“Say what you mean and mean what you say” is a useful phrase when it comes to communication, though one easier said than done. Easier, especially, when you think in words. If you’re like me and think mostly in images and internal movies, the best sorts of communication come with wild gesticulations, drawn diagrams and interpretive dance. Which, of course, isn’t so great when trying to communicate with anyone else.
Every day, we are required to communicate with tens, if not hundreds, of people. From your housemates or family to the check-out personnel at the supermarket, there are many interactions that require conforming to social norms. There are the train trips where appropriate communication is almost none at all, and where, strangely, saying “excuse me” to get from the window seat and into the vestibule in order to alight at your station requires whispering. No matter that the train is so loud that they probably won’t hear you, that you are required to avoid eye contact lest you find out something personal about this individual only microns away from you, and that you fall into some bizarre form of social devolvement every time you enter a train.
For something we do all of the time, we’re not very good at communicating.
We all have our own dialect. With the breadth of the English language, we have the capacity to use a variety of words and sentence constructs in order to express the same thing. But, what might be a positive expression for me could easily be interpreted as a negative one for someone else. The message between the lines for me may mean something entirely different to that which the deliverer had intended. And so we end up miscommunicating. When this happens standing side by side in a cafeteria or over coffee with a friend, it’s no wonder that we have so many problems arising from our shortened text messages, written hurriedly while trying to be an invisible passenger escaping from the train. It’s no wonder arguments arise, friendships breakdown, appointments are missed and opportunities wasted.
Let’s think about a really small (and simple) example. Imagine I were to meet you, one of my good friends, in a bookstore with a fabulous café. We meet outside with a simple, “How are you?” which rarely actually enquires as to your state of mind but more serves as an acknowledgement that we’ve sighted each other and are glad to have organized this catch up. We move indoors, chatting about whatever. Before settling down to order a pick-me-up, we wander through the book aisles. You pick up a book I’ve read before and ask, “what do you think about this?” Perhaps I’ve read that book, and I tell you it’s great. Or, I could judge it solely on the cover and remark that it looks good. Today, I’ll tell you I read it and it was interesting. But what does that mean? Did I enjoy reading the book and think you should read it yourself? Or do I think it had some useful facts? Or am I trying to be positive about a book that I think you might want to read? Or is it that I’m really intent on getting to the coffee and wanted to palm off your question. Or maybe I’m distracted and “I’ve read it and it was interesting” is the easiest thing to think about over and over whatever thoughts are rolling around in my head. Because you’re fascinated by the book, maybe you don’t notice the nuances within my answer. What I really meant was that the book kept me up each night turning page after page, and made me late in the morning because it was so interesting that I just kept on reading. But you didn’t catch that, because at the same time as trying to answer your question, I was distracted by a book I saw on the shelf in front of me, which looked….well…interesting.
Now, there are many variables within that simple example. But imagine if we hadn’t have been good friends and you hadn’t known me inside out. Imagine we’d just met. Or it wasn’t a conversation about something as trivial as a book. Imagine instead that it had been an email you sent me about a work topic. Or a quiet cry to be heard in a world where you feel like you're disappearing. Or a text about catching up because it's been so long, in this busy world, since we'd seen each other.
Think back to all of those times you’ve said you’d “maybe” go to an event and really meant “not unless I’m not busy watching the grass grow” or the times when people have told you they might come along and you’ve thought that meant “I’ll be there unless I get squashed on the train.” Think about all of those times you’ve asked one question when you’ve really meant another, and gotten a response that you thought answered the invisible question but instead asked the one you asked.
I’m not always very good at asking the question I need to ask. But I have discovered I do better when conversations are in person. And if not in person, I’ll try to call you. And if I can’t call you, I’ll send an email. And if I can’t do that, well, I’ll send you a text message if I think what I need to say can be explained that simply. But I’ve learnt the hard way even that gets lost in translation.
I’m setting a bit of a challenge for myself and I’m hoping you’ll take it up for yourself. I’m going to try to ask you the question I wanted answered. And I’m going to try to answer the question you ask. If I think you’re asking me something else, I’ll ask you if that’s what you mean. And if I’m confused, I’ll let you know. I’ll try to use fewer ambiguous words like “interesting” and “good”, instead taking a little longer to explain what I really mean. And yes, I’ll still have to repress the need for that inner third-speaker to rebut everything you say (seriously, it’s a challenge to realize you can’t always win an argument, have the last word or be “right.”).
It’ll be a learning curve for both of us because, despite the breadth of meaning available to us in the English language, it’s very easy to miscommunicate. Hopefully, I’ll say what I mean and mean what I say. Even if sometimes that’s difficult and a little scary. And even if that makes me vulnerable.