Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Being Careful with Words

I love words. I am really only starting to understand this phenomenon in my life, but I love them. Perhaps it stems from reading and writing about philosophy in my 6th grade research project. Perhaps it stems from learning French and majoring in Comparative Literature and French and living in France two different times. Perhaps it stems from living in a house with 6 people, 3 of whom were either linguists or closely related and another one whose vocabulary rivals the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps it is even why I went to law school and probably why I blog. Yes, words are important in my life.

The more I realize how important words are, the more I realize how careful we must be with them. While the exact percentage changes every time I see it, there is no question that the vast majority of our communication remains non-verbal. So as wonderful as words are, they are never the entire story. Thus, words on a page can be misinterpreted. They can be read with a tone not intended by the writer. This is part of the phenomenon that leads to the Downward Spiral of Email.

But there is another problem with words. We assume that they have one meaning, when in reality they can have different meanings in different languages, but sometimes in the same language but across countries. When living in France, I expected this would be a problem. We spent some time learning about les faux amies – “false friends” – words that look the same between the languages but have very different meanings.

My favorite example is the English word preservatives. While in English, this is something that is put into our “food,” in French, the word “preservatif” is the word for condom. This creates a slight problem for American students who head to France and inform their French host families and friends that they love France because there are no “preservatifs” in the food. You can imagine the look of surprise. Luckily, we were forewarned, so I did not make that mistake – came close at least once though.

I knew there were differences between English around the globe as well. When teaching in France, a French student once asked an English woman and me if we spoke the same language, and we just laughed. Examples? I learned not to tell her that I was pissed when I was around children, but to say pissed off (not at the children, do not worry, but at a situation in which I found myself where children were also present). I also learned that pants means something different, and I should use the word trousers when stating that they can be worn more than once. And to stay on the French topic, the one word I would not teach the French children was rubber, the Commonwealth word for what those in the United States would call an eraser. Are you noticing a theme to these words?

But I thought I knew them all when I came here to New Zealand. I thought I would be able to communicate effectively. Before arriving in the country, however, a friend who had spent substantial time in Australia warned me that you do not root for teams on this side of the Pacific – rooting has a very different meaning.

What does this look at words have to do with law? With yoga? I hope it is a reminder that we cannot just assume that people understand us. We cannot assume that what we think others are communicating is really what they mean. Yes, it is much quicker and easier to assume that our interpretation is correct and that others will somehow magically understand us, but that is not how the world works.  Unfortunately, the modern world requires us to move faster and faster, taking less time to ask questions, less time to clarify, and less time to actually have the face-to-face interactions that help minimize (though not eradicate) miscommunications.

Yoga off the mat means reflecting on these issues. While there are sometimes humorous interactions, believe me, there are also disastrous ones. Miscommunications become misunderstandings, which become downward spirals, which become intense dislike. But a few moments of awareness and clarification can help alleviate this problem. A few moments of yoga off the mat can ensure that we are communicating as well as we can and not gaining the essence of words rather than a knee-jerk reaction and assumption to what is happening around us.

Where have you most noticed miscommunication in your life? How have you tried to alleviate it?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment