Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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Words mean things.

Published: 22 Feb 2012

I told my wife that I was surprised how many parents don’t sacrifice their happiness for their kids. She was surprised at what I said and we discussed it further. I had to admit that my wording was melodramatic.

What I really meant was that parents will often times choose their own happiness over family obligations. Maybe it’s just having a beer and ignoring their kids after a hard day at work. Usually it’s something minor.

When I want to go do something and don’t because I need to do something for the family, I’m sacrificing my happiness. It may just be for 5 minutes, but it’s a sacrifice. The way I phrased it made my wife think I meant something more meaningful. Oops.

The thing is that I meant exactly what I said, just much smaller. Saying “sacrifice” brings a lot of meaning and size with it. Context matters, but still the word is packed with meaning. Lots of words are packed with meaning.

People do not wield the power of meaning correctly.

I often encounter people who say something intending to be polite while the recipient ends up receiving the message incorrectly. It’s politicking and it’s a problem.

However, it’s an admirable problem. It’s a problem because people genuinely want other people to feel happy and secure. I have to constantly balance what I say with the interpretation of the other person. I speak very directly and often times without emotion. The associated meaning of someone talking flatly, without emotion is that they’re upset.

So I speak with emotion, or try to. Intensity usually blends in. Then people think I’m angry. At least for a little bit, then they get to know me and either think I’m always angry or that’s just the way I am.

In any case, we learn to communicate and I have to adapt the way I talk to the audience. It’s the only way to ensure my message is delivered. That is what counts, that is why we talk. Delivery of the message. Never forget that when talking to other people.

The biggest danger is when people think unspoken rules are understood. Or even known about.

The Second Rule of Miscommunication is wondering what rules.

A few months ago I was away from the house, and I call home to talk to the family. I had a very rude reception because my wife found a bug in the house. Not just any bug, her least favorite bug. I maintain a 3 month schedule of spraying insecticide down and it keeps the bugs out. Except for the last few weeks, a straggler or two may make it through and die on our kitchen floor.

I didn’t understand why I was being blamed for it. I maintained my schedule that we had both agreed upon. However, before my trip she casually mentioned, “I better not see any bugs while you’re gone!”

In her mind, the delivery of her message was complete. What she was really saying was, “It’s been a while and I think it’s maybe rained, so if you could spray before you go I’d feel better!” She didn’t say that, and what I heard I thought was a joke about her anxiety.

She was very, very unhappy about the bug. We sent it out to jury to see who was in the right, and it was ruled mostly in my favor. Purely because of the expectations of understanding were on her, not on me. She needed to make sure I understood her message. I didn’t, not my fault.

The two prongs of miscommunication.

Incorrectly applied politeness is easier to detect if you’re observant and not the type to take advantage of others. It can be handled by the recipient easier. Missing veiled messages is a lot harder, especially when people have a sense of humor. It’s the difference between saying what you want wrapped in wonderful, happy words versus not saying what you want and leaving a step of indirect inference on the part of the listener.

In addition to gentle nudges being indiscernible from jokes, missing these can make one look foolish. The other party thinking, “Geez, can’t this guy take a hint?”

Really, I can’t. I shouldn’t have to. Deliver your message in a clearly addressed envelope. Watch me open it. Make sure I read it. Then you can move on.

Today I had a sales guy come into my home and miss very obvious “Not Interested in your Swim Group, Church or you hints.” Thank him for this writing, and for my wife finding a bug in mid-August of 2011.