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The Most Hurtful Interpretation

Human interactions can be challenging. Even though I don’t know you, I’ll bet that you often feel misunderstood, especially by people who know you very well.

You’re not imagining things. You were born with a social disability, and I’m going to explain exactly what it is, and how you can adapt to it. Once you succeed in doing this, it will feel like someone has bestowed upon you, a remarkable sixth sense. You will be able to detect what others around you cannot, and in time, all of your relationships will become more harmonious.

If it’s any consolation, you are not alone. If you’re a fan of the television series The Big Bang Theory, you probably know that Sheldon is not the most socially-adept creature, in part because of his difficulty in interpreting facial expressions, and therefore, the emotions of others. We were all saddled with a similar interpretive disability – one that makes it challenging for us to accurately interpret the true feelings and intentions of other people.

A few years ago, I was perusing a book co-authored by Jack Canfield, one of the authors of the Chicken Soup For The Soul series of books. Unfortunately, the title of this book escapes me right now, but it contained one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever read. Canfield wrote – merely as an aside – something that I thought was absolutely profound. He said “If people hear something that has multiple interpretations, then they will assume that the most hurtful interpretation is the correct one“.

Teary Eye

At first I thought this was just silly. Perhaps young children (who are continually seeking parental approval) may assume this, but we’re all educated and mature adults with superior reasoning abilities. In any conversation, all interpretations will be considered, and then evaluated properly and sensibly.

Then something unexpected happened. As the weeks and months went by, I realized that Canfield’s pronouncement was true. I heard example after example, with stunning (and frankly, troubling) regularity – more instances than I could count. My otherwise wise and educated family, relatives, friends and colleagues were all affected equally by Canfield’s unsettling statement. My surprise morphed slowly into intrigue. I thought to myself “The divorce rate in this country is about 45%. How could the percentage be this high when there is presumably a year or more of character vetting and compatibility analysis during the courtship and engagement periods? Could this behavioural quirk be a contributor? If we were all keenly aware of The Most Hurtful Interpretation, would our marriages and relationships last longer?“. I realize that this is merely speculation, but like Carrie Bradshaw hunched over her MacBook “I couldn’t help but wonder…“.

Here are just a few examples I encountered:

  • One of my relatives told me that it had been several days since she had read any Facebook posts from a particular member her extended family, and wondered why she had been de-friended. I explained that Facebook doesn’t display every post from each of your friends – otherwise we’d never get through our news feeds. Only selected posts are displayed, and I had no idea what Facebook’s selection algorithm was.
  • A friend and I were e-mailing each other semi-regularly a few years ago. In one message, she asked me something, and I intended to reply the next day, but then forgot all about it. Two weeks later, she e-mailed me again and wanted to apologize if she had said anything to offend me, since I hadn’t contacted her in a while.
  • I was worried sick about you!“. How many times have you, as a teenager, heard these words from your parents after staying out later than you had intended? Statistically, there is a very small chance that anything serious would have happened to you, but that’s not how parents think. They are going to assume the worst.

WebMD Everything Causes Cancer

  • A generation ago, if you weren’t feeling well, you went to see your doctor. Today, the Internet gives us the ability to self-diagnose our symptoms by visiting a number of medical web sites. One of the most popular is WebMD. Just type in your symptoms, and WebMD will display a plethora of diseases and conditions that are associated with them. While poring over this list of possible afflictions, which ones are we drawn to? Which do we think we might have? I think you already know the answer…
  • A few weeks ago, I was watching the Steve Jobs DVD. If you’ve seen this movie, then you’ll remember that Jobs initially denied the paternity of his daughter Lisa. Back in the late 1970s, DNA testing wasn’t nearly as accurate as it is now, and while Jobs did take a paternity test, he said to a TIME magazine reporter that his DNA test results could apply to 28% of the men in the United States. Therefore, he felt no need to admit anything. Lisa’s mother, Chrisann, read the article and thought that Jobs had accused her of sleeping with 28% of the men in the United States. To be fair, this movie is a partially fictionalized account of Jobs’ life, so I have no idea how accurate the recounting of this event is. However, it is a perfect example of The Most Hurtful Interpretation.

Lorne Grabher

  • Finally, there’s Lorne Grabher’s license plate. Mr. Grabher was proud of his fine German surname, and decided to place it on a vanity license plate. For a while, everything was uneventful, but then one person noticed his license plate, and read it as “Grab Her”. This unnamed person felt that Lorne was “misogynistic and promoting violence against women“. So s/he filed a complaint with the Ministry of Transportation and they revoked his vanity plate.

I’m Also Not Immune

After perusing Canfield’s book, I naturally assumed that I would be granted an instant and lifelong immunity to this phenomenon. How could I possibly be affected, since I was now in possession of this incredible insight? Since I was familiar with the underlying behavioural machinations, I could note this behaviour in others from a distance, as a detached observer. Obviously, I was wrong. I was affected as much as everyone else, and this example illustrates that The Most Hurtful Interpretation is not limited to human interaction.

Door Access Card v1a

Last year, as I was returning to the office from my lunch break, I held my access card against the card reader beside the reception area door. The card reader always beeps, and then its light changes from red to green, followed by the audible click of the door unlocking. This time, nothing happened. I tried again – still nothing. It took about 4-5 attempts before the reader recognized my card. I found out later from someone in the IT department that the door reader was a little quirky and had been giving everyone trouble. That should have been my first assumption, since it was not only logical but was also the most likely scenario. However, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts at opening the door, my actual thoughts were “Oh no – I’ve been fired! They always deactivate your security cards and computer accounts first. How could this happen? I’m a good worker. What have I done (or not done)?“. Yes, in hindsight this sounds silly, but at the time it was a genuine concern for me.

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Now That You Know…

The first thing you’ll want to do is look for evidence. Keep your ears open and listen carefully to the conversations you have with your family, friends and co-workers. Then listen to the conversations around you. Within a few days, you will probably start hearing numerous examples of The Most Hurtful Interpretation. I was astonished by how many examples I heard.

Fast forward several weeks… since you’ve heard a variety of examples, and are adept at identifying this behavioural quirk, you now possess your special sixth sense! As you listen to the interactions around you, you now have the ability to predict how a statement will be interpreted by the recipient, even when the speaker does not.

At this point, you may want to take steps to ensure that your sentiments are not misinterpreted in a hurtful way. Unfortunately, this is not going to be easy. In Toastmasters, I learned that communication consists of two components: the message we deliver, and the message that the audience actually hears (and interprets). Unfortunately, we can control only the first component. Since the listener is always free to interpret your words in any way, what can you do? Before speaking, think about all of the different ways that your message can be misinterpreted (in a hurtful way) and then consider how to modify your message to reduce the chances of this happening. Here are a few ways to limit the breadth of the interpretations.

  • Speak clearly
  • Choose your words carefully
  • Avoid ambiguity
  • Provide plenty of details
  • Surround your message with as much context as possible

Finally, build up a mental case file (or write down the examples you hear). Analyze each conversation, and consider the following:

  • What was the original intent of the speaker’s message?
  • What was the listener’s interpretation of that message?
  • How did the listener arrive at their conclusion?
  • If I were the speaker, how could I rephrase my message to prevent this particular interpretation?

In the arena of human interaction, if it seems that the odds are stacked against you, they’re not – they are stacked against all of us, which levels the playing field. However, you now stand head and shoulders above everyone else. Now that you know about The Most Hurtful Interpretation, you possess a special sixth sense – an acute social awareness that almost no one else on the planet shares with you. It will take a bit of time to develop and hone this ability to predict the reactions of others, but once you do, I predict that you will be heralded by those around you as a talented and empathetic communicator.

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