Tag Archives: understanding

Language and Psychology

They say we are what we eat, but is it also true that we are what we say?

As I sit here pondering how to integrate all our techniques for grounding and calming, how to develop habits to overcome my tendency to panic and to face life with an attitude that results in capable, adult handling of situations rather than my usual babyish crying and tantrum throwing, I am reminded of how the English language might affect us.

Often, I am afraid.

In French, J’ai peur.  Literally, that means “I have fear.”

In Spanish, Tengo miedo.  Literally, “I have fear.”

How come in English I AM afraid?  I AM the fear?  When you HAVE something, isn’t it much easier to get rid of it?  Race down the highway and toss it out the window?  Bye bye fear?  I have fear in my pocket, pick it out and throw it in the trash.  Worst case scenario, I throw out the pants.

I AM afraid.  That’s part of my being.  That’s essential to my existence.  I AM Elena, I AM a Mama, I AM afraid.  

I can say, I FEEL afraid or I EXPERIENCE fear, I suppose.  But that is not my go-to expression.  No, I AM hungry, tired, overwhelmed, sad.  Okay, none of those things right this minute, but I just mean when I feel something, I AM it.

At least in Spanish, they may say “I am sad,” but they have two forms of the verb “to be,” one indicates a temporary state, one is a permanent state of being.  Guess which one is used for emotions?  They give themselves a way out!  Do we?

Does our use of verbs have any psychological effect, or AM I just trippin’?

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“Each instant…”

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“Each instant is a place we’ve never been.” — Mark Strand

And here you are with me.

Even though as you read this, I have gone off somewhere else, to another place.  But I was here in this moment of now once, as you are.  I was aware of the letters on the screen, how they were coalescing neatly into words that you recognize, that trigger “Aha!” because we’ve seen them all before.

The familiarity of the words does not prevent them causing an almost imperceptible shiver down the spine at the moment we realize the mysterious dance of human communication.

Each word I write has been used countless times before, worn along the edges so that they slide effortlessly into your mind and fall into the groove of understanding, but you’ve never heard them exactly as I say them to you now.  Each time is the first time that you look at the screen today, at this hour, with the new experience you have acquired since yesterday.

This instant now is another place we’ve never been, many thoughts away from the first sentence, where you took my hand and I yours and we walked a ways.  We ended up here, in this other place, this new instant, looking each other briefly, perhaps affectionately, catching the awareness there inside the eye, before saying farewell, until next time.

May the places you go and the instants you live today feed your soul.

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Understanding

“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?

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