Words And Meanings, Intended And Not

English mathematician & philosopher (1861 - 1947)

Recently, I had dinner with two good friends of mine. One man is a person who was born and raised in the United States and, politically, a very conservative man. The other friend is someone who was born and raised in the Soviet Union and he and his entire family were finally able to emigrate from Russia years after the Berlin wall was destroyed and the old Soviet empire collapsed. They engaged in a discussion that reflects how words can convey very different meanings.

The former Russian stated that "socialism" does not work and that it is an evil. The conservative American enthusiastically agreed with him. I do not believe that either was aware that they were discussing different things and that their agreement was not that at all.

For people from Russia, including the former Soviet Union, the word "socialism" really means "communism." Communism means totalitarian dictatorship in which the secret police, the KGB, used terror, bullying, executions and censorship to control the minds of its citizens. That government was stifling to any kind of ambition or spontaneity on the part of its citizens.

To my conservative friend, the word "socialism" meant American liberal politics in which the government spends tax dollars to pay for social programs to help the American people. Many conservatives have accused President Obama of being "socialist" in his using tax payer dollars to bail out General Motors and the banking system.

In other words, the two men are using one word in ways that carry very different meanings. This type of thing happens a lot.

Words are important. They have meaning and convey attitudes, beliefs and values. They are used to shape the thinking and the feelings of other people. However, words are not precise. They also convey implications. What is "not" said becomes as important as that which "is" said.

Very early on in my psychoanalytic training, I was taught to be very careful in the words I chose to use with patients. I was also taught to listen carefully both to what was being said and implied during the therapeutic hour.

While listening we were taught to always be aware of the context or background in which patients were talking about things. In other words, context was considered as important as the actual words being used and actually added deeper meaning to those words.

Here are some examples of words and context:

Example 1. To my friend who is from the former Soviet Union, the word socialism means oppression, terror and dictatorship. To my American born friend, socialism means big government spending. To many European nations such as France, United Kingdom and Italy, socialism means that the government spends tax money for certain basic social needs such as medical care for its citizens.

Example 2. A debate has been raging for a long time over at the forum dedicated to Alcoholic's Anonymous and whether or not it is effective. In other words, the issue of AA has formed the context behind most of what is being said by those who write comments.

Recently, the debate started to focus how addiction should be viewed. One group insists that addiction is a disease, more specifically, a behavioral disorder with causative factors, symptoms and prognosis. The other group insists, with equal fervor that addiction is not a disease or disorder because it is a matter of choice. Perhaps the addicted individual experienced child abuse or has depression and is choosing to self medicate with alcohol or other substances.

The pro disease advocates are told that they are implying that people who are addicted are not responsible for their actions because they have a disease.

The anti disease group is told that they are also making an implication and that telling addicts that they have a disease leaves them with no responsibility for their care and recovery.

Both sides of the argument serve as excellent examples of how words can be used to cloud, rather than clarify, an issue.

Does context play a role in this debate? The answer is yes. The anti AA group states correctly that AA regards addiction as a disease. To make matters worse, according to this group, the addict must admit to being helpless in front of the addiction. Here is another implication: The addict has no responsibility. In other words, at least part of the motivation for their stance against addiction being a disease is that AA asserts that it is.

Ipso facto, the pro AA group defends addiction as a disease because AA states that it is.

Example 3. For some people, paranoid thinking forms the context or framework through which interactions with other people is viewed. Many decades ago, when I started my career as a school teacher, I naively believed I was giving a teenage girl a compliment when I told her that her outfit looked wonderful. Far from being accepted by her as a well meaning compliment on my part, she informed me, in no uncertain terms, that all of her clothes always look wonderful. To her, I was implying that she did not always look good. So often what we mean to say and what is heard are totally different.

Example 4. If I had a dollar for every time a female with anorexia reported feeling insulted by the compliment that she "looks good," I could be a very wealthy man. Viewed by a female through the prism of anorexia nervosa, "you look good," is interpreted to mean, "you have gained weight," and worse, "you are fat."  How many times was I dumbly trapped into answering my teenage daughters' apparently harmless question, "Did I lose weight since last week?," with, "Yes, you did, sweetheart." The retort to what I thought was my harmless answer... "Oh, so you do think I was fat!!!???" Ouch! Here again, what was intended and what was heard were totally different.

Example 5. How many marital quarrels have I sat through as each spouse presents a diametrically opposite view of events prior to the argument and during its course? These couples do not at all mind accusing one another of lying and distorting. In my experience, when all the details are sorted out, and sometimes not until I can meet with each of them individually, do we find that they were talking, not only about different things, but from a totally different context. Here is one example:

The husband was raised in a home in which his parents never demonstrated any affection to each other. The wife was raised in a home in which shows of affection were common but her parents were continually arguing about money because they were deeply in debt.

On this occasion, the husband, wanting to express his tender feelings of love for his wife, stops at a florist on his way home from work and purchases a bouquet of flowers. When he enters their house and warmly presents the flowers to her, he is shocked by her expression of anger. To her, spending their money on flowers for her was a total waste of their funds and on something frivolous. To suggest that he was disappointed  and angry at her reaction is a huge understatement. The main point is that they were coming from two totally different contexts and perspectives.

All of these examples are provided to demonstrate how difficult and fragile human communication can be. Part of the goal of psychotherapy is to help people learn how to improve their communication skills. Whether it is between children and parents, husbands and wives, doctor and patient, neighbor and neighbor, etc, people must work hard at clarifying, not just what they are saying, but, what they are meaning.

By the way, in many of our forums where a variety of debates over separate issues continue, people attempt to present "facts" as a way of establishing the correctness of their opinion. However, read this quote from the great humorist and cartoonist, Matt Groening:

"Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true! "
Matt Groening, The Simpsons
US cartoonist & satirist (1954 - )

Your opinions and comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

Comments
  • MeMay

    I am currently seeing a counselor. He told me in one of our recent sessions about a married couple that are/were friends of his..............

    They had a son. Both the husband and the wife were therapists. I believe one of them was a child therapist and the other was a family therapist. So you would think that their son would have grown to become a pretty stable teenager, especially with all the knowledge that he was surrounded with while growing up, right? Nope, he never made it. He committed suicide.

    I do not know what made me think of 'this' story while I was reading this topic. I know what I was thinking, though. I was thinking of how people in the mental health community slice and dice every word and every meaning up into these little microscopic pieces, then go on to attach their label to it so they can treat it accordingly. Do you think this is what happened to this boy? Do you think his parents did this to him? Do WE try to look too deeply into what someone is SAYING and pass up the opportunity to relate to or understand how they are FEELING???

  • Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

    Hi Memay,

    Therapists, whether they are psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, family therapists, etc., are only human beings, as the title of you comment states. I have known therapists who know how to draw a clear boundary between work and home. They do not "play therapist" with their spouses or children. I have known the opposite. Either way, no one on this earth is immune from tragedy. My hope is that the tragic couple you mention did not do any of that "analyzing" of every word. Who knows why their son took his own life? They may never know. This tragedy happens to people from all walks of life.

    However, words and their meanings is another issue. Without being therapists and without being obsessional about examining words, people are quick to get offended when they hear something that sounds like an insult. People are quick and without thinking, to react to a comment, a word, an tone of voice, an intonation, as though the greatest insult was hurled at them.

    The main point of the above article does not have to do with therapists but with how difficult human communication is. This is why we argue in our marriages, this is why we go to war, this is why there is so much misunderstanding around the world. We often believe we heard someone say something and we are often mistaken, at least, partly.

    Yes, we are only human and that is why it is so hard to communicate. We all need lots and lots of patience and kindness.

    Dr. Schwartz