Friday, April 25, 2014

Things we say, and what we mean

I recently had a conversation with an almost-stranger about how she says something that regularly bothers one of her co-workers: she will call him “kiddo” out of habit.

Her co-worker is bothered by this because, to him, it implies that he is just a kid—that is, that he is too young to take seriously. This, even though he is in his late 20s, or perhaps early 30s. 

When she says this, though, she doesn’t mean to imply that; she says that she calls people old and young alike “kiddo” and that she means it as a term of familiarity, even mild affection.

Another example

This reminded me of the phrase “bless your heart,” which many (especially southerners!) will say as a sort of code for, “oh, you poor fool.” 

And yet, I have a good friend who will say this with utter sincerity, truly wishing blessing on whomever he says it to. He doesn’t mean any condescension, though he is aware of the “typical” other meaning that is condescending. When he says “bless your heart” he truly means to invoke blessing on his companion.

Which Is Right?

When I studied communication in college (and when I taught it in the Rhetoric class that I taught for five years), a key principle that I learned and passed on to others was this:

Communication is what the other person hears.

In other words, intent can only take us so far. While we may mean to say, “You’re someone that I can relate to” (as in, “kiddo”) or, “I recognize the struggle you’ve been facing, and God bless you for enduring it” (as sometimes intended by my friend’s “bless your heart”), we have to recognize that the hearer may receive our words quite differently.

Tnwim cover

Tim Stafford, in his excellent book That’s Not What I Meant!, gets to the heart of this well. He recognizes that sometimes our words come across quite differently than intended (as the title clearly implies!), and that our words that we mean to be healing can sometimes hurt.

Tim’s book is a great study in how we can do better with this. While I don’t mean for this to be a book review, I do highly recommend Tim’s book (which is being re-released by Doulos Resources, a ministry that I work with—full disclaimer). By the way, you can order Tim’s book here.

Tim has some great advice in his book about communicating well. about the situation I described above, he says this:

Perhaps they get the message you think they should. But perhaps not. Perhaps they only sometimes understand. And wouldn’t it be better if your family and friends didn’t need a codebook to interpret your words? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say what you actually mean?

It Swings The Other Way Too

I’ll never forget how a friend of mine stood before a group of a couple hundred people at a campus ministry meeting in college and confessed his sin to them. He felt the need for such a public confession because he realized he had hurt so many people with it. What was this grievous sin my friend confessed?

He was a jokester. 

My friend liked to play pranks on others. He could spin a yarn for hours, and do it with utter believability. He had a knack for finding the irony in just about any situation and turning that into a good round of laughter. (On more than one occasion, this was a needed breath of light-heartedness that was just right in a heavy moment.)

What’s wrong with that? Well, in carrying out his pranks my friend preyed on the gullible. He was skilled at creating a moment when he would reveal his joke for what it was, to maximize the embarrassment of his victim. On more than one occasion, he had taken things too far—so far that a number of people didn’t trust a word he said. Humor is always at someone’s expense. My friend always collected; he never paid out.

Until that evening, when he opened the Bible and read to us from Proverbs 26:18–19:

“ Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, 'I am only joking!’"

My friend had read those words and they cut to his heart. He realized that HE was that madman. He had wounded so many with his pranks and jokes, and then laughed them off as just being funny.

We all learned from him in that season of life. We learned that what we mean and what we say don’t always line up—and that costs us the integrity that Jesus expects of us. 

It pays to give attention to how our words are perceived by others. It’s not always just what we mean when we say something that is communicative; everyone hears with their own ears.

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