Language functions by agreement. I sip my coffee and consider how completely I accept this as ‘true’. How we define our terms matters, so much that we have phrases like ‘apples to apples’ for expressing how necessary it is to have  a shared understanding of an individual term in discussion with others. I’m not sure why I am thinking about it today. I’ll note that it touches a nerve both in the work environment, and in my personal experience. The assumptions people make about each other, about ‘what we meant’, about what we just said, just now, without a single clarifying question result in some real comedy – and most of our tragedy.

I found my way to this ‘topic’ this morning, because I was stuck for a title. Which got me thinking… Is it a ‘title’, or is it a ‘subject line’? Why do I have a subtly different understanding of the meaning of each? Don’t they function very similarly almost to the point of sameness? Is there any ‘real’ cause to make a distinction between the two? If asked, could I support that with logical proofs? Would it make one whit of difference to other people using the terms slightly differently – and would either of us really ever know that we did not have a shared understanding of such subtleties?

I spend a lot of time thinking about language, meaning, and how I communicate with the world…and how and what it communicates to me. So much of what I understand of what I hear, read, see and infer has as much to do with me, myself, as any intended meaning launched my way willfully.  Assumptions are a big deal, because they undercut the meaning of one’s communication with others – and until someone speaks up about the lack of understanding, it isn’t evident; we’re simply having very different conversations with each other than we understand ourselves to be having. Very inconvenient, if the purpose of shared communication is also a shared understanding. We all make assumptions – to move so quickly through life processing the quantity of information from our senses, and make something of it in our thinking probably requires it. It can go very badly, though…

I think of lovers who quarrel a lot and wonder what their assumptions about each other’s feelings must be? I remember points in past relationships where I had, over time, come to assume that my partner was an adversary. Adversarial assumptions create conflict before words are even spoken. I have learned to choose differently in the context of loving relationships; a lover is not an adversary. If I am unable to comfortably assume affection and good intent of loved ones, how much love do we actually share? I found it an illuminating question to ask, at a number of points in life. I finally found answers, for myself, that I can live with.

I think about the way assumptions shred meaning in work conversations and social conversations, too. Clear, simple language is sometimes challenging for me; I find my voice in poetry, in word play, in layers of meaning, and metaphors. I value very frank and direct conversation, and also enjoy the beauty in language. Those things don’t necessarily ‘go together’ very comfortably; I sometimes ‘lose my audience’ in conversation. The nuances of meaning in [American] English words (my ‘default’ language day-to-day) are sometimes quite extraordinary…precious…precise…poetic…beautiful…confusing as fuck. I seriously doubt most people notice or care about the distinction between ‘very’ and ‘exceedingly’, or ‘excellent’ and ‘exceptional’. I probably drive my traveling partner crazy ‘looking for the right word’ fairly often – I am very relaxed about myself in his company and find myself ‘looking for the right word’ – out loud, while I am talking, in the middle of a sentence. No doubt it robs me of clarity to do so. Still…if I use language that doesn’t mean what I intend to convey, or is not understood to have that meaning, I am not having the conversation that I hope to have. It is worth it to ‘say what I mean’ – but if I am not understood, having done so, it is time to examine the assumptions standing in the way.

Have you taken a look at your assumptions lately? They are the foundation on which much of our experience is built – from ‘the sun will rise again tomorrow’ to ‘that food is no good because it is past its expiration date’ to ‘I know what you mean’ to ‘the answer to “how are you?” is “fine” ‘. It’s a lot to keep track of if we had to sort it all out fresh every time with proofs, and evidence. Still… there is value in checking in on those assumptions and replacing the ones that are out-of-date – or patently foolish – with more functional material. I find it particularly valuable to seriously test any assumptions that are built on perceived differences between me, and those other than me; most of the time assumptions about people’s differences are garbage. Some of the assumptions about our samenesses are garbage, too. I definitely find value in testing the assumption that I ‘know what you mean’. I probably don’t. It’s the reason listening deeply is a practice I am committed to practicing – being really skilled at listening is generally more effective for determining meaning than talking is. 🙂

The time slips by unnoticed this morning. My coffee is cold, and I’ve used more words than necessary to say “I find value in listening when I am listening, and asking questions to gain clarity” and “assumptions are often incorrect” and “words matter, and our understanding of their meaning can’t be assumed to be shared; it often isn’t”.

Today I will begin again, and practice listening deeply. (I definitely need the practice.)

Today I will begin again, and practice listening deeply. (I definitely need the practice.)