“I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
– Robert McCloskey
I think this convoluted quote is the essence of what I find so fascinating about words, language, communication in all its many forms, from a simple phrase uttered sarcastically, “Don’t you look great…” so that its basic meaning is twisted into a Joker grin, to a woman’s shy smile and downcast eyes that tell a man across the bar, “Come hither…”
There is meaning, instinct, drive, passion in our minds and in our hearts, in our very bones and we vibrate with it, attempting through our howling and gyrating to transmit what we so desperately need others to know.
And so often it goes wrong. What may start as a simple misunderstanding, “Honey when I ask you to put your socks in the hamper what I really mean is that I need you to thank me for making such a nice dinner tonight that you gulped down without even noticing because all you ever pay attention to is wrestling but I can’t tell you directly because then it won’t mean anything if you say it…” and it ends up in court with two lawyers and a judge trying to pin down through legalspeak exactly what each party means to say.
Sometimes I think that my husband and I get along so well because we both hear what we want to hear, and that’s pretty much what the other person is saying. If he says, “That dinner was delicious” and I need to feel reassured about my mothering skills, I will extrapolate that, well, if I make a tasty dinner, then the kids will surely eat it, and they will therefore be nourished, which is one of my primary parenting functions, so therefore I must rock as a mother! And I can say, “Thank you, honey,” and feel satisfied.
I know I spent a lot of my life doing the opposite of this. If I heard the above compliment I would have thought something like, “Oh sure, my parenting is so rotten that all you can think of to compliment is the food.” Or perhaps, “Maybe if I had spent less time working on dinner and more time reading to the kids, then I would be a better human.” Or some such. Looking for trouble, basically.
The point is, there is an awful lot of translating going on in communication. The quote introduces many of them: “know,” “believe,” “understand,” “think,” “say,” “realize,” “hear,” “mean.” Don’t forget about, “see,” “assume,” and “reckon.” All these actions and reactions ricochet around in our heads and in the space in between the communicators, reflecting, distorting, amplifying, blocking. Really it’s a wonder we ever “get” anything at all.
But sometimes, as in the above example with my husband, I find that if I just assume you said what I wanted you to say, then I can get things to go my way. Manipulation? I suppose. But I remember when I would use this while waiting tables in a restaurant. I think I used the technique to a good and noble effect.
For example, I remember once when a man came in with his wife and he was hellbent on having a crappy evening. I don’t know if this attitude was his M.O. or if he had just had the mother of nightmare days at work or what. Normally I would have gone into “civil” mode, just had the minimum of contact with the table, gotten them their food and then left them to duke it out.
But this time, maybe I felt sorry for his wife, I decided that I was going to do my usual pleasant schtick and he was going to play along if I had to clonk him over the head with a plate. He griped and snapped at me right off the bat, and I reacted as though he were being pleasant. At one point I could tell that he was annoyed that I wasn’t going to fight back, and neither was I going to grovel. He just didn’t know what to do with my stubbornly happy little persona.
Then halfway through the meal I came back to ask them in a chipper tone if they were enjoying the food. I could tell that his body had relaxed some, and he actually answered me with a neutral, ALMOST friendly voice. He was able to admit that the food was good.
Now did I purposely manipulate his emotions and trick him into acting the way I wanted him to? Maybe. That was definitely my intention. Might have been a coincidence. Maybe his wife had promised him some hot action later that night if he’d just hop off his high horse and chill. Who knows.
My point is, the listener has more power than we sometimes realize. Sometimes maybe I do “realize that what I heard is not what you meant” but that’s because what you said is mere thoughtless inanity, and maybe I can see that it’s not so helpful to you either, so I’m just going to “insert my message here” and see if that takes us to a happier place.
Now does that make any sense?