Wait. Stop. Listen.
There are worlds within our words. I think that sometimes people don’t know this. We speak to each other in voices full of echoes, words that carry the weight of our experience, but what we hear only carries the weight of our expectations, and these are universes apart from one another.
I understand the nuance of written language very well. I love the delicacy of it, the subtle richness and layers held within a single word. The commonality of cultural interpretation. The concept of a loaded word, as though it were a loaded gun, and it might go off at any moment.
These things are instinctive for me and I feel like they always have been, although obviously that can’t be true. At some point I was a child learning to read, and words were a little thinner then. Back then, the triumph was in making these strange markings on the page into stories. That was victory enough for me. I didn’t even realise that I was finding layers and nuance in sentences for years afterwards, when I learned that two people could read the same thing and experience something entirely different.
I am not so good with spoken language. There’s a reason that I use a lot of disclaimers, with the written word and especially the spoken word. If written words contain oceans, spoken words are like galaxies – except that I can’t see them. They might as well be infrared. I can feel that there is heat, but I don’t know what’s going on.
I learned at a young age that I was easily misunderstood. Those galaxies of meaning, of emotive spoken language, the body language, the tone, the intent, and even the social rules governing the interpretation of words themselves? They were invisible to me. I could neither see them myself nor make myself seen in them. When I delivered words, they were flat and blunt. I can emote when singing – there are galaxies in music too – but not when speaking.
I hurt people, and was hurt. I still remember a friend who stopped speaking to me when I was eleven because of something I said, something I didn’t consider particularly insulting or offensive. As far as I knew, I was just making conversation. Perhaps I was too blunt, and too careless.
I got older. I tried to be more careful. I was still blunt, and still careless. I still hurt people by accidental speech, and still I was hurt when I was misunderstood.
I watched people when they spoke. I tried to learn. I watched their body language. I listened to their tone of voice as though it were the readout from sonar mapping equipment, something that would stop me walking into walls, and in a way that is exactly what it was.
In a way, learning this consciously, by paying attention, gave me an advantage. I realised, with horror, that people speak past each other all the time. I realised that what one person says is not what the other person hears. I realised that two people can be being factually correct and honest and still be having two completely different conversations. I realised that people would over-interpret body language, and come to opposite conclusions, fuelled by what they wanted and what they feared, and not at all by what was being said.
My instinct – one that I still have, so strong that it is almost overwhelming – is to say “Wait. Stop.”
“Wait. Stop. Stop. Listen. Listen.” To point at one party. “You are saying that X, because of Y, is Z.” To point at the other. “You are pointing out that, given the fact of Y, Z and X are the same thing. You are saying the same thing. Stop arguing.”
If you think this sounds an awful lot like an undergraduate humanities tutorial, you’d be right. I can think of at least six subjects I took, off the top of my head, where a good half the time was wasted by people talking past each other, because they didn’t stop to think about the baggage- the nuance- the expectation- of speech.
Watching characters arguing in TV shows is a special torture. “Wait. Stop.” They don’t say or ask the simple things that could resolve the situation. They don’t wind back to find out what they really mean. They leap to wild conclusions about what has been said. Their inability to understand one another, to sit down and find their common language, is a plot device, and it is almost physically painful to me. I once put down a book I loved for eighteen months, because the big misunderstanding, as a plot device, gives me profound anxiety.
I am terrified of being misunderstood.
I’m human. Being misunderstood is inevitable.
I now take a great deal of care when I communicate. I add in disclaimers. When I say that something makes me happy, that I love something, I always add that “this works for me. It might not work for you.” We live in a world where, whenever you say you are happy about something, whenever you say you have done something that works for you, you are supposed to be judging people who do different things and want different things. I’m not. I’m honestly not. I love exercise, and I talk about exercise all the time. I love the way it makes me feel. I love that I can walk around without pain. But my talking about gym does not mean I think everyone should go to gym. My love of diving and writing does not mean I think everyone will love diving and writing. My fondness for my monogamous, married, heterosexual relationship does not mean I think everyone should be monogamous, married, heterosexual or in a relationship.
I do not expect people to share my preferences. I do not expect people to share my fears or my drives. I fully believe myself to be odd, but then, I also believe that everyone is odd.
That’s the problem. We speak the same language (well, let’s assume that for the moment) but everyone is carrying a different lexicon.
I wish I did not have to use disclaimers. I wish I could just happily, boldly say that I am not interested in something without it being an insult to the person who is interested in that thing. I wish it was alright for people to like different things, want different things and need different things, without having to state outright, every time, that I understand this, and it should be assumed in everything I say.
But my lexicon is peculiar to me. My assumptions, and the nuance that I inject into words, are peculiar to me. There are some common cultural associations, but these are so layered. They all mean slightly different things to different people.
Now, I see, I’m belabouring the point. It just bothers me. Being able to communicate with one another, being able to speak clearly, to dig through the baggage and the confusion to find out what you’re actually trying to say – these are so important, so crucial to being a human being who has to relate to other human beings. The people we are closest to get to build a new dictionary for us. They’ve learned our language.
I just wish that wasn’t such a painful process.
Maybe one day it won’t be.
Until then, I will keep trying to be very careful, and sometimes I will be blunt and careless. I will misunderstand. I will be misunderstood. I will hurt, and be hurt, and I will say sorry.