According to former president Ronald Reagan, the most terrifying words to hear from someone are: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” That said, among the most terrifying words that people can here is the expression “we need to talk.” I don’t think I have ever heard those words and been in a conversation that I enjoyed or appreciated. This is by no means because I dislike talking in the least. But it is because the statement by someone that “we need to talk” generally means that conversation is desired by one party that may not be to the liking of the other party. Why is this the case? What is it about this phrase that strikes fear into the heart of people who do not in fact want to talk or may not in fact need to talk? Let us explore.
The first sign of trouble is in the semantics of the expression itself. When someone says to someone else that “we need to talk,” there are at least three problem with the statement. The first is that someone is saying to someone else that “we” need to do something. This already amounts to a failure, in that one person or party is deciding for the other(s) that communication needs to happen. Already the conversation begins in some sort of trouble, because it has not been a mutually agreed upon conversation but rather an interaction that is forced on someone who is at least somewhat unwilling. And how do we know that there is unwillingness? Well, that brings us to the second problem, and that is the use of the word “need” to go along with the coercive attempts at communication by one party. After all, if someone said, “I want to talk to you,” that expresses the desire of the person who wishes to initiate a conversation and expresses a statement that the conversation is desired by that person, but not necessary by the other person. “I want to talk to you” does not in the least mean that “you want to talk with me.” It may, but it need not. But to say, “we need to talk,” instead indicates an often mistaken belief that one’s own desire for communication is shared as well as necessary, instead of being subjective and optional.
These two problems are easy enough to uncover, as it is generally the more bullying and authoritarian of people who confuse their wants and needs and disrespect the agency of others who use expressions like this. Yet the third problem is equally important when it comes to communication, and that is the setup of the conversation in the first place. If conversation needed to happen, it is best to happen in the midst of conversation. Two friends seldom tell each other that they need to talk, because they simply talk on a regular basis, and whatever needs to be conveyed by one party to the other, and a great deal of that which both parties want to communicate to the other and comment upon happens as a matter of course. No one needs to set up a special interaction because the necessary communication that needs to happen already happens on a regular basis. It is only when two people or two parties are not communicating well with each other that one needs to set up special conversations that “need” to happen. And that necessity is already a sign of failure because communication has broken down.
This is not to say that communication problems and difficulties do not exist even when people would in fact want to talk to each other. It is merely that when people want to talk to each other, that such problems are easy enough to resolve. One can pick up the phone if one likes to pick up the phone (I don’t). Perhaps one can chat online, or make it a point to have regular conversations, or one can simply appreciate whatever random conversations happen even if they may not be as frequent as one may want. I would never want someone to think that my own silence indicated an active dislike of someone. It usually involves a whole host of other matters, from being distracted by various plans and goals to simply not finding someone available at the same place and time where I happen to be. Likewise, I do not wish to put pressure on others to communicate, for as much as I enjoy communicating with certain people, I am aware that not everyone finds it particularly enjoyable to communicate with me, not only because of the content of interactions, but also because of their context. Sometimes these matters cannot be helped. All the same, our communication would be a lot better if we could say to someone else that we want to talk, and not terrify others by telling them that we need to talk when what we most want to do in such moments is be as far away as possible from those who mistakenly believe that they need to talk to us when we do not want to talk to them under such coercive circumstances.