Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
From HABITAT, February 2009
From the Editor 7: Communication
An Impactful Essay Is About to Commence
By TOM SOTER
It was Saturday morning at about 8 and there was a lot of commotion in the halls. I opened my apartment door to find the board treasurer looking ticked off as two burly men carried Sheetrock up the stairs.
“He’s putting in a pressurized wall,” he said, referring to the shareholder in the apartment above me in our six-story walk-up. I could see why he was angry: Although the shareholder had mentioned to the board that he had wanted to add a new wall to his apartment, he had received no official permission; we had not received insurance forms from the contractor, nor had he signed a “hold harmless” agreement in case of injury; and the work was being done early morning on a weekend, which was forbidden by the house rules.
Apparently, we had not done a good job in communicating with this shareholder. When confronted, the errant resident was apologetic but also thought he had been given the board’s blessing. Our treasurer recalled later that he had made some vague remarks in a hallway conversation with the shareholder about thinking the proposed work would be okay and the eager-to-proceed resident had obviously taken that as approval. (And this was apparently a pattern: only the week before, we had dealt with a former board member who had thought we had endorsed some construction in his unit because of a casual conversation with one of the directors.)
Hadn’t we told him at the admissions interview that he should read the house rules? Or had we been unclear in our e-mails about when we would get back to him? Or that we would have to get back to him? Or that talking with a board member informally was not the same as getting a green light? Was our communication faulty – or was his?
Was our communication faulty — or was his? I looked back through our e-mails; they seemed straightforward enough. Curious, I also looked at other letters sent and received by professionals we had employed over the years. Some of them were appalling in their lack of clarity (which may indicate why we had problems with some of those professionals). In fact, although managing agents and attorneys often emphasize clarity in communication when talking with board members about smooth operations of buildings, plain speaking is often a lost art. I recalled William Strunk and E.B. White’s admonitions in The Elements of Style: Don’t be “tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able.” Strunk and White’s view on such words as “finalize,” “impactful,” and “accessorized” is equally blunt: “portentous nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure… [However,] a good many of the special words of business… [do not] express [a] precise meaning.”
I often think of those comments when I listen to lawyers talk or write. With most attorneys, you never “begin” something, it is always (passive voice) “commenced.” It is never “according to” it is always “pursuant.” Attorneys say that their legal language has to be precise: to me it is often dry and imprecise, created that way, years ago, perhaps by someone who had never heard the phrase, “Less is more.” I’ve had letters from many well-meaning lawyers who often use ten words when six would do (for instance: “One point of clarification, as per our conversation, … I had been, and remain, glad to liaise with him directly.” Is “liaise” even a word? Is that the same as talking with him).
I also remember a mini-controversy my father had some years ago at his Upper West Side co-op with his neighbor, who had written to the board complaining about a gas fireplace in our family’s apartment that he claimed was a fire hazard. My father skewered his fellow shareholder and the managing agent (who had also written us about the supposed dangers of the fireplace). My dad, a great stylist, letter-writer and grammarian, was direct in his letter of reply, using his language to define his logic and position for the historical record. “If you are saying that a burning gas flame requires some sort of a chimney or vent then this must be a new insight into the dynamics and properties of burning gas,” he wrote at one point. “Certainly our kitchen stove, when a large meal is being prepared … creates more ‘undissipated gases’ — whatever they may be — than our … living room log. If you conclude our log is unsafe because of the absence of an air vent, our kitchen range is downright cinematic in its potential for destruction.”
Clearly, a board needs to be clear — for the record, for the well-being of the building, and for the sake of harmony among the tenancy. For, as George Orwell once observed, clarity of word leads to clarity of thought. The more imprecise you are in your writing and talking the more often misunderstandings will arise. And you’ve got enough headaches operating a co-op or condo without adding communication to the list of challenges.
Now, is that clear? Or do I need to finalize my theoretical fulminations further?