Lost in Translation: misunderstanding and faulty sensory perception

IMG_2295It is no wonder there is so much misunderstanding in the world. A simple word can mean completely different things to different people. When I was 20-something, my favorite book was Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Over the years I often think of the powerful chapter in which Kundera takes a number of seemingly innocuous words, and defines them according to each character’s perspective. Words take on meanings that depend upon associations from our experience. For instance the word “light” can be positive for one person, negative for the next.

Have you ever said something to someone, and then they think for a minute, and say, “Oh, you mean ….”, and they translate what you have said into their own personal language? If you have had this experience, I would be willing to bet that the person you are communicating with often says something related but quite different from what you intended to convey, and often says exactly the opposite of what you meant.

I believe this happens all the time in human interaction: you say something to me, I think about what it means, rephrase it in my head, and then remember my own words, not yours. It becomes a type of faulty sensory perception, where I actually remember hearing you say the words I think you said, but really it was my own translation of what you said that I hear ringing in my ears.

As a teacher/friend/mother/spouse, if I keep this in mind, I can be slower to react in these types of situations…”Maybe I did say that, but let’s talk about it again, because I am not sure that is what I meant.” Or, “Oh, you didn’t say that? I must be remembering what I thought you meant, and not what you actually said. Can we talk about it again?”

The same thing happens when we read about something. We interpret it, and then when we tell someone else about it, we learn we may actually have gotten it wrong. Upon many occasions, my students have related to me something they have read in an Alexander book, but when we look it up, we learn that the words and the meaning were quite different from what they thought it said.

As a teacher, I sometimes learn (and surely often never find out) that students have misheard me or don’t remember hearing me say something. When I find out about it, my habit is to feel defensive, or upset that I hadn’t successfully conveyed the information I intended to. I need to keep in mind the bigger picture, and use this opportunity for learning, both for me and for my student. “Let’s talk about it again.”

photo of “American Pancakes” by Heidi Leathwood, taken in a Madrid Starbucks

blog by Heidi Leathwood