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On the Habit of Finding Better Words Part 1

As a toddler and young child, according to my mother and sister, I used to say “ayana” when I wanted someone to lie down with me. No one has any idea where I got the word, but within my family it was understood as my invitation for a cuddle and a cozy to help me get to sleep (or a not-so-sly way to avoid sleep because what I really wanted to do was talk and sing). Outside my family, without contextual cues, it would not have been easy to understand what “ayana” meant.

People I once knew have a son who didn’t speak until he was nearly four. He was otherwise growing in all the predictable ways, and had absolutely no trouble communicating. His family, and those close to him, understood his gestures and looks, they understood his rhythms. They could always meet his needs without him providing oral or linguistic cues of any kind.

It often isn’t until the children are in environments with people who don’t get the shorthand and/or can’t (don’t want to, don’t have the time, don’t think they *should*) crack the code that the children stop being understood. It is not uncommon, in fact, for children who are otherwise deemed on a predictable and “developmentally appropriate” path to start preschool or kindergarten and be suddenly described as “language delayed.” These children will have to struggle to communicate in ways that were, on the whole, fairly simple before the change in context changed everything.

I am deeply aware that there is important – crucial – work done when we teach children to communicate beyond their most intimate circles and also when we learn and grow into new ways to say and share things. Communication is central to human experience and language shapes the very foundation of who we are as individuals and peoples. Mediation, interpretation, and translation are wildly important practices relative to all levels of understanding, and each are entirely dependent on our ability to communicate. They exist at the heart of how we impact and learn about/through/from each other and the broader living world with which we are interconnected. I make part of my living trying to help people express themselves. And, obviously, most communications work requires certain skills that I’m super glad to have in some measure at least.

What’s at issue here, though, isn’t whether or not skills of communication are valuable, it’s the collateral damage of learning them.

The bald-faced truth is that many of us do not learn to think of ourselves as “hard to understand” until someone doesn’t understand us.

It’s that simple.

When I said “ayana” to my family, they got it and either snuggled up or didn’t. Saying it to people outside my family, without contextual cues, would leave them unable to meet my request even if they wanted to. Obviously, “not being understood” has different effects on everyone. But, in general. it always bespeaks or shapes who we are. Over my years, I’ve noticed a few broad categories with many observed variations and hybrids.

Some people grow up and through environmental shifts in their ability to “be understood” and honestly come to believe that anyone who doesn’t understand them is the one at fault. They are not going to give a lot of time to trying to find “better words” with which to express themselves, nor are they going to sweat it much if they don’t understand someone else. This water off a duck’s back relationship to communication will sometimes serve them well. It can save them anguish and struggle and even reset power dynamics in their favour. Other times, it might cost them a job, a relationship, a friendship.

There are also people who just don’t care that much about getting along with other humans and build their lives accordingly. Perhaps some of these humans have found this position on retreat from a human world that so consistently doesn’t get them that they have located sanity and purpose through relationships with mountains and rivers, with non-human animals, with petri dishes and microscopes and microbes. Perhaps they’ve just never found the company of fellow humans overly appealing. Either way, these are people who just do not care very much about the types of interpersonal connections that are born of “humans understanding one other” and so have trundled along living their lives in ways that work for them. Professionally, some in this category might seek out human supports so they can at least share their work/ideas meaningfully. But, in their personal lives, it’s nice if people understand them but if they don’t, there’s always a favourite hike or maybe a good book to read, so that’s okay too.

What I have been thinking about, however, since an exchange with a friend a while back now, are the people who love language(s), and who choose (are chosen by) professions, interests, and/or hobbies that necessitate taking the whole “being understood” by other humans thing far more seriously. The desire to “be clear” so that service and support can be more meaningful, generative, and connective winds up permeating every part of their lives. Sometimes this compulsion “to be understood” is the saving grace of their connections, other times it wears down everyone involved. It can, I’ve learned in my own life (as I am definitely in some version of this latter category), occasionally seem like a passive attempt to control understanding instead of as a desire to be understood.

Again, though, like the child who leaves home for schooling and is suddenly deemed ‘language delayed,’ what I find incredibly interesting is that none of us hyper-communicators ever really think about “not being understood” until someone doesn’t understand.

Why would we?

How can we even begin to gage our ability to express ourselves unless we share ourselves with others? Even those who have located their need for connection outside a human-dominated sphere, probably still (consciously or unconsciously) seek and find “understanding” with the places and beings that do fill their days.

Comedians who don’t practice their material in front of actual audiences are never going to know if it works, no-less with which demographic(s) it works “better.”

Scientists who never share their research with anyone will likely stagnate. Their ideas will never know the expansive criticisms and connections of collaboration.

Life partners who do not share frustrations can never know if their loved ones will meet them half way.

We can, of course, spin our wheels all alone in the vacuum of self-critique and/or perfectionism but nothing can grow in a vacuum and how did we get there in the first place? I’m sure it’s a lot of steps along a lot of ways, but it is also along this line of thought that I fell into a rabbit hole…

(continued in On the Habit of “Finding Better Words” Part 2 and
On the Habit of “Finding Better Words” Part 3)

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