November 12

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Why We Are Often Misunderstood

"But that isn't what I meant!" You hear the complaint loud and clear.

A misunderstanding. One reason for misunderstandings is we tend to assume others see things exactly as we do, that they share similar viewpoints. That's a false premise.

You would think since we all use the same language, whenever we say something, we'd be understood. Not so. 

We see things differently partly because we each have different experiences. Having different experiences, we often interpret the exact same event differently, give it a different meaning.

Not only do we see things differently based on our experiences, we also see things differently based on our beliefs, needs and interests. A 16-year-old male walking down a busy street with his mother might notice an attractive young woman, while his mother pays attention to the clothing display in Macy's window.

More Than Attention and Beliefs

But it isn't only the attention we pay to something and the different beliefs we hold, it is also the words we use that can make true understanding difficult. For instance, the 500 most commonly used English words have more than 14,000 dictionary definitions. Moreover, word definitions change with time.

Just consider the word "run." We "run" into people. "Runs" in baseball are how you keep score. You "run" a business. She has a "run" in her stocking. I am going for a "run." How in the world does someone know what kind of "run" we're talking about? It's how it's used. Its context. In English, context gives the word its meaning.

The more specific we are, the clearer our meaning. For example: When someone says, "The government is..." That is meaningless without know which branch of government the person means. Is it the federal government, state or the local government? Better yet, which agency of the government is under discussion.

The Advantage of the Spoken Word.

This is the advantage of the spoken word. With the tone of our voice, the variations in pitch, our pace and emphasis  we are able to give more meaning to our words. It's easier to say what we mean. Usually.

By using the correct words and giving them proper emphasis, we are more likely to be understood. Regrettably too many people imitate someone who is using words incorrectly.

For instance, some people try to sound more intelligent by using the word "simplistic" for "simple." Unfortunately, "simplistic" means taking something complex and simplifying it unrealistically. The definition given by Merriam-Webster:  "treating a problem or subject with false simplicity by omitting or ignoring complicating factors or details." The person using "simplistic" for "simple" gives the distinct impression they don't know what they're talking about.

A Good Habit

A good habit to acquire is to look up words you're not sure about. Believe it or not, even words we think we know, often have several meanings. One way to see if you really know a word's meaning is to try to define it. There are times I think I know a word, only to discover I don't. 

Why not start a game with those close to you to add say three new words a week? They can be words you find in your reading that are either new or you would have a hard time defining. It could be fun!


Tags

Words matter.


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