Misunderstandings are the fuel for most sitcoms. As a child of the 70′s and early 80′s, I remember the point when I figured out that any episode of Three’s Company could be summed up by saying, “It was a misunderstanding!” People not quite in sync with one another and not interpreting each others’ meaning on any kind of stage can be funny. And if it accidentally makes any of the characters emotional it can be downright hilarious. But some of that urge to laugh I think is a release of nervous tension connected to a personal place. Because in real life few things are more painful than being misunderstood.
I’ve bumped into this truth uncomfortably a few times in the past several weeks. It’s something I don’t think comes up as a typical parenting topic, but once you focus on it, it’s pervasive. I’ve written before that I think the root of most of what gets labeled ‘the mommy wars’ has to do with our own vulnerabilities, but being misunderstood is close kin to that. When people start arguing about knee jerk parenting topics they often stop listening. It can be easy to get drawn in, but then become frustrated if you don’t feel you are being heard. Worse is when someone else hears what you say in a manner you didn’t intend at all.
One of my favorite authors is Deborah Tannen, who writes books about misunderstandings from a linguistics point of view. Her work was a revelation to me about giving people the benefit of the doubt. She seems to start from the assumption that in most cases everyone has good intentions, but subtle differences in communication can lead to problems. It’s a gracious way of looking at how people interact that I remind myself to employ as often as I can. I try not to jump to the conclusion that people are trying to be offensive most of the time, and if they have rubbed me the wrong way I try to see from what angle they thought they were being nice. I hope people do the same for me.
In business the problem of being misunderstood can be very tricky. I know my words are weighted differently in my store when it comes to particular topics. I like selling violins, but I don’t want to talk someone into buying the wrong violin. If I think they will like the selection someone else has better, I send them there. It really is more important to me that a player have the right instrument than that I make a sale, but why would someone who doesn’t know me believe that? I lack credibility in some ways when I give an opinion because there is a perceived conflict of interest. When I say to a customer, “I think you deserve a more expensive bow” I worry that they hear, “I want your money for my kids’ college fund.” (Or worse yet imagine I have some kind of boat payment due.) I hope they don’t think I’m doing some typical salesman routine, but I can’t be sure.
But everything has to do with context, much of which we are not privy to. We can’t help but judge things from our own frame of reference. I remember once in college making a comment about a silly thing my dad said and I meant it as an example of something endearing, but the person I was talking to frowned in sympathy and replied with a statement about how difficult family can be. From her frame of reference, silly words from fathers were not endearing at all. My brother once turned down the chance to go camping with a friend because, he explained, he had a get together planned already with his cousins. The friend asked, “Plans with cousins? Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” Particularly with family, one can never make assumptions about the context. There are no universal frames of reference for something so complicated, but we often make the mistake of believing there are.
And of course online text interactions are rife with the opportunity to be misunderstood because tone of voice and gestures are absent. I’m impressed as I use Facebook more how civil people make an effort to be, despite wildly differing views, but that is still an easy forum to accidentally step on virtual toes. Aside from the usual problems, there are individual quirks that can get in the way of being correctly understood. I’ve noticed that if I use an exclamation point some people take it to mean a vehemence that is not what I was aiming for. I tend to use exclamation points when I’m being less than serious, and I forget that other people use them to provide emphasis. I never use an exclamation point when I am making a real point because I think they look too hysterical. That’s an easy way to get misunderstood.
With my children, when we experience a misunderstanding we try to talk it through. When they were smaller it was almost comical how often certain problems had to do with them not knowing particular words yet. I once gave a whole lecture about responsibility and how disappointed I was that they weren’t living up to theirs, and after listening patiently to the whole thing Aden finally said, “What’s re-spon-si-bi-li-ty?” A few months ago when Quinn was sick I asked him about half a dozen times if he thought he might throw up again before I let him have the cereal he wanted, and he kept saying, “No” and after he started eating he asked, “What does throw up mean?” Their idea of what I expect when I say “Put your clothes away” is not the same one I have in my head, and everyone is upset because I think they’ve ignored me and they think they’ve done what I asked and didn’t get credit. There’s also the way Mona seems to channel every kind of emotional upset into something that from my end looks like anger, but I don’t always read it correctly. When I figure out it’s embarrassment, or shame, or frustration, it changes drastically how I interact with her, but only if I understand what’s going on. I have already started talking to Aden about the ins and outs of how easily misunderstandings among girls at school can lead to hurt feelings. I’m hoping by getting her to consider asking people directly about things, rather than relying on the weird form of rumor communication many girls tend to resort to, that she can avoid some of the misunderstandings and pain that that can cause in school. I don’t know how much hope there is for averting some of that angst, but it’s worth a try.
The times in my life when I have felt most desperately unhappy were when I felt I was being misinterpreted or dismissed. There is nothing like knowing people believe something about you that isn’t true. The injustice of being viewed unfairly hurts. I hate being in a position where I can’t defend myself, or try to set the record straight.
I thought about that a lot during my kids’ toddler years, because I bet a lot of the acting out they do at that age has to do with feeling misunderstood when you think you are being clear. It has to be confusing and disturbing to finally figure out how to say what you want and still have the answer be no.
There is a wide range of responses to being misunderstood. In some cases it’s worth the fight to try to be heard. In others it’s best to let it go. Sometimes an apology is enough. Sometimes an apology signals the end. I recently emailed a friend a response to something about her child that came across to her as flippant and she was hurt. She felt the need to point it out and I appreciated it. I had phrased my words the way I had to suggest that the concern at hand was unlikely, not that I didn’t take it seriously. In this particular case the topic was one I could appreciate the gravity of. I was glad my friend felt comfortable enough with me to let me know. In another instance a couple of years ago I wrote a mass email where a particular line offended someone, and in that case when the aggrieved party spoke up I did not take kindly to it. In that case the seriousness with which the topic was being perceived I could not relate to, and I was offended that my intentions could not be clearly discerned. I found it simpler to cut off further communication rather than risk being misunderstood again, which seemed likely. Sometimes it’s hard to sort out what is the right thing to do. I’m sure I’m often wrong.
I remind myself as I observe my children that, as much as I love them and adore them and take in every quirk and motion and giggle and sob, I don’t know them the way I think I do. We are each of us fixed in one body from which to view the world and we are only guessing at what others see and know. We are all misunderstood. All I ask is for the occasional benefit of the doubt, and that however they hear what I’m saying, my kids know it comes from a place of sincerest love.