Talking Past One Another: When the Same Word Means Two Different Things

Have you ever been in a conversation — maybe an argument, maybe just a talk — and felt like the other person was hearing something different than what you were saying? Worse still, did they accuse of you of not listening to them even when you were listening, and even when you could recite what they said?

If the answer to these questions was yes, then it had to be an irritating, even frustrating experience … and you probably wondered if the other person was speaking your language (presumably English).

Here’s the problem: they probably weren’t speaking your language.

Here’s what I mean.

Everyone has a slightly different language than everyone else. Regionally, it’s easy to see; people in Massachusetts and Mississippi use different expressions … to say nothing of people from different countries, like Australia or the United Kingdom. My wife and I once stayed in Scotland, where our tour guide told us that, since there were no telephones in the guest rooms in our vintage hotel, staff would come to our room the next day and “knock us up.” We delicately explained that, in America, that was an expression for getting someone pregnant, which was not what he meant. (We suspect he already knew that and was making a joke.)

But even among family members the language can be different. My wife and I recently had a friendly debate over what the words “a couple” and “a few” and “several” mean, and when we asked others, we discovered plenty of differences. For some people (including me), “a couple” meant “two” and “a few” meant “three,” while for my wife they were far more fluid terms. Likewise, when I say “let’s watch a movie” I have a different set of ideals in my head than my wife or daughters do.

The reason is that we each have our own assumptions and subtexts about words. Some of that is shaped by the worlds we live in, while other parts are shaped by our experiences. When you think the word “dad,” do you smile, or does your face cloud over in sadness or even anger? When you think “math,” do you get excited or do you find yourself filled with dread?

The fact that we all think differently about the same words is really important. That’s how, for example, we can wind up in an argument where it seems like we’re talking past one another.

Let’s take a political example. (That can’t possibly be dangerous, right?)

Guns.

You want to really destroy a good party, ask a group of people what they think about guns. you’ll find it’s incredibly difficult for two people with different attitudes on guns to have a civil debate on the gun issue. Why is that? Is it because people just have different political beliefs?

Partially. But it’s also a language barrier. Bernie Sanders, the senator from rural-but-liberal Vermont, once remarked that “guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles.” Part of his meaning is that the word “gun” has an entirely different subtext to a person who lives 30 miles from the nearest town versus someone who lives in a dense urban area, and when the two try to have a conversation, they interpret each other’s language very differently because of it.

Here’s a relationship example: “You don’t love me.” The other person in the relationship might say, “Of course I do!” How is that possible? The simple answer is that the two people might define love in different ways. For one of them, paying the bills might be enough … while the other might associate love with gifts or time or intimacy. That’s how one person could feel unloved while the other person might have no clue about it.

Here’s another example: “Get out of my face.” Those words were shouted to me, years ago, by an angry student. What I learned later was that those words were rooted in a broken family and troubled childhood. My definition of those words was, initially, an attack on me personally; only later did I realize that those words had more to do with not wanting to be hurt again.

So how do we get past this? How do we make sure that we mean the same things when we use the same words? Coming to a common understanding isn’t always easy. Some people don’t want — or even know how — to explain what they mean by what they say, and sometimes even the definition can get entangled in other words that may not have the same meaning. The end result is a lot of misunderstanding and hard feelings.

The only antidote is communication, and that starts with questions. Things like:

  • What does the word “__________” mean to you?
  • When you say “__________,” what other words do you connect that with?
  • What in the past or in your life has shaped how you feel about “__________?”
  • What makes “__________” important to you?

Those alone may not make everything clear. But the better you become at being “bilingual,” the more understanding you will have, especially with those you care about.


What about you? Any words or phrases that you’ve come across that have different meanings to different people?

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