Unspoken Agreements Can Have Bad Consequences

Unspoken Agreements Can Have Bad Consequences
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

It isn’t smart to communicate halfway. Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of societal and cultural mechanisms that allow us to leave messages in the air, such as implicit or unspoken agreements. Society regulates words and the way they’re used, sometimes to encourage good manners, and sometimes just to facilitate daily use.

Often people don’t know how to communicate because their own thoughts aren’t clear. In these cases, internal communication fails and translates into difficulty expressing oneself.

“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”

– Oliver Wendell Holmes-

Relationships can also influence these unfortunate communication dynamics. People think there are some people they can say certain things to, and others they can’t. Almost all world powers declare that they have the right to demand silence. And they do. Sometimes they restrict all facets of communication, and sometimes just part of it. But this only leads to errors and confusion.

The bad things about unspoken agreements

Unspoken agreements are indirect forms of communication in which one or both parties assume the agreement is clear enough and no further explanation is needed. For example, say someone tells you that someone is knocking on the door. You obviously know what that means – “go open it.” You can read the message in between the lines by deducing it from what was actually said.

indirect communication

Even in normal, everyday situations, unspoken agreements can end poorly and cause misunderstandings. To continue with the above example, “someone is knocking on the door” could mean different things depending on the context.

It could mean “it’s time to change the subject because someone is here,” or it could mean “the person we’ve been waiting for has arrived.” Or it could even mean “watch out, there’s no reason for anyone to be at the door but someone is, which means danger.”

Both participants in the conversation must be in harmony in order to interpret exactly what the other person means when they throw around imprecise phrases that they think are clear. Misunderstandings would be nothing but silly stories if they didn’t also happen in more complicated situations.

In fact, it can be disastrous when it comes to demands and desires. And this happens a lot. You want someone to do something for you, but you don’t tell them. You assume that they should understand and wonder how they could not realize what you want or need. But people can’t always understand where you’re coming from and guess what you’re thinking. This is how conflict arises.

Implicit agreements

An agreement is essentially a pact between two or more parties. Of course, you can always make a pact with yourself, but right now we’re talking more about social agreements. In an agreement, both parties promise to act a certain way. People reach agreements when everyone involved believes that a certain behavior would achieve a common goal.

tug of war

However, some people make the mistake of assuming there’s been an agreement without having directly consulted the other party involved, so things are never really confirmed. For example, they assume that if they always remember the other person’s birthday, the other person will always remember theirs. Or that if they always put the other person before themselves, they’ll receive the same treatment in return.

People can reach any kind of agreement with each other, but it is bad when one person thinks a pact has been made when it really hasn’t. Like in the above examples, it happens a lot in terms of returning the favor, but it can also happen in more complicated situations. For example, “because I’ve suffered so much in life, you shouldn’t make things difficult for me.” Or “because I believe I am superior to you, you can’t criticize me.” Both of these can result in bad consequences.

It’s best to promote direct and clear communication. Things always get lost in translation to a certain degree, but the risk multiplies when the message is implicit, suppressed, or covered up. Therefore, being explicit can help you avoid a lot of conflict.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.