What You Say Is Not Necessarily What They Hear – And That’s Your Fault

While the conversation will be taking place in the present moment, the words are being translated by a unique dictionary that was written by and for them. Even the most skilled, clear, and concise communicator will be plagued with having to relate ideas through an interpretive filter that is a reflection of the listeners’ life.

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Language is both amazing and clumsy. Amazing, because there is nothing quite like it for taking an idea from one person’s head and putting it into someone else head. Clumsy, because there is no way to be sure that the idea that is recreated in the other persons hear is the same as the one that was intended to be shared. As far as we can tell, human beings are the only species with this problem because the communicative intentions of other creatures are rather primitive in comparison. “Get away,” “stay back,” “come here,” “danger,” “I like you,” and “let’s get it on” are about as deep as the verbal communication gets with non-human animals. While they are capable of communicating more, most of the rest is communicated through modeling, which has the learner watch the actions of the teacher. It needs to be said that gorillas and chimpanzees has been taught to communicate with humans using sign language, and most of the great apes in the wild will use a variety of hand movements and gestures to communicate with their group.

Communication with human beings is many levels above what exists in the most articulate of primate species. We are able to talk about things that are not real, are not present, or are abstract in nature meaning there is a near infinite number of things that we are able to share.

The problem is that we do not have any method of evaluating the accuracy of communication on the fly and are faced with the choice of continuing to try and share our message or disrupting the conversational flow by asking the other person if things are still on track. Because we favor the first option, we tend to rely on non-verbal indicators or verbal placeholders as an indirect way to make sure the message is being received. Head nodding, eye blinking frequency and speed, facial expressions, shifting eye gaze patterns, and single word / sound vocalization serve as an inaccurate but highly utilized proxy for asking “are you following me?” or “what did you hear me say?” These things are really only accurate for indicating confusion, disengagement or overwhelm. When we notice that our conversational partner squints their eyes and kind of scrunches up their face, we instantly know that they didn’t understanding the last thing we said and likely need us to step back and take another run at it. But when we see them nodding or hear them say “right” we take this to mean that the idea that is in our head is being reformulated inside of their head and there will soon be a shared and complete understanding.

This is a mistake. All these communications mean is that AN idea is being formed in their head. This idea is going to be based a little bit on the words you are saying and a lot of their life experience with reference to those words. In fact, what is coming up for them is mostly going to be a reflection of their past both in terms of the literal meaning of words and the feelings those words evoke. While the conversation will be taking place in the present moment, the words are being translated by a unique dictionary that was written by and for them. Even the most skilled, clear, and concise communicator will be plagued with having to relate ideas through an interpretive filter that is a reflection of the listeners’ life.

Almost everyone knows this but chooses to ignore it because of the ease afforded by the assumption that our words are the same as their words. What’s the point of getting wrapped around the axle by being overly pedantic about the meaning of “okay” and “uh huh?” Except it isn’t even remotely pedantic and a good argument can be made that by NOT taking the time to get clear on the differing definitions of the words we journey deeply down the road of confusion and misunderstanding.

When I took an NLP course a few years ago, they have a number of presuppositions that help to define the field and determine the role that each of us play when communicating with other people. There are more than a dozen of them, but one of them struck me much harder than the rest and it relates to this post:

“The meaning of communication is the response you get.”

Embedded within this statement is a rich understanding about the world. It captures what I was making reference to with the first portion of this post, that human beings may have a shared vocabulary but this vocabulary does not necessarily have a shared meaning. It also captures the essence of taking an idea from one person head and putting it into another person’s head as being a stimulus / response transaction, action / reaction exchange or a cause / effect relationship. And it talks to a level of responsibility that the speaker has when it comes to the meaning the listener generates from the communication.

It was a course, so it is obvious that those who choose to attend it are invested in getting something more out of life and will therefore be willing to see themselves has having the power to get it. In environments like this, it is not unreasonable to see the locus of control shifted onto the participants or students in an attempt to get them to realize that at the end of the day, THEY are responsible for generating the outcomes they want and are therefore responsible for the outcomes they get.

But there is an irony here that people seem to miss, and one that is having a negative impact on communication accuracy. It has to do with the polarity of the left and right in terms of who is responsible for what. Specifically, the responsibility movement holds that everyone is responsible for their own actions and is therefore responsible for the outcomes they get. The opposite of this holds that the powers that be are responsible for the outcomes that people get and are therefore responsible for making things better for the people they are controlling or oppressing. Like most polarized things, the reality is somewhere in the middle – people are responsible for their actions but not in control of the outcomes. With reference to communication, the speaker is in control of their words (their action) but they are relying upon the listener to generate a meaning (the outcome). The irony with that is the speaker is the person who is motivated to share an idea and has the incentive to have an accurate meaning generated in the brain of the listener. Okay, that isn’t ironic on its own, but when combined with the prevailing notion that the listener is responsible for the meaning that THEY generate, it becomes rather thick.

Think about it this way, when someone doesn’t take the time to check in to determine whether or not the generated meaning is the same as the intended meaning, they are abdicating their responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of the communication. Sure, they’ll fall back onto the talking point of the responsibility movement and suggest that the other person is responsible for their own action, but this changes nothing while enriching the speakers’ belief that they have done everything they could and any misunderstanding is solely the result of the listeners’ shortcomings.

This is pretty screwed-up, and it makes me a little bit angry because it lazy, careless, and completely avoidable. It is also very short-sighted on the part of the speaker. If they have a point of view or an idea that they need to communicate, why does the listener suddenly become responsible for the successful rendering of that POV or idea inside their own head? Of the two parties, the listener has the least incentive to do this work yet the responsibility movement dictates that they are the one who has to do it.

It lands on me like arrogance because it implies that what the speaker has to say is so valuable that it is worth it to the listener to put in the effort to completely understand it. There are times when this is the case, but these are few and far between. Most of the communication that comes from speakers is self-serving. It is for their own benefit so they should do the work.

It would understandable if human beings had limited working memory and storage capacity in their long term memory, but this is not the case. When communicating one on one or in small groups, there is an ample supply of bandwidth to ask the question to ensure the message is getting transmitted and received accurately, sufficient working memory to manage the specific concerns or word meanings that the listener has, and plenty of long term memory to store specific details that will ensure smooth and more complete communication in the future.

Instead, they just want to talk, be understood and play no role in making this clearer or better in the future.

The truth of the matter is that, for honest operators, pushing the work onto them will result in them doing an unconscious benefit cost analysis of the interactions. If they pay off is sufficient, they will continue to put in the work, but they are doing it only because there is an incentive to it. When the payoff is not sufficient, they will begin to disengage and start to not care about what the speaker is saying. This means that we’ll listen to our bosses when they continue to force us to do the work to understand what exactly it is that they are talking about. It also means that we will begin to withdraw from our peers and friends when we notice that they take no steps to adjust their communication approach towards us when they realize that there is a gap in the shared understanding of words or meanings.

Personally, I dislike it when someone replies with “uh huh” when I say “thank you.” “Thank you” followed by “you’re welcome” is a behavioral pattern that is nearly always transactional and automatic. It probably doesn’t mean anything at all, and is just a carryover from our parents teaching us to be polite.

Much has been written about “uh huh” being a replacement for “thank you” and I am willing to say that I might just be old. “You’re welcome” apparently, is loaded with meaning that serves to dis-empower the person who says it and the person it is directed at. By saying “you’re welcome” you might actually be implying that the listener SHOULD have said “thank you” or was obligated to say it. In this case, saying “you’re welcome” is an act of dominance that will lead to feelings of inferiority and eventually a state of servitude.

I did not know this.

This is actually the fault of the person who says “thank you” (apparently) because by hearing “thank you” the listener is powerless to feel anything other than the need to dismiss their actions as being nothing or as them simply playing their role in a social transaction or fulfilling their obligation in a business contract.

So there you go.

I’m not in a position to say that any of this is in fact bull crap but I feel comfortable suggesting that it does kind of have a manure smell to it. But I do need to take the time to consider my own role and actions in it.

I say thank you when someone does something to which I am the beneficiary. This is me, it’s a part of my programming and I am not going to make any apology for it. IF the person I am saying it to takes it as a negative, they are completely free to never do that thing for me again. While it isn’t my intention to suggest that I appreciated the outcome of their action, actually, it is. That IS my intention. Even if they are doing their job and have no choice in the matter, I am still slightly better off as a result of their action. I went to the hardware store and bought a drywall knife. I paid cash and said “thank you.” No matter how transactional that is, I went into the store with some cash and a need of a drywall knife and I left with slightly less money and no longer in need of a drywall knife. My life is better and the cashier played a role in that. So I express my gratitude by saying “thank you.” If I go over to my in-laws house for dinner and I eat any of it, I will say “thank you.” I’ll say it even if dinner is take-out or the food was delivered. If a co-worker or a manager does something that is within the scope of their job I will say “thank you” even though they didn’t really have a choice and are doing it only because they want to remain employed. It’s the same thing, my life is slightly easier because of their action and I am grateful for that.

I am willing to accept that maybe my saying thank you is unnecessary. I am also beginning to open-up to the fact that maybe my saying it is triggering negative feelings inside of them as the feel the dynamic shifting because of their perception of a shift in the dominance hierarchy. My intention of sharing my gratitude shouldn’t be the trigger to someone else’s suffering – I can be grateful while remaining silent. As “the meaning of communication is the response you get” presupposition suggests, if my words are causing the other person to respond in a negative way – that is, they do not catch on to my intention of relating my gratitude to them for their action and instead take it that I am suggesting that they are somehow less now as a result of it – that is in fact the meaning of my communicating “thank you.”

Framed like this it is completely reasonable that they will respond poorly when I tell them that they are a piece of crap, which explains the noise “uh huh” that the cashier gave me in return. “Uh huh” is not the same thing as “you’re welcome.” It holds none of the power of tradition that the click whir reply “you’re welcome” possess. It is also not the same thing as saying “no problem” or “don’t mention it,” nor is it the same as saying nothing and smiling or saying nothing at all. At least for me and to my ears, it is two syllables of mouth and nose sounds that land as compendious as opposed to transactional. It is so much more than uttering something that serve to acknowledge our interaction has come to an end. It lands on my like our interaction should never have begun and should never be re-established.

It is a sound that is loaded with a lot of negative meaning to me. I do not recall when the conditioning occurred, but when I hear it, it triggers feelings that have a pain-like flavor. It is a psychological punishment in that regard. When I hear it, it initiates that innate unconscious process that all living beings possess that sets to track down, isolate, and eliminate the actions that immediately preceded the punishment. However, being a human being, my brain deals with context when tracking down this cause of the punishment. I don’t get all that bothered when I hear someone use “uh huh” as a substitute for “yes” when they are in agreement with something. It only fires up when it is used as the closer to the “thank you” “you’re welcome” interactions. When it is used in this context, and particularly when I am on the receiving end of it, I tend to just stop saying “thank you” the person for anything, even when they go above and beyond or actually do something extraordinary.

And before today, just a few moments ago actually, I hadn’t realized that there was even a possibility that this is actually what the person want. In my arrogance, I had assumed that “thank you” means the same thing to everyone. It hadn’t even entered into the realm of possibility that when I say “thank you” I am communicating something that makes the other person feel bad. Since they do not like feeling bad, they do what they need to do in order to stop it from happening again in the future and administer a punishment. This works well because I stop saying it.

The funny part of it is that I was thinking that they were being rude without ever considering that it was ME who was being rude. There they were, minding their own business, not bothering anyone as they try to do their job and I show up, mock them, and effectively tell them that they suck by saying “thank you.” I bully them by projecting my understanding of the term “thank you” onto them without understanding the complexities and nuance of the social interaction that is paying for something or being grateful that someone did a part of their job that allows me to keep doing mine.

Thinking and writing the previous paragraph hits me like I am being sarcastic and possibly irreverent. I don’t actually know why people respond with “uh huh” when I thank them for something. I selfishly made it about me feeling slighted as opposed to being open to the possibility that something else was going on. It could be that they are just trying to save some energy by avoiding the speaking of three syllables by mouth nose sounding a substitute. But I am going to start asking when it happens because maybe I don’t know what is going on and maybe they don’t know what is going on.

I’m sure the reality is somewhere in the middle. They are not being rude and have no ill intent with saying it, but they also have no real desire to engage in a social interaction that serves no purpose and which only exists because our parents wanted to teach us that manners and politeness are behaviors and not a state mind.