That’s Not What I Meant

November 10, 2010

I dumped a girl by instant message.

It was pretty classic.  If you haven’t figured it out, instant messages and texting is a pretty awful way to communicate anything more than “get a loaf of bread while you’re out.”  Anything that requires any emotional sensitivity isn’t going to work.

Since we were having a long distant relationship, we I.M.ed a lot, (as the hip kids called it back then).  Then we got into an argument over something petty and stupid, which was our habit.  She was me out pretty hard, as I could tell by the constant nagging “ping” sound of new messages coming through while I tried to ignore her by watching TV.  Then I I.M.ed her that we were through, and signed off.  I clicked the mouse button really hard, which is the I.M. equivalent of slamming the phone or door.  The I.M. screen actually said, “Matt has signed off.  Hard.”  I was pretty satisfied with myself.

She called me later to tell me she had not meant to say what she had said.

But we live and die by our words.  And it got me thinking about all the times we put our feet in our mouths.  Whose fault is it when people don’t understand what we’re trying to say?

It’s fun to hang people with their own words.

Last night, I watched Matt Lauer’s interview with George W. Bush.  I really enjoy studying Presidential history.  Doesn’t matter if I like the President in question or not.  It was a really interesting interview.  Bush said the darkest time of his presidency was after Katrina when Kanye West got on naitonal TV and accused him of not caring about black people.

Guess what one of the top Twitter trends was last night.  George W. Bush.  Guess what the top tweet was circulating.  Something like, “F— Bush!  He’s a war criminal!  If his darkest moment is being called a racist, then he couldn’t have cared about Katrina.”

It’s fun to destroy people with their own words, and if you’re the type of person who thinks 9/11 was an inside job or Rosie O’Donnell is a genius, then it’s likely you think Bush really didn’t care about Katrina.  The half of the country that doesn’t hate George W. Bush probably thinks Obama really believes the Republicans are his enemies. 

Recently, a South African pastor declared that Jesus was HIV positive.  Of course, Christians have been lighting up the internet with amazing analyses of why this is obviously wrong.  One, Mary was a virgin.  Two, Jesus wasn’t a junkie or promiscuous.  Three, HIV didn’t exist.  Like we need to be told any of this.

Am I the only one who understands this?

You know, while everyone is convulsing every time someone says something controversial, I’m usually the one thinking to myself, “Am I the only one who understands what they were trying to say.”

I don’t know what you think of President Bush, and I don’t care.  That tweet is ridiculous.  It is absurd to say that the President had no cares about Katrina.

The pastor in South Africa cannot really think Jesus was shooting up with infected hypodermic needles.  He’s trying to tell a culture overflowing with HIV that Jesus knows their pain.  Is it a dumb thing to try to make Jesus the poster child for your cause?  Maybe.  But I understood what he was saying.

And if you don’t understand what Bush or Obama or the South African was saying, then your temperature probably just rose when I said I did.  If you think those people are ignorant, racist, or just despicable, then I am too because I understand them…

…or am I?

Is misunderstanding in the ear of the beholder?

Guys, you’ve been in this place.  Your lady isn’t understanding your perfectly articulate series of grunts and you get in a disagreement because of miscommunication.  The only problem I’ve had in my marriage, and the biggest disputes I had with my parents were caused by miscommunication and misunderstanding.  It’s going to happen.  No big deal.

The real problem is when we decide we’d rather miscommunicate.  We’d rather not give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  We assume they’re going to say something awful, and we hear what we want to hear.  You know how hard it is to remove your foot from your mouth.  Once people think you’re a raving escapee from a mental institution, it’s hard to convince them otherwise.  We learn from an early age to endlessly rip on people when they misspeak and never let them live it down.  We’ve been doing it ever since that kid said he loved ice cream sandwiches, and we asked him if he was going to marry an ice cream sandwich.

We even do it with church too.  We’d rather hear what we want to hear.  I’d much rather listen to a pastor that validates what I already think so I can nod my head and whisper “Amen” a lot.  But as soon as I don’t like what I’m hearing, I’ve got that urge to tune out rather than hear the guy out. 

Why did I dump that girl?  I was looking for a good reason to already, and it presented itself.  Relationships break down when people when people choose not to communicate.  People stop listening to others when they assume the other has the worst intentions.  My wife and I haven’t split over a miscommunication because we still assume the other has good intentions.

What’s the biggest miscommunication you’ve ever had with your spouse, your boss, your kids, your parents, your pastor, or God himself?  Whose foot was whose mouth?  Are you the type of person to give someone the benefit of the doubt when they say something questionable, or do you take their words at face value, and let them hang by their words?  How do you know someone doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore?

30 responses to That’s Not What I Meant

  1. Someone very close to me and in a position of familial authority angrily told me point blank that they “Didn’t see the Spirit in me” in the sense that I didn’t have the Spirit at all (not that they couldn’t see me responding to the Spirit, etc.) when I was struggling to do the right thing (which happened to be submitting to their authority and respecting them even in their abuse or at the very least misuse of their authority.) This person never clarified or apologized for the statement.

    I want to give this person the benefit of the doubt, but quite frankly, that’s just NOT something you say to someone. 1) Struggling means that the Spirit is working. It’s easier to just sin. 2) If you cared about someone, you would say it in in love and tenderness and compassion, not anger.

    I don’t harbor a grudge against this person for their comment. I’m not angry about it, and I’ve given it to God. And if in the future this person apologizes, I’ll forgive them right away, but until then, yeah, I guess I am taking this person’s words at face value and holding them to what they said.
    Jo_of_TSN recently posted..More

    • Yeah, when someone is very clear like that, it’s obviously not a miscommunication. You just have to decide whether that comment has any basis at all. You did probably the best thing you can do. The fact that you gave it over to God, don’t harbor a grudge, and haven’t demanded an apology I’d say is a huge evidence of the Spirit.

    • I had someone say to me that I was being very un-Christian when I posted a sarcastic comment on FB about a certain President. My brother, who is not a Christian, corrected her on exactly what a non-Christian would say. :-O. The irony, which I didn’t point out to her, though I did chew on some leather in my response, was that she was very vocal about criticizing another President from the other party.

      I dislike when people use a Christian’s faith against them when they make a mistake–even the “big” ones. Being a Christian means that we struggle with sin. Struggles sometimes involve failure and we look bad and we make God look bad until we admit we were wrong and ask forgiveness.

    • Matt: Thanks for the encouragement :) I’m a 5ish pt. Calvinist, so no worries there. It just saddens me when people use the name of Christ as a weapon like that. Not cool. He didn’t die so that we could use a label to attack each other. I’d like to think that the Gospel is more sacred than that.

      tandemingtroll: “Being a Christian means that we struggle with sin.” I think you hit it on the head. We have two identities: 1) we’re sinners, and 2) we’re saved by grace. To deny one or the other is to deny a huge reality.

      • Amen on that. Isn’t it funny that the people who are trying their best, and then fail, are often more harshly attacked then the people who aren’t struggling. Can’t be a hypocrite if you’re not trying to be a good person, huh?

  2. Great thoughts Matt. I tend to be pretty level-headed and try to allow some time between when I hear something and when i respond. i don’t always do that and find “foot-in-mouth” disease a very real issue. I am TRYING to learn to wait and give some time to understand the situation or to cool down before responding. I have said things that I wish I could take back but can’t. (I also now see one of the reasons Twitter does not excite me at all).

  3. One of my biggest struggles is when someone has hurt me or said something mean and the next time I know I’m going to be around them is to assume they are going to do it again. So I’ve already in my mind messed up the outing or whatever because I do the typical “Have an imaginary argument in my head with that person” or “If I say this, then I KNOW they will say this.” 9 times out of 10, I’ve blown the whole thing up and it was all in my mind.

    Sometimes I think we just have to look at the intent of what a person is doing. My co worker is the most stressed out and frantic person I know. She’s always coming in my office like a chicken with her head cut off. But I’ve realized that that’s her personality and she really sincerely just wants to make sure things are getting done. Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to set up healthy boundaries and I’ve talked to her about it. But looking at the intent of a person helps out a lot.

    The thing with GW Bush is kind of crazy because no matter what he said, people would have been mad at him. If he would have said, “Yeah, Katrina was devastating to me.” People would have tweeted, “See, all he cares about is Katrina, he really doesn’t care about black people!”

    I know we know this, but a big miscommunication that God is helping me combat is “If I’m good God will love me, if I’m bad, God will punish me.” We’re so conditioned in this thinking as children aren’t we? The other night I told Chloe she couldn’t have dessert unless she finished her green beans.

    I think someone doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt if you can tell they aren’t even trying to make things right.

    A lot to think about in this post Matt. Thanks.
    Jonathan Chang recently posted..My writing feels like blight

  4. Where’s the outrage? When one is patient and attempts to sort through the possible misunderstandings to find true meaning, he is often met with this wto? If you aren’t outraged, there is something wrong with you, because outrage is what it’s all about. Reason? Pffft! You heard what he SAID.
    vanilla recently posted..The Maharajah and the Coconuts

  5. I’ve noticed lately that people often jump on the trivial and miss the bigger message in all areas of life. I’ve done it myself to pastors when I’ve heard one line of a sermon and checked out for the rest because I was obsessing about the choice of words in that one sentence. I’ve seen it with coworkers, family, and on blogs. It’s often most evident in politics, but it’s everywhere. We don’t listen because we’re so mesmerized by what we’re thinking about what they’ve just said that we shut down. Their mouths are still moving, and if we were to stop to hear what they’re saying, we’d forget all about the line that has us paralyzed and we’d understand what it was they were trying to say to begin with.
    Margaret @ Single and Sane recently posted..Cognitive Dissonance Day

  6. What’s the biggest miscommunication you’ve ever had with your spouse, your boss, your kids, your parents, your pastor, or God himself?
    I have had many… my problem is that I use a word and define it one way, and someone else defines it another way. IE: Terrorist, Catholic, Muslim, Democrat, gay, TEA Party, Charismatic, or New Yorker.

    You and I seem to be more articulate when explaining our views – yours is a gift, mine is 50+ years of experience.

    I once invited some friend from church to my home for coffee. That paranoid pastor thought I was starting a church. Because I have a college education and Bible school he was somehow threatened by me. If he would have asked, I would have told him there are two things I’ll never be. 1) a pastor, 2) a woman – and the chances of me becoming a woman were far greater.

    Whose foot was whose mouth?
    Always mine.

    Are you the type of person to give someone the benefit of the doubt when they say something questionable, or do you take their words at face value, and let them hang by their words?
    I once dated someone that would say “I’m confused.” It bothered me because the context was a little strange. How foul you be confused about driving to NYC? The Interstate is well marked. She meant “afraid.” It was me who was confused, she was scared.

    I used to think that I understood their words; their definitions – but I didn’t. I have since learned to say, “What do you mean by that?”

    How do you know someone doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore?
    When I know they are lying, telling half truths etc. IE: Everyone points to Bush as the person in charge of the economic downturn. The truth is that the NY Times reported on the housing bubble during the Clinton years.

    Politics often fits a 2-year cycle.

    Church shouldn’t.

    BTW – Was that a 1st or 2nd degree break up?

    Great blog.
    David recently posted..5 1-2 I Need Something New – Like a Phone or a Church!

  7. I sometimes think it’s ironic that we get married because we communicate so well, and then learn there’s still plenty of room for error. After 31 years, I’m finally making progress at hearing the heart more than the words. Thankfully, my husband is way better at that than I am, given my propensity for sticking my foot in my mouth.

    It used to be that our words would eventually be forgotten, and we could move on. Now–with email, texting, IM-ing, etc.–we have a permanent record. We have to intentionally offer grace and, like God, choose to forget.

  8. Thanks for articulating what I’ve been so frustrated with lately. I’m really uncomfortable with what a see as a climate of outrage in our society. It seems people are much more comfortable rallying against something or someone they’re opposed to than presenting a reasonable argument for what they’re for. Is is a natural inclination to find the need to place blame? Frustrating…
    katdish recently posted..Why I hate writing- Part 4

    • I know. We’d rather argue based on an assumption of what someone meant, which usually isn’t the case, rather than what’s really at stake. So we debate needlessly on Jesus not really having HIV, rather than the Christian response to HIV.

  9. ““Matt has signed off. Hard.””

    This made me laugh. Hard.

    Now, about your great post…I think a large part of the problem is the fact in America we’re starting to get the more selfish, angry Gen X and later generations into positions where they can have a real impact. My age and younger thrived for argument, fighting and especially snippets and soundbites that can be used for our own advantage (which is ultimately the purpose of using it against someone else.)

    The art of conversation, serious debate and discussion is becoming rapidly lost.
    Jason recently posted..Toe to toe with a demon

  10. Amen and AMEN. Words can’t be taken back, and too many in this society love that fact and take every bit of advantage of it. SO tired of it.
    Joanne Sher recently posted..What I Should Be Doing Right Now

  11. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to understand. I think sometimes I may go too far that direction, but I would rather do that than be reactionary over every sentence. I don’t see how some people’s hearts don’t just explode with all the stress they dredge up over every other word.

    Good stuff, Matt.
    jasonS recently posted..Poverty Isn’t Neat and Tidy

  12. Thanks for addressing this issue. I’ve been seeing a lot of raging and accusations flying these days.

    I can’t help but believe that we have distorted hearing because of previous negative experiences or attitudes. I can hear George W. Bush’s words and be impressed with his openness while another person goes ballistic about his indifference. Why? We have “prejudicial glasses” on. I do this with co-workers and even my spouse with certain topics.

    My hope is that as believers we will be slower to speak and take the time to roll statements around in our mind before responding. Our speech should be more kind, gracious, and thoughtful than others. I don’t want to join the criticism crowd, but that will only happen when I slow down my responses. Thanks so much for challenging us.
    Jane recently posted..Too Fossilized for Change

  13. I think it comes down to the Golden Rule. When someone says something that I take at first glance to be offensive, especially if I can immediately see multiple ways for something to be taken, I try to assume that the person meant the nicer thing – because that’s what I’d hope they’d do for me. This has proven especially useful with my hubs who has ADD and therefore a different “filter” than your average Joe. It’s almost funny sometimes in our Sunday School class when he’ll say something and everyone in the room will be offended for me. Then I’ll explain what he meant (and why it doesn’t at all offend me), the light comes on for everyone else, and we move on.

    It’s definitely taken some getting used to since we’ve been married though. Especially since what he says (and especially how he says it and/or what he’s hyperfocusing on) is GREATLY dependent on what he’s eaten that day (avoid red food dye!), where he is in his meds (there’s a crash coming off of them at the end of the day, then a secondary (sometimes MUCH larger) crash on the weekends when he doesn’t take them), and what else he’s stressed out about (work, projects at home, etc.). If I react defensively and address his every point (which definitely appeals to one part of me, especially when he’s generalizing that something “always” happens when it hasn’t happened in months), then things escalate. If I can stay reasonable, figure out the root problem, and only address that root issue, then things resolve rather quickly.

    That’s not to say that I don’t get my knickers in a twist from time to time, because I do…but I can usually talk myself into acting like I wish people would act toward me.
    Princess Leia recently posted..Whoops

  14. CS Lewis described this in Reflections from the Psalms:

    Our quarrels provide a very good example of the way in which the Christian and Jewish conceptions differ, while yet both should be kept in mind. As Christians we must of course repent of all the anger, malice, and self-will which allowed the discussion to become, on our side, a quarrel at all. But there is also the question on a far lower level: “granted the quarrel…did you fight fair?” Or did we not quite unknowingly falsify the whole issue? Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? Did we pretend to be “hurt” in our sensitive and tender feeling (fine natures like ours are so vulnerable) when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have long known it only too well, and that sleeping dog can be roused, that skeleton brought out of its cupboard, only at the cost of imperilling their whole relationships with us. It needs surgery which they know we will never face. And so we win; by cheating. But the unfairness is very deeply felt. Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearance in ourselves.

  15. As someone who has been beat to death with my own words (my wife still doesn’t like to talk about that blog post) I totally understand. I always feel for the person who gets beat. Perhaps we should try loving instead of just writing angry blog posts (like what normally happens when someone says something controversial).

    Ps- I also asked a girl out on AIM and then later dumped her on it too.

  16. Relationship is tremendously important in communication. I think it’s part of loving each other the way that we love ourselves. We always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt 😉

    My husband, who loves me more than anyone else in the world, once told me that sometimes talking to me is like being a cat and having its fur rubbed backwards. Ha! If he can take the time to struggle through the knee-jerk reactions to what we were discussing and listen for the deeper message, I can’t fail to give him the same respect.

    It just seems to get harder as the relationships get more distant because we have less investment in the continuity of those relationships. I think that’s also why people can be okay with being hateful in on-line communication. Losing a relationship with someone you already don’t know is really not a loss.

  17. Thank you for posting this. I’ve started to write something along these lines several times – most recent was yesterday – but I couldn’t seem to put it into the right words. You know, the kind that wouldn’t be picked apart? Every draft I wrote sounded angry and annoyed by the end, which I felt made it come off as defensive and directed at someone specific. I don’t write that way, but that’s what I would have thought if I had read it on someone else’s blog.

    To your questions, I haven’t had many huge disagreements with any of the people you listed, because I’m not the type of person to hang a man by his words. I learned to communicate from my parents, who also don’t do that, and I married a spectacular wife who doesn’t do that to me. I have been fortunate.

    Also, I do not think I can set a rule for how I know someone cannot be trusted. It’s case-by-case. If you have built up my trust, and I know your hurtful words are out of character for you, I’m very lenient. If you don’t already have my trust, though, and you hurt me, I will be very cautious around you for a long time.
    Jeff recently posted..beautiful- the virtue of women

  18. Good stuff!

    Totally reminded me of this one time ( and I have shoved my foot down my own throat *countless* times, but this was the one that came to mind!) when I flippantly used the handle of a semi-famous person in combination with the word “herpes” on twitter…. Yeah, he wasn’t pleased. And I don’t blame him. I did apologize, but the damage was done. Now I’m blocked for life.

    I’m learning, albeit slowly, that sarcasm doesn’t always translate well. Oh, and more importantly? I’m not funny.

    So anyway, love the idea behind this whole post! Can’t we all just get along?!
    Jamie the Very Worst Missionary recently posted..The Big “O”

  19. Well, Amen! Why are we so much more content to take something in a way that creates drama than we are to believe all things and hope all things… and even endure all things, if it comes to that?!

    Anyway, thanks for saying this so well. Niggles me to no end when people purposely misunderstand ’cause they like to get their gander up!

  20. Miscommunication can really breakdown realtionships. Or even worse, lack of commnunication. I’ve been married two months only and my wife and I are aware of this. We always communicate and encourage each other just to talk things out.

    At times, we talk about really deep things, other times not so much. You can read some of the stuff we talk about on my newest blog. Pretty fantastic.

    And sorry, couldn’t help it. “when Kanye West got on naitonal TV” It should be “national.” I’m not being a jerk. Just trying to communicate :)

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