Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Why We Often Take Things Other People Say the Wrong Way

Why can't we seem to understand each other?

In your relationships—whether they be with friends, family, coworkers, or especially romantic partners—how often do you seem to say (or hear): "You took what I said the wrong way!" or "You didn't understand me!" In response, someone might ask "why can't you see it from my point of view?" Why does that seem so hard to do—and is it ever possible anyway? (I addressed this before in the context of self-loathing people, who have particularly difficult problems with this, but the concept applies much more broadly.)

Philosophers have long recognized that language is inherently vague, being an imperfect representation of thoughts and ideas. We only scratch the surface by saying that words themselves have diferent meanings, and the order in which we put them together into sentences, the connections we form between them, add more layers of meaning, which are often ambiguous themselves. To make things worse, sentences are often incomplete—not grammatically, but in terms of ideas. In other words, we usually take some knowledge about what we are talking about for granted. And that shared background infomation is often cultural—every geographical area or ethnic community has its own slang and shorthand that bewilders newcomers or outsiders—which also introduces cultural differences in sentence structure, tone, and intonation.

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But even very clear and simple sentences exchanged between close friends, family, or lovers, who share much of this common background, can often be misunderstood or miscontrued. As a result, the listener infers a completely different meaning or intention than the speaker meant to convey. This is because each person speaks against the background of his or her personal hstory, experiences, impressions, beliefs, values and more. When a person speaks, it is he or she who is speaking, not some mechanical word generator—there is a person behind it, a person who has lived and loved, laughed and cried, learned and forgotten. And as a result, obvious as it may sound, he or she is a different person than you are, and this informs his or her communication, adding layers of interpretation that are often hidden from the view of others. 

Sure, you've lived, you've loved, all that. Nonetheless, each of us has had different experiences, has been exposed to different ideas, has been hurt in different ways—and learned different things from all of it. Everytime you say something, it's based on everything you have lived, and the same for everyone else. When we hear somebody say something absurd, we might ask, "how could he say that?" But to truly understand why he said that, as well as what he said, it helps to consider his background; once we try to understand him as a person, we can try to understand what he has said.

Is this ever possible—can you ever truly understand anyone completely? Of course not: as much as we may try to empathize and put ourselves in someone else's position, we can never truly be that person. The best we can do is try to understand the other person and to see where he or she is coming from. This doesn't mean, of course, that we have to accept or agree with him or her—but it helps to have a better idea of what ideas you're disagreeing with! So much disagreement, especially in politics, is just people talking past each other instead of with each other. We deserve better; we have to try harder.

More to my point, this can also help improve communication in your relationship. Whether it's your best friend, a relative, or your romantic partner, as close as you feel to that person, he or she is still a different person. As well as you think you know him or her—and you very well may—you don't know everything (you can't!). So when he or she says something to you that just doesn't sound right, or claims that you took something the wrong way, remember that he or she is coming from a place that you really don't know. Chances are they left something out of what they said because they assumed you'd know what they meant—but if you took it the wrong way, then you obviously didn't. Or even worse, your interpretation of what they say now is based on something you misinterpreted earlier, resulting in a "misinterpretation snowball." It's like a game of telephone with only two people; once a statement is misunderstood, the next statement that relies on the first is also misunderstood, and so on.

Should you have known better? Or should the other person not have assumed you knew better? Who's to blame? That's the wrong question, of course! We are not perfect communicators, since language is an imperfect tool for communication. Everything has to be interpreted: thoughts have to interpreted in terms of words the speaker uses, and those words in turn have be interpreted back into ideas by the listener. The problem is that everyone has a unique basis of interpretation, and this is unavoidable. So don't point fingers—instead, try to understand each other, where each other is coming from, and what each other really meant.

And remember that the best way to improve your communication is to do more of it.

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You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and The Literary Table.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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