I recently got into a discussion with a friend about communication (seems I talk a lot these days about communication and leadership). It didn’t really start off that way. We were talking about swearing and I probably launched into my usual tirade about how my mom would get all over my case even for using the Mormon versions of curse words (I grew up in Utah, yo.) (But, no, I am not Mormon, although I am an Elder). To my mom, saying “Darn it!” or “Shoot!” or even “Crap!” were as bad as using their saltier counterparts.
Quick detour. I remember have a problem with some girls on my soccer team when I was quite young. The coach’s daughter and her friend were pretty much bitches to everyone else on the team and because of my freakishness (being non-Mormon and not going to public school) I was a popular target. On my way to soccer practice one day I was complaining about them and their behavior and my older brother, usually not much of a person to care about other’s concerns, turned around in the front seat and said, “Next time they say anything rude to you, tell them, ‘Screw you!’”
I had no idea what it was about “Screw you” that would make my mom gasp immediately and say, “I don’t want to hear that come out of either of your mouths, ever!” In my head I saw, well, a plank of wood, and my nemesis pinned to it with screws. Aside from being a little violent, a little crucifixion-esque, what was so wrong with it?
And it’s from that memory that I make the case that words will inherently mean what the people exchanging them make of them. Very often, I think, these two things are not even remotely the same. To my childhood self, ‘screw you’ indicated that I would like to pierce your flesh with metal and leave you hung up somewhere to die. I had no concept that it was the slightly more polite version of ‘fuck you.’ My mom did and she reacted accordingly. And because, to my mom, all the more polite versions of cursing had the same intent and purpose behind them as actual cursing, my siblings and I would get in trouble every time something along those lines escaped our lips and she was there to hear it.
On the flip side of that, there are plenty of people who curse so casually that it’s just a part of their dialect. They don’t do it for shock value or to be inflammatory. “Fuckin’” is just an adjective to them. And maybe a fun pastime.
Of course, you pair up someone like my mom and someone like, well, me anymore these days, and things tend to not go well. The words in question are just that, words. But because the value I place on certain words is so much different than the value my mother places on them, she is constantly offended if I am not careful and I’m vaguely irritated that I have to be so careful. It’s not like there are children present. Well, there are, but it’s not like I’m exposing them to anything they haven’t heard hundreds of times before.
Back to the conversation with my friend. I attempted to express that whole gallon of thought in a single sentence and he was immediately inclined to argue with me.
“You’re a writer! How can you say words have no meaning?”
Well, words have no fixed meaning to anything other than the dictionary. Add in human beings to language, with tone and inflection and even the choice of one word over the other, and suddenly the meanings all become dramatically less clear. And then, in an effort to clarify and to explain what was intended, all we have are more words, all of which can be shaded with a thousand different meanings. It’s no wonder communication can be such a daunting task!
This is something I am trying to keep in mind when I am misunderstood in one way or another a dozen times a day. And it is something I have to remember when people express something to me that just sounds off. Maybe this person over here didn’t intend to sound like a whiny, little bitch when she said whatever it is she said. Maybe that guy didn’t mean to come off sounding like a condescending jackass. Maybe I am merely ascribing my own meaning to the words they used because the filters of my life experience that color all my perceptions are totally opposite to whatever filters they have.
I’m pretty sure I’m not doing this topic any justice, but then again, all I have are words and sometimes it’s hard to find the right ones to give verbal shape to one’s ideas.