I had a discussion with a friend a bit back, in which I commented on the issues of saying ‘I suck’ and she said…”What I think he really means is…” It gave me a double take. What on earth were we doing, trying to interpret so simple a statement? I’ve had situations where I apparently should have understood ‘never’ to mean something less absolute, and where my saying ‘no’ was not understood as ‘no’ by the person hearing me. This is dangerous territory.
I can point at a few things that got us here. There’s the pop-psychology stream, giving us a tenuous shared grasp of interpretation. What does he really mean? What is she implying? It’s become more relevant because parts of modern life are full of double speak. When someone selling a property says ‘spacious feeling’ we know the place is probably small. Any time a politician opens their mouth, we expect them to say something other than what they mean, carefully hedged so that afterwards they can pretend they were honest with us all along. We’ve learned to mistrust apparently plain speech.
The idea that someone means something other than what they’ve said feeds the passive aggressive approach, and is fed by it. “Fine” does not always means fine. Sometimes it means furious. “Do what you like” can mean “do what I want you to do or suffer the consequences.” It can also be the defeated whimper of a person who has given up trying to get themselves heard, and that can be problematic, too.
The trouble with interpretation, is that you can read anything in, and insist on its presence regardless of what the person speaking tells you they meant. You can go further and decide the other person had unconscious impulses that make your interpretation right. If you want to do something they are not consenting to, deciding you can interpret their unspoken desires is a route to doing as you please. “I know what you really want” is a dangerous and destructive line to take.
We second guess each other. We look for deeper meanings and implications that weren’t there. All too often we ignore the possibility that the surface language was fair and true. If we can’t tune into each other’s distortions and double speak at this point, we are doomed to mutual incomprehension. Then we can follow through by blaming each other for lying and misleading.
Language is a flawed, but also fantastic tool. It is the underpinning of human co-operation and we depend upon it to share and develop ideas. And yet we deploy it carelessly, and bend other peoples’ to distort their meanings. We do not say what we mean and then get angry when other people fail to understand us. Or we get angry with the people who do carefully speak and understand in literal ways.
We need to say what we mean. We also need to assume other people are saying what they mean because it’s probably the only hope we have of weaning each other off passive-aggressive language use. We need to give a good, hard look at those facets of our culture that are corrupting language with on-going misuse. Or we end up unable to talk meaningfully with each other, interpreting ‘I never want to do that,’ as ‘maybe later’ and “you are hurting me,” as “I like this, please do it again.”
I gather it is a Domestic Abuse awareness week here in the UK. I’d like to point out that wilful re-interpretation and misinterpretation can go a long way to enabling abuse. When nothing you say is taken at face value, it is impossible to speak. Your words will be reinterpreted to suit the inclinations of your abuser. When nothing they say is to be taken at face value, and you might be harmed if you don’t understand what they really want, words become weapons. They become the justification for weapons. Interpretation can become a reason for violence, for forced sex, for shouting and breaking things. The implications are huge.
Taking a person at their word is an important mark of respect. If that is taken from you, the damage to your sense of self is massive. Being able to trust what you hear is essential if you are to feel secure. If you’ve got to constantly second-guess what is being said to you, then you never feel safe or comfortable, you are always anxious and on edge. That’s no way to live. If a wrong interpretation will lead to a denigrating bout of verbal abuse, or a bodily assault, you learn to be really afraid of getting it wrong. You also feel like this is your fault and responsibility – you are the one too stupid to understand, so it’s because of your mistakes that you are assaulted. There’s huge psychological implications to feeling that way. It destroys your sense of self.
This is what we do to each other when we let over-interpretation go unchallenged. We make a culture in which some women are not able to say no to sex because their words are twisted to mean other things. We make a culture in which some men think its ok to hit the person who didn’t get what they really meant. If we stop abusing the language we will edge in the direction of not abusing each other.