What I Meant to Say Was

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately.  I have noticed a few things about myself as I’ve experienced life and grown a little older.  I suspect I am a naturally poor communicator most of the time, and saying what I actually mean can be really difficult.  [Incidentally, I am also not the person you want riding shotgun if you need a navigator; I have the worst timing.  We will miss the exit at least once.]

I know I’m not alone in the realm of poor communication.  Observation of others has helped me think a bit more about how clearly (or not) I communicate.  I was always taught that communication is three parts:  the transmitter, the message, and the receiver.  I wonder sometimes if it isn’t four:  The transmitter, the intended message, the receiver, and the actual message.

I am fascinated when I observe two separate conversations between people at the same time, and I wonder how often it happens to me.

Recently, my friend’s son had surgery, and I was at the hospital with her.  It was a long, stressful day [several days, really, but this was the first day].  After surgery, when he was finally settled into his room in the PICU, she and I decided to grab a bite to eat.  Already tired of the smell of antiseptic, and knowing we had a few more days in front of us, we decided to leave the hospital campus to get a late lunch at an outdoor cafe.  During lunch, she checked her phone and saw that in the she’d missed a call from the hospital.  Concerned that something was wrong, she excused herself to return the call.  After four or five transfers, the PICU nurse who originally placed the call picked up:

  • Friend:  This is Zordona the Magnificent*, mother of Prince Jacobin of Asteroth.  Someone just called me, is everything okay?
  • Nurse:  Yes, I was just calling to let you know that Lord Asteroth is a little fussy, and didn’t know if you wanted him to have a bottle.
  • Friend (confused):  Yes, of course.  Do you need me to come back right away, or do I have time to finish lunch?
  • Nurse:  No, no, you have a few minutes.
  • Friend:  Okay, I’ll be there soon.

*Names have been slightly altered

I thought about what I heard, and wondered if the little guy was going to get fed, or if he’d still be waiting for his mom to return.  After she hung up, we talked about the conversation.  She expected that a phone call from the hospital would be some sort of urgent news, emergency, or complication.  Of course, we were both relieved that it wasn’t.   She was a bit flummoxed that the nursing staff would phone her to get permission to feed her child.  I mentioned that the nursing staff had probably assumed we were in the hospital cafeteria, since we didn’t tell them differently, and were probably just courtesy calling to see if she wanted them to wait so she could feed him herself.

From my perspective, it seemed like two very different conversations happened simultaneously, and lent themselves to a bit of confusion on both sides.

Conversation 1 [My Friend’s Perspective]:

  • Nurse:  His Royal Highness is fussy.  And probably hungry. Do you want him fed?
  • Friend:  Of course I want him fed!  Just to clarify again:  He is alive, right?  Is my immediate physical presence required to ensure he remains so?
  • Nurse:  Yes, he’s alive.  No, you don’t have to be here.  I just wanted to tell you he was hungry.  And fussy.
  • Friend: OMGosh!  I’m so relieved to hear he’s alive!  I nearly had a heart attack when I saw you called so I’ll be there soon and probably never leave his side again.

Takeaway:  Did that nurse really just call me to ask if it was okay to feed a hungry baby?

Conversation 2 [The Nurse’s Perspective]:

  • Friend:  You rang?
  • Nurse:  Your baby is hungry.  Do you want me to give him a bottle or would you prefer to do it yourself when you come back upstairs?
  • Friend:  Yes.  Do I need to return immediately?
  • Nurse:  Well, he’s definitely hungry, but I’m sure he’ll survive until you return.
  • Friend:  I’ll be right there.

Takeaway:  I wonder if I should feed him, or wait until she gets back from the cafeteria.

I’m not exactly sure when I started my quest to use words more deliberately and accurately.  I think it probably started in Writing 1010 (during my second attempt at college).   That’s when my grad student instructor pointed out [to me specifically] that, while it is a useful tool, a thesaurus is not always the best resource for word selection.  Similar meanings are not identical meanings.  I use the dictionary a lot more frequently now.

About a year and half ago, I started trying to drop the word “should” from my vocabulary.  Mostly I was guilty of “shoulding” on myself, which wasn’t actually helpful or kind and didn’t make me feel motivated to do better.  It just made me feel guilty for everything I wasn’t doing, or everything I was doing wrong.  I started catching myself “shoulding” on others… usually when I was dispensing unsolicited advice.  The reality is that I have no idea what someone else should or shouldn’t do most of the time.  And that word is just full of judgment, so no one ever feels good when they’ve been should on.  Now I usually only use it when I am encouraging someone to follow through with an idea (mine or theirs), and it’s usually spoken with great excitement,  “OMGoodness!  We should totally do that!”**

**Please note, if I am that enthusiastic about something, it probably isn’t actually a great idea; please don’t ever trust my judgment.  Ever.  Really.

I had a conversation with a friend one day about my avoidance of the word “should” and she told me that she had a list of ten words on her fridge to avoid.  I don’t recall what all of them were, but included among them – in addition to should – is the word “need.”  I thought that was a little odd at first, and wondered what was wrong with it.  But I started paying closer attention to when I use the word need (and how often), and how inaccurate it usually is.  There really are few things I need on a daily basis.  I need food.  I do not need to go to Lowe’s to buy more project components.  It would be helpful/nice/beneficial/expensive to go to Lowe’s to buy components.  Heck, most of the time I don’t even need to go to the grocery store; there’s almost always something in my cupboard, and if I hadn’t given up cooking for Lent, I could probably whip something up.  Like should, need also tends to induce a sense of guilt for things one does [or does not accomplish].

There.  That’s done.  Now maybe my inner monologue will quit saying, “You need to write a blog post.  You should be ashamed of yourself for how long it’s been.”

Also… sorry if this post was long and boring.  Sometimes I am just exorcising thought demons.  Here is a picture of a stuffed whale to break up the monotony:

Toy Whale



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6 Responses to What I Meant to Say Was

  1. Ben says:

    I think about this a lot. I sometimes wonder if I am even speaking the same language as the person to whom I am speaking. Often people above me, as I try to execute what I think they asked me to do. Or when I try to explain something and they feel I am being obtuse. Strangely, I never had this (reported) problem with my students or subordinates. Only my equals and superiors. The key thing is that I am honestly trying to communicate in good faith, but I seem to come across otherwise. Sigh.

    • stubbs says:

      Someday I hope to be fluent in telepathy… then I can just let people read my mind and they’ll finally understand what I’m thinking eliminating the need for speech altogether. Oh wait. That sounds horrible. I like to verbalize every single thought that comes into my mind – even especially to myself.

  2. Walter says:

    *sarcastic remark* You should add superfluous words to your rants. I need more to read. *sarcastic remark*

    In the past I carefully chose my words. I wanted to convey exactly what I meant in a way to avoid any possible ambiguity. Inside the halls of education, it usually wasn’t an issue. In the real world, not so much. I grew tired of explaining myself. I got tired of explaining my explanation. I got tired of… You get the idea.

    I slowly learned it didn’t matter if I knew the definitions of the words I used if the other person had a different understanding what the words meant (or none at all). Over the years I learned the only possible person who understood exactly what I meant was me. Now I am wondering if I needed a comma after “Over the years” in the previous sentence or not. I had one initially but removed it. I’m still trying to determine whether or not to sneak back and include one.

    I have found that a certain level of word ambiguity often works better in casual conversation. It helps to simplify your vocabulary until you know the one with which you are conversing well enough to gauge the level of comprehension they have of your vocabulary. Of course if each person is using the lowest common denominator vocabulary, it could take years to discover the others hidden linguistic skills. Sometimes the realization someone has better skills can be invigorating.

    Not too long ago I was having a casual conversation with a co-worker I’ve known for years. She had me on speakerphone because someone else was with her in her office and had a question. Talking to the other person, she dropped a word that I hadn’t heard in years. It made my day. It made my frigging day!

    I expressed my pleasure upon hearing the word. Okay, I blubbered. I hadn’t been prepared to be astonished that someone else appreciated that word. I may or may not have said “If I didn’t already like you, I would now”. Unfortunately I haven’t had another opportunity to speak with her. When I do, I will will use a lessor common denominator vocabulary.

    Isn’t it strange that the same language can cause a chasm between two people operating on different linguistic levels and yet bring some closer together once they discover a higher common ground? One of the things I love about you is that you make me want to elevate my conversation level with you. I enjoy flexing my atrophied linguistic muscle. I thank you for that.

    Nope. I’m not going to add that comma. You’ll have to let me know if it was the correct choice or not.

    • stubbs says:

      I cannot be trusted for feedback on commas; I love them far too well, and have been known to overuse and abuse them.

      I’ve been trying to think of a way to respond to your observations concerning the divisive and/or inclusive nature of language and determined that I can’t state it was well as you have. So I will simply state that I agree. A common vocabulary is important, and it is most delightful when that vocabulary is expansive.

  3. John Bartlein says:

    I should think that I am in need of a blue stuffed whale.

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