Thursday, July 7, 2011

Listen to What I Mean, Not What I Say

My husband has some directional issues that get worse when he's upset. When he's under no pressure and feeling confident, he knows his right from his left, off the cuff, about 50% of the time. He usually gets it right when he pauses to double-check. But when he's driving and lost, he reaches a point at which he is so flustered that he confuses right and left 100% of the time. So my job is to sit there with the map in my lap and judge at which exact moment it is time to start mirroring the directions and tell him "turn right" when we need to turn left.

A word is only as good as it is effective. Since the word I choose is meant to communicate a concrete reality-- the 9 o'clock direction-- saying "right" is truthful if the word means "9 o'clock" to the brain of the hearer. The word that usually symbolizes that direction-- "left"-- won't function in this scenario and needs to be scrapped. Not that I want to scrap it; I'm attached to my word and want to argue until somehow everybody magically understands it the same way that I do.

Last week, my church had a congregational meeting that included an argument over the use of the word "magnify" in a new church slogan. Several people disagreed strongly over what the word meant and whether a different word could communicate our intended meaning more effectively. They didn't realize that the word "magnify" had a different meaning for each of them, a meaning shaped by a lifetime of reading, listening, speaking, singing, and studying. A word doesn't have its meaning hard-wired into it. It can't plug its true definition into every hearer's brain, like a dozen copies of the same file uploaded to a dozen different computers.

It's this varied life experience that leads to diverse interpretations of words. That's particularly obvious when using polarizing terms: If I say "conservative," one person hears "family-oriented," another hears "greedy and xenophobic," and another hears "prudent." Words tied to hot-button topics have vastly different connotations to different people.

So when I say "I'm a Baptist," I mean "I am part of a tradition that values personal freedoms, human rights, female leadership, church-state separation, and religious and cultural diversity in the nation." But, funnily enough, that's not what everybody hears. My understanding of what it is to be a Baptist is shaped by relationships with certain other Baptists and by the particular Baptist writings and histories that I've read, and so when I try to communicate all of the intricacies of that understanding with just one word, it's bound to be heard differently than I meant to say it. I say "Baptist" and mean Thomas Helwys, abolition, and the Cheshire Mammoth Cheese, but the listener hears Billy Graham, Prohibition, and Liberty University. And, of course, I only want to be associated with the good stereotypes of my tradition, and with the stereotypes that I claim as my own.

So how can I communicate my experience of "Baptist," or of anything else complex, without sounding like the Amplified Bible? One tactic is to stop trying to correct the other person's understanding of a given word, and instead to use a term they are unfamiliar with-- a clean-slate term. Instead of saying, "I'm a Baptist," sometimes I say, "I'm part of the Free Church tradition." Instead of saying, "No, I'm Protestant," I say, "No, I'm Radical Reformation." So maybe I come across as a stuck-up snot, but a more obscure term gets a dialog started without the baggage that impairs our ability to communicate. Instead of leaving the conversation thinking "Ouisi doesn't know what Baptists are like," I want the other party to leave thinking "I didn't know Baptists were like that."


  1. Tough one. I know what you mean, because I grew up in the "other" Baptist tradition. The closed minded kind. The enablers of Bill Gothard.

    Chewing on this, I think a good moniker would be:

    "I'm a Distinctively Nuanced Baptist."

    All I could come up with. Sorry. At least it makes me want to hear more.

  2. I would give myself at least 75% when not stressed.

    I will not comment on the "magnify" issue, lest my statue of the Blessed Virgin smacks me to remind me to "let it go already".