Friday, August 10, 2012

The Importance of Being Charitable in How We Interpret Others' Words

I am a parser by nature, but I also choose to parse specifically to avoid "getting the impression" and "reading too much into (people's) comments". I have found in my life that when I don't parse, and especially when I rely on reading between the lines for what people "mean to say", I often end up being wrong about what they really meant to say - and sometimes I end up being radically wrong. I have learned this the hard way in too many situations, and I determined quite a while ago not to have it happen again. I have not succeeded completely in that, especially because all of us really do mis-speak occasionally and partly because I don't always follow my own commitments, but I believe MANY of the things we castigate people for saying and believing are things they don't say, don't believe and would be mortified to know that someone thinks they have said and believe those things.

My own general rule is to believe that someone doesn't mean more than what they say. I know enough liars (including those who will say anything) to know that's not a universal rule, but I still choose to believe that about someone until they prove me wrong. I also grant people the right to change their minds about things, so I try not to pull out old quotes to dismiss newer ones. (Now, if the "old" quote is only a week prior to the "newer" one . . .)

My point is quite simple:

I take a lot of time and spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to make sure I say only what I mean to say - and that I actually say what I mean to say. Seriously, it probably takes me FAR more time per word to write these posts than it does for anyone else who posts and comments here. I use all kinds of disclaimers and qualifiers to avoid extremes and overly-broad generalizations. (Just as an example, I have reworked and reworded this paragraph at least three times already - just to make sure it is worded as well and clearly as I am capable of wording it.) I still screw up sometimes and write something that doesn't convey exactly what I mean, but I almost never write something that requires someone to read between the lines to find what I really mean.

I think lots of people are like that - but their ability to accomplish that objective varies radically. I still grant them the consideration of only holding them to what they actually say - since that is what I desire from them. I don't want to be held accountable for what someone thinks I am implying or assumes I probably mean; I want my words to be taken on their own merit and addressed for what they mean in and of themselves.
When I do that, I find I am offended less often - and I am able to pinpoint more precisely exactly why I am offended when it does occur. I also am able to converse with the other person more productively - since they don't end up getting defensive over my misunderstanding of their words. There is not much else that can derail a conversation more quickly than insisting that someone said what they themselves "know" they didn't say.

Why did I write this post?

Mostly, it was to encourage everyone who might read it to slow down a little when they communicate (especially online), focus solely on what others actually say and look for ways to view what is said charitably - even if they then move on to real disagreement with what it said or written. In this case, I believe the Golden Rule is about as universal as it can be.

1 comment:

Nora Ray said...

Sometimes specific words have different meanings for different people. This can make it especially difficult to really understand what another person is trying to say. In live conversation it is possible to gain understanding through discussion. With BLOG posts I think it is wise to err on the side of kindness and give the most charitable reading possible.