Sometimes, when you’re walking on a hot day and trying to ignore the pain in your legs from climbing hills (you can tell I was in Austin), you get a sudden insight into how communication works and doesn’t work, and your life suddenly becomes better. Well, it happened at least once, and that was yesterday.
I was just enjoying myself not thinking about work during my one-hour break between meetings, and I started to think about how some of the people in my life announce their plans/intentions/commitments. They state them very firmly. “Things will be this way from now on.” “I will act on this plan going forward.” Things like that.
In my little head, I interpret such statements as firm commitments. I then adjust my own expectations to go with these plans. If someone says, “I’m going to do this twice a week,” I expect that to happen twice a week. If someone says, “This is the next project I plan to do,” I get my inner expectations set that way.
This is not the other person’s problem; it’s mine. This leads to much disappointment and confusion when life happens, plans change, or the dreaded “spontaning” occurs (that’s what Lee and I call being spontaneous). I get worked up about people not keeping their commitments, or confused when I hear the twice a week thing didn’t happen starting the next week.
My insight was that when people around me make these declarations, they are not stating a commitment, they are stating an intention. They’re not stating a definite plan, but more of a tentative plan for the moment. And that’s perfectly fine, because that’s how stating plans or intentions work for them. And besides, even people like me, who state things with all expectations that the plan will be stuck to, sometimes have to change things when circumstances change. Huh, I’d been being rather rigid in my expectations of others!
So, now that I’ve reset my expectations, I’ve a word of advice for those of you who didn’t get this concept hammered into their heads while studying linguistics (almost everyone!).
Your internal set of meanings for words and phrases may actually NOT coincide (probably don’t coincide) exactly with other people’s.me
Language is really, really ambiguous. That’s why we rely so hard on tone of voice, facial expression, past knowledge of the person we’re talking to, and sincere hope to communicate anything at all. We all have our own internal grammar, semantics (meanings for words), and pragmatic style.
So, when there are misunderstandings, which there inevitably will be, let’s not be so hard on each other. It’s a miracle that we manage to communicate at all!