Expect to Be Misunderstood 


Dear Daughters,

One of the things experienced writers recognize that others often don’t is just how likely their words are to be misunderstood–and/or to conjure ideas for some readers that they (the writers) never intended. This tendency toward misunderstanding is less a function of humanity’s tenuous relationship with reason than it is a consequence of how our languages actually work.

We tend to think of a language as an independent, wholly objective thing: a dictionary’s worth of words and a fixed set of rules for putting them to use. But neither the words nor the rules exist anywhere except in our constantly evolving shared conventions–which is to say, in our collective heads. And we never entirely agree either on what the words mean or on which rules we should follow in putting them to use. (If you doubt this, just ask a roomful of editors when to employ the Oxford comma.)

Different Languages

Truth be told, no two human beings speak exactly the same language. Nor does any one person speak exactly the same language throughout her life. We each continually learn our own versions of our languages, adding new words and meanings to our lexicons as well as new combinations and associations to the (sometimes incorrect) grammar and style guides we carry around inside our minds.

I continually add to my English, even as you add to yours. I sprinkle in smatterings of Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and German–as well as heavier doses of philanthropese, business-speak, and the metalanguage of literary theory. You sprinkle and smatter differently. You may speak some French or know the Norse Gods or the lexicon of Minecraft or any of the many, many other languages and dialects that are more or less foreign to me.

In any case, to anyone who pays close enough attention, your English will include sounds, flavors, textures, and colors that mine doesn’t. And no matter how close we are, my words will resonate a bit differently for you than they do for me.

Shared Meaning

What this means, in the end, is that we should all expect to misunderstand one another all of the time, at least to some degree. We should assume that even strings of words that are easy for us to grasp may be hard for other people to follow–especially if those people are distant from us physically, socially, emotionally, linguistically, or all of the above. And we should be patient with each other when we struggle to understand.

This struggle, in the end, is an invaluable thing. It enables us to work the unique form of magic that is human communication, the creation of shared meaning. Despite what we might initially expect, this magic does not consist of a discrete movement from “you completely misunderstand me” to “you totally get me.” Rather, it consists of an ongoing progression from “you completely misunderstand me” to “we understand each other better, and we’re both a little wiser for the effort.”




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