Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

When Words Confuse Rather than Clarify

Words can be a permanent representation of a temporary feeling

Who tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. - Isak Dinesen

I'm a writer and an editor. Words are my drug, my wine, my meat and potatoes, my oxygen, my muscles and at the heart of my understanding of things. Sometimes I have nightmares about what would happen if I could no longer read or type. I live by words. They console me when I'm sad and spill from me when I'm happy (and sometimes vice versa). Words pay my mortgage, put me to sleep at night, and are the reason I get up in the morning. Words are essential tools for the vast majority of humans, but they are more important to me than they are to most.

I've always thoughts of words as the final arbiters of understanding. When confusion arose, I've always felt like if I could just explain myself, or understand another, that everything would resolve itself. I've always believed in honest words, in saying how I really felt, and always tried my best to listen to other peoples' truths, even when they were painful. I suppose, like most of us, I'm better at the former than the latter. I've always had a habit of writing letters - or, nowadays, e-mails - in difficult situations, because I've always believed that more understanding could only create goodwill. I never understood why sometimes my words, so carefully crafted, so honest and emotionally resonant (at least in my eyes), sometimes put people off, sometimes created anger or resentment in people. I always figured it was because they just didn't understand my words, and that more words would fix it. If I could only explain, I would think. Everything would be okay.

Recently, though, I realized that a relationship with an important person in my life has been marred - for years - with such a tumble and overabundance of words, that it has actually damaged our understanding of each other. For years we've gone 'round and 'round, over and under, with words, trying to explain each others' position, trying to clarify, trying to express what was happening internally. We've argued, we've written love letters, we've written books worth of e-mails. And all that's left is a big mess of confusion, pain, misunderstanding and mixed messages. It struck me today that emotional words - words written in an emotional state - are a permanent representation of a temporary feeling. We feel something, and we write it down, and the other person reads it, and it sticks. In ten minutes, we may feel differently. But that other person will still remember the words. That temporary feeling permanently informs that other person's understanding of us and of who we are, and I dare say that this is especially true of hurtful words. They can't be erased. Even spoken words can burn themselves into someone's brain and cause pain or confusion.

As well, words are easily misunderstood. I stumbled on a blog post on Psychology Today where the blogger pointed out that arguments between intimate partners can often hang up on the most simple of misunderstandings: what each partner means by the words 'intimacy' or 'love', for example. I've had words I've written thrown back at me in a way that made it clear that what I had meant to say did not come across to the other person. What I thought was so clearly expressed came across as something completely different than what I had intended.

I've finally figured out that sometimes, more words are not the answer. Sometimes, more words are just confusing. Especially when emotions are high, words can do damage that we don't intend, that we may not even notice until the misunderstandings have blossomed, like a cancer, and there's no way to take them back.

Perhaps there are times when it's best to just shut our mouths and experience what's happening without more words. Maybe it's time to use touch - a hug, a handhold - a gesture, or an action to say what we mean when more words won't increase anyone's understanding of what's happening. Sometimes, when tensions are high, perhaps it may even be best to leave the situation entirely and just accept one another's differences of opinion and experience. In my situation, if I had trusted my own intuition and experience and made my own choices rather than expecting my friend to say the right things to make me feel better, perhaps we wouldn't have felt the need to continue explaining and explaining, and maybe we would have avoided digging ourselves into this deep, dark hole of misunderstandings and wounded feelings.

It's been said that words are responsible for only about 7% of our communication, which is probably why e-mails and written language can be so fraught with peril. How many of us have written e-mails or letters that have been woefully misunderstood? Body language, facial expressions, probably even scent, communicate more than mere words do. I feel like I need to learn when to stop talking, to stop writing, to stop this eternal processing that I continually hope will bring myself and other people into a perfect clarity of understanding. Maybe, sometimes, the best understanding is to understand that there will be no understanding. And maybe that's okay.