When Messy Means Sloppy

Word choice can be very strategic.

The words we choose and the words we hear can strengthen trust or signal dysfunction.

In an effort to become better communicators and more discerning listeners, let’s talk about the difference between messy and sloppy.


Messy is accidental.

It only took one spill of nail polish on the carpet to insist I sit at the table and use a placemat the next time I performed a manicure. I never did see that security deposit after I moved out.

My daughter cried when her marker bled onto the dining room table. She was genuinely filled with sorrow for the accident. Of course I didn’t blame her- she didn’t know it would seep through the paper. The next time she colored at the table, however, she was so proud to show me how careful she was being.

Most people desire to do things well and not make a big ole mess.

Messy is an opportunity for future wisdom.


Sloppy is irresponsible.

Sloppy happens when no one is paying attention.

Spills, drops, slips and breaks can turn into casts of shame when parents or leaders fail to teach and model responsibility.

My sons bathroom was a continuous train wreck. We had a toothpaste problem. Each week as we cleaned it together, I would teach him to put the lid back on the tube after each use and place it in the cabinet. But for some reason, toothpaste still ended up on the mirror, in the sink, all over the countertop, and even on the rug.

Messy was the first few times, sloppy was what followed.

He knew what to do –  he chose to value speed over accuracy, expressing a sloppy care of his space.

Sloppy holds a prerequisite of ignorance.


The most common response I hear to expressed frustrations within an organization:

“Well, community is just messy.”

Messy is what happens when you’ve yet to learn how to use best practices. Messy is elementary.

Messy is the excuse for primitive folks, people who are not interested in doing better, creating a better product, or treating people better.

Messy sounds more pleasant, but sloppy is often most appropriate. To cop-out of facing issues that need addressing and to project careless accountability, is plain, old sloppy.


Communication and responsibility are essential qualities for developing strong character. We know this. But do we also understand they both require continual development and attention to detail?

Messy does happen and that’s OK! Receive it as a helpful signal that something needs work.

But ignoring the messy is to dismiss the value of its presence. This route can lead to a vilifying of those who see it and say something.

Don’t we want a friend who will notify us if we have spinach in our teeth or lipstick on our chin? Isn’t that the sign of a friend who is truly for us?

Don’t allow pride or ego prevent you from hearing truth. Believe the best in those who share concerns. Trust that it took some amount of courage to speak it!

Perhaps as generous stewards, gracious hosts, and considerate leaders, we might choose to keep practicing the craftsmanship of responsibility, keep fine-tuning communication, and maintain a desire to do just a little bit better each and every day.

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