Meta messages

7 min readOct 2, 2022

Human communication is a complex affair. If all of us said what we meant and meant what we said there would be no miscommunication. But that is not to be. Indirect communication or meta messages have complicated the matter. Not all communication is in black and white. We use circuitous routes to communicate. Deciphering a meta-message is not taught at college but learned in the school of life. It is an art we need to master for healthy relationships.

Meta messages have to be discovered from the tone of voice, the way something is said, and the words used within the context. One can also get meta messages from body language. Your words may mean something but your mannerism may say exactly the opposite.

Indirect communication is required in certain situations. For instance, it may not be easy to refuse or say no to someone close to you. You then say it in such a way that they get the message without feeling offended. Instead of flatly refusing we generally manufacture an excuse. It is face-saving for both parties. Meta messages also have cultural roots. In Japan when a Prime Minister was indicted for corruption the press praised him to the skies. The Japanese are polite people. Sarcasm is an extreme example of nasty meta messaging. Unless you have some training, you may not be able to pick up meta messages or you may interpret them wrongly. This is because it is specific to the individual, your relationship to the individual, the culture within which you operate, and the hierarchical status.

People in authority often deliver meta messages that the junior is supposed to decipher. If a senior comes late for a meeting and does not give an apology, he is indirectly telling everyone that his position does not require an apology. If the warden says that the room is dirty you are not supposed to agree with him but clean up the room. When the boss says I think we all agree on this plan what he is saying is that he has decided on the plan and wants no further discussion. When he says let me sleep over it that may mean it is not very urgent. If he says I want the report on Monday you have to understand that your weekend has become a weekday.

Being blunt and straightforward can be impolite at times. Some people pride themselves on being blunt, but that is no great virtue. Being blunt can blunt the relationship. The art of indirect communication goes a long way in ensuring that relationships are not damaged through bluntness.

Meta messages can complicate relationships when one person means what she says literally while the other reads hidden meanings in the message. There will be a heated argument over what was said and what was meant. In family situations, if a mother asks her teenage daughter what she is going to wear the meta-message the teenager gets is that her mother wants to control her dressing. The mother, taken aback, will say I only asked you what you are going to wear not realizing that her daughter did not take that statement literally but read the presumed meta meaning in it. Also, when adolescents say Ok Ok it means don’t bore me with your advice or you have said that a million times before.

In a job interview even if you answer all the questions with finesse but you come with unpolished shoes and uncombed hair or a mismatched tie, the meta-message you are giving is one of sloppiness.

Certain questions have meta messages hidden in them. Is that all you have to say? means you have said little and I am disappointed as I expected more. When someone asks you: How do you like my work? the meta-message behind that is, please say it is good. Otherwise, if a person is expecting a straightforward answer the question should have been: Can you give me honest feedback on my work? When your wife asks how you like her choice of dress the meta-message is: don’t criticize my choice.

On the home front, a husband-wife relationship is full of meta messages. When a wife says I don’t feel like cooking, it means please take me out to dinner. If she asks, when are you coming back from work, it means can we go out somewhere in the evening. If she says some relative of hers has a beautiful golden bangle it means please get me one like that. When she says I don’t have anything to wear for this occasion it means to buy me a new dress. In the beginning, men are quite naïve in these matters and never hear the meta-message. They take everything literally and respond with a solution. Slowly they learn the art. They keep wondering why she can’t say it as it is and why she keeps beating around the bush. But women love meta messages. That is their form of communication. Their meta messages come from the heart. They are not logically thought-out devices to pin anyone down. They like to drop subtle hints and see if you are smart enough to pick them up. Researchers have discovered that the indirect form of communication is more common among women than in men. It is like a game of hide-and- seek. If you ask them what they really meant they will consider you naive. It also reduces the risk of rejection. If she asks: Can we go out for dinner and you say No, then that could hurt. But when she says that she doesn’t want to cook today and you still say that you won’t take her out for dinner she can always say that she never wanted to go out for dinner but only said that she did not feel like cooking. Meta messages have escape routes. If you want peace and harmony at home, whether you like it or not, you have to become a professional meta message reader.

Politics and meta messages go together. What politicians say and what they mean are two different things. Commentators spend hours discussing what was the real meaning behind a political speech by analyzing specific words. When they say that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics the meta-message is that they are open to aligning with any party that gives them the best deal. When a political leader says he is not standing for election it is a meta-message to his cadres to beg and plead with him to contest. In international diplomacy, one has to be very polite and yet get the harsher messages through. Diplomatic language is full of meta messages. What they say may seem very mild but what they mean is exactly the opposite. Politicians also use words that can be interpreted differently. When a statement they make evokes a violent response they will say that they have been misinterpreted and then give a different twist and meaning to what they said. These are standard political games and is accepted in that community as normal.

Doctors have to rely on meta messages to get harsh truths through to the patients. Instead of saying that a case is hopeless, they would say that it has a fifty-fifty chance. They mean the negative fifty but the patient thinks it is the positive fifty. Both are happy that way.

Some people see meta messages in each and everything. They see negative meanings even in innocent remarks. One has to be very careful communicating with such people. Simple questions will sound like criticism to them. Even when you genuinely praise them and tell them that they are dressed smartly they may say ‘don’t give me that, I know what you mean.

Scriptures are also full of meta messages that have to be extracted from seemingly straightforward words. That is why there are commentaries on scriptures and there are commentaries on commentaries. The debate as to what a spiritual teacher actually meant may go on for centuries. When spiritual giants say something intuitively it can have layers and layers of meaning. Many moral messages are delivered indirectly through stories since the subconscious mind responds positively to stories and parables. Such stories contain meta messages.

When we find an employee doing shoddy work we may, out of kindness and to encourage him, send a meta-message like: You can definitely do much better than this, I know you have the potential, instead of saying: This is the shoddiest piece of work I have ever seen. But if he does not get the message then a more direct approach may be necessary. There are times when we have to be blunt with people. Some people never get the meta messages and they have to be told clearly and unambiguously.

Children are also experts at sending out meta messages. If they say no in a certain tone, it could mean that they want to be pampered some more time before they say yes. Only a mother will understand their messages.

When a person in a group is talking continuously and has no intention to stop you will notice that her listeners are constantly sending her meta messages to stop her monologue. A sensitive person will pick up these messages and give someone else a chance to speak. Some of these meta messages could be to yawn, looking here and there, checking cell phone messages, or talking to someone sitting next to you.

In some countries when they want to fire someone, they announce the names over the public address system and hand over the dreaded pink slip and ask them to clear the building within the next half hour. But a sensitive and humane management will do it through meta languaging. They may tell the employee that he is overqualified for his job or that there is no slot in the next higher grade for him. One is not supposed to argue over these statements but get the meta-message behind them. They will then give him a chance to resign so that he can tell the world that he quit for better prospects.

On the whole meta messages are useful devices in certain situations and can be quite disastrous in others, especially if the listener has difficulty deciphering it. One must use it with discretion. For those who prefer bluntness, it is better to communicate with them in the style they prefer. But the art of diplomacy is all about mastering meta messaging.




Live in Chennai, India. Interested in life subjects and how the mind works. Articles attempt to give perspectives on life