And that's okay.

It's true. I am writing in and you are most likely reading American English and you have probably been speaking it since you were about 1.5 years old. But the understanding that we get from these exchange of words is probably not the same.

Someone recently became very upset and insulted because I wrote that I wanted to make sure we were speaking the same language. He insisted that I was insulting the intelligence of the reader, apparently him personally, by insinuating that we might not be able to understand each other. I think if he'd been a regular reader of the blog, it wouldn't have hit him as hard. I am constantly bemoaning the fact that half the world doesn't define things that I do. But honestly, most of us aren't speaking the same language.

The truth is, every single one of us grew up using our language slightly differently and our understanding of it is slightly different from our neighbors, even our parents. For example, my best friend is a High School teacher and I am a parent of High School aged children. Both of us have language heavily colored by the language of the High School children we encounter every day, but her High Schoolers are in New York and mine are in Michigan. When we went of vacation together she described something as "sick". I couldn't tell if she thought it was good or bad. This is just one word.

We speak to each other on the phone on a pretty regular basis and often have to say "Okay, when you say that, do you mean it the way I understand it?" Just to put this in context; we have known each other since the 4th grade. We grew up almost across the street from each other. We went to the same school. Neither of us has an accent that the other can discern. Sometimes we finish each others' sentences. Sometimes we don't speak the same language.

Even my husband and children and I run into this problem.

The words we use aren't just colored by the definitions we are taught are attached to them. They are colored by the context in which we learn them and use them and the emotional and intellectual experiences that accompany their use in our lives specifically. Even our next door neighbor who went to the same school, whose mom was friends with our mom might not, on some occasions, be speaking the same American English you are. She is speaking her English and you are understanding with your English and the result could be something completely different from the intention.

Here, are a few examples of some words that have completely different meanings to people who might not be so different:

Myth to me, myth is cultural truth. It may not be literal truth, but it is real in the sense that it has an effect on cultural development. When people use the myth to mean "falsehood", it makes me sad.
Pagan many people use the word Pagan to mean Godless. Some as the opposite of Christian. Some as a synonym for Wicca. I use Pagan to describe someone who worships any pre-conversion Gods.
Real Christian Some use this word for people who are very charitable. Others insist that people aren't "real Christians" unless they are hateful to some specified group. It's totally mind boggling. If you just look at the words, you'd think it meant someone who really tried to be like Christ.
God my husband and I do not mean the same thing when we say God. My grandmother means something entirely different when she says it.
Daemon many people see this word and think of the modern spelling demon. And that's fine. It still means something different to me than to most. A daemon is an earthbound spirit. A God or perhaps a demigod if you will, who hangs out in the material world.
Sex Copulation? Oral sex? Anal sex? Digital penetration? What is sex? Some people use the word sex to mean gender (I don't like this). And more importantly, when you have sex, what does it mean? Is it fun calisthenics, or does it mean love and commitment? Some people think that you can't commit to someone unless you promise not to have sex with someone else. Other people think that's silly. Sex means so many different things to different people.
Love the Greeks knew what they were doing when they made a bunch of different words for love. How weird that we say "I love you" after intercourse and while tucking our kids into bed or sending them off to school. In some households it's just a praise phrase, like "good boy".
Friend The word friend means something different to a five year old than it does to a 50 year old. It means something quite different to a socialite than it means to recluse. And then of course there's Facebook further complicating things.
Marriage the whole heart of the marriage equality debate is the question of definitions. What is marriage? To me it's a legal contract that makes some folks who were previously not related into a family responsible for each other. (I see no reason gender needs to have anything to do with it and I don't see any point in limiting numbers either.)
Gender  To some this refers to the equipment you were born with. To others it refers more to what you feel inside. I don't pretend to understand gender. Whatever you tell me you are I will go with.
Vegetarian to some this means someone who only eats vegetable matter. To others it means someone who does not eat red meat. In my husband's case it meant someone who only ate potatoes and burritos. When I was a vegetarian I always told the waitress right off the bat and asked her what she recommended. Most recommended the tuna. (Not a vegetable.)

This phenomenon is not a secret. Industries bank on it. They use words with ambiguous meanings all the time.

They say things like:
Made with Non GMO ingredients
When you look at this, you're supposed to think "No GMOs=good." But really all it means is that at least one ingredient is not GMO.
Made with Natural ingredients, you're supposed to think "Natural ingredients=good" but all it means is that at least one of the ingredients would be recognized in Nature.
Healthy I don't even know. It may mean that it has less fat than something else or less sugar or less salt or or fewer calories or it may mean that it has whole ingredients. But when you look at it it means whatever Healthy means to you. To me, it means "in good health" so when you say "healthy food" I am looking for luxuriant green veggies and shiny, fragrant ripe fruit. Dead stuff just doesn't qualify in my book. (but the dictionary allows this usage and so whenever I bring this up I earn the bug eyed look from my husband.)

When I do a training sheet, the first thing I start with is definitions. It's not because I think my clients are stupid, it's because I want us to be on the same page. When training dogs, it is very important that you pick a word and stick with it. So when I say "off" and the owner says "down" and I say "down" and the owner says "lay down", we have a problem. I don't care whose word we use, but we have to make sure we're speaking the same language for the dog's sake.

To assume, or at least entertain the possibility that you and I aren't speaking the same language is not rude or insulting. It is actually respectful of our differences. It opens up the door to true communication and understanding between people. Therapists do this all the time when they tell folks to repeat back what they heard the other person say. One of the biggest problems couple have is the fact that they simply don't speak the same language.

So the next time you're confused and starting to feel annoyed and insulted, go ahead and gently interrupt the person talking and say "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I understand you properly and I really would like to. When you say this, do you mean it in the way I understand it?" and see what happens. It may be enlightening. Or maybe you were right and he's being an ass, but at least you'll know for sure.

(1/15/14)

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