is a question your post sparked in me today… but I am unsure of the answer.

  5. July 10, 2006 at 4:54 am

    I agree with you, Tom! It’s often the things that you feel, or the thoughts that you don’t express but somehow show, that leave an impression on your customers. Good reminder, thanks! =D

  6. July 10, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    You’re welcome, Meikah. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. July 10, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    Ellen, you ask a good question and I’ve been pondering it all day. I think sighs might communicate different body language. Most of the time, I would envision the sigh as slumped in the chair, feet on the desk, disengaged from the task at hand. Other times, the sigh could be complete frustration, shaking a fist at the computer monitor. It kind of depends on the context of the conversation.
    Great question, though. You really got me thinking!

  8. July 10, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Wives are kind of like that, aren’t they Starbucker? It’s amazing how that radar works. Maybe Dr. Weber has some insights into the different brains of males and females that might explain that 🙂

  9. July 10, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    Yes Tom, I’d like to hear about that radar -it never ceases to amaze me! Dr. Weber? 🙂

  10. July 13, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    I was in a store the other day and the lady that was helping me sighed when I asked her a question (seemed like she got that question a million times)! I immediately thought of you 😉

  11. July 13, 2006 at 9:38 pm

    Thanks, Maria…I think. I mean, that’s great – but I hope you think of me sometime when you get really GREAT service not just when you get a sigh! 😉

  12. July 14, 2006 at 1:34 am

    Ha! Of course 😉 I know – I thought about that when I was typing up the comment (I hope he doesn’t take this the wrong way!)

  13. July 14, 2006 at 6:22 am

    No worries! Of course, I’ll be expecting to hear about that really GREAT experience! 🙂

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