How to Avoid Common Misunderstandings


We’ve all used the phrase “I assumed.It often expresses the disappointment of an expectation.I assumed” X, but Y occurred instead.

This implies that one person didn’t specify his meaning, or the other misunderstood or wasn’t paying attention. One or both believed an understanding had been created. Something obvious was not grasped, explicit or implied.

Years ago, I used the expression with a teenage patient, a quick-witted, sometimes rude young fellow. He responded, “When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.

Impertinent, but correct.

On another occasion, I taught a neighbor’s boy how to drive. He’d taken the relevant driver’s education classes and read the required material. The teen recognized Illinois permitted a right turn after a complete stop at a red light or stop sign.

Then one could turn, so he believed.

The young fellow didn’t glance left down the street to make sure he wouldn’t collide with the cross traffic. He “assumed” the stop alone allowed him to go.

Fortunately, no accident occurred. I took a deep breath, restrained myself from removing his head from his shoulders, gulped, and explained the danger.

Should we assume less than we do?

Think of words. Do people agree on the meaning of phrases like ...

  • I promise?
  • I’ll see you later?
  • I will do it soon?

What is a promise? When are broken promises excusable?

What do you mean by later?

When? Today, tomorrow, in a few days?

Most of us expect or hope for reciprocity in relationships. If we do regular favors for another, display generosity of time and attention, pay for food and drink, we anticipate occasional effort to provide consideration in return.

Not everyone gets this. Indeed, the nonreciprocal individual might be shocked if he were accused of selfishness.

Consider routine language combinations such as “next Tuesday.Does it mean the Tuesday of this week or next?

When you ask a person to telephone you tonight, what constitutes tonight? Or, perhaps, “Call me after dinner.Does everyone agree on when nighttime begins and when it’s too late?

We tend to believe ourselves reasonable and logical. As for the next bloke, we aren’t sure. Yet we “assume” the gentleman thinks as we do in everyday conversation: he conforms to our comprehension of words and “normal” conduct.

Since many find it uncomfortable to ask “when exactly” a task will be performed, another potential complication exists. When will the package delivery occur, when will the contract be sent, etc.?

Do your friends or acquaintances reason as you do? Would their understanding, the organization of logic and thought match your own? Do you recognize their blindspots? Do you know all of your own? How can you be certain?

When you reflect on your own knowledge and values, do you find yourself in sync with the people you socialize with? If you are perfectly aligned, you might reach a point of boredom in their company.

No matter how hard you try, how hard your friend tries, misunderstandings occur, epic or tiny. Fortunately, most are minor.

We can’t see ourselves from the outside nor get into another’s head. Each of us creates a universe through our eyes alone, not a reality. Though our realities overlap, no couple envisions the world identically. In your self-created cosmos, your unique conception of life informs every picture. No wonder the rhino/artist in the single-cell comic (above) paints everything the way he does.

The other’s “universe” is fun getting to know. Discovering another world makes life entertaining but complicated. We must strike a liveable balance between trying to interact with machine-like certainty and accepting everyone’s limits, including our own.

Nonetheless, I offer you some brief guidance to reduce your chance of misunderstandings and presumptions going wrong.

  • Consider how often mix-ups occur in your life. Are they repetitive? In what way? What might you do to cut down the number?
  • Make a list of past disagreements and how much assumptions played a part. Focus on the ones most common to you.
  • Recognize the types of persons with whom you tend to encounter troublesome issues. Are they bosses, teachers, lovers, or particular friends? Analyze the significant categories and ask yourself why this one and not another.
  • People of different generations and cultural or ethnic backgrounds follow the norms of their cohorts. For example, there are generational differences in the use of language. “I’m up for that” once was the equivalent of “I’m down for that.” For some, it still is.
  • One method of minimizing errant assumptions is to ask more questions.
  • Perhaps some of the acquaintances you thought you knew well have changed. Or maybe you have.
  • Find a place of comfort between constructing careless agreements and meticulous conversation, similar to a lawyer drafting a contract. Accept the small mishaps of life as the condition of human existence.
  • Be sure to allow some room for both you and others to change. As the 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes said when asked why his current ideas were inconsistent with past statements, he replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

If a friend moves from compulsive promptness to something more laid back, he probably doesn’t text you the news. 

Ah, the complexity of relationships! Make the best of them. You can make human contact smoother and perhaps laugh at some of the bumps along the way.


The last image comes from a 1901 issue of Puck magazine. It was drawn by Samuel D. Erhart. The source is Wikimedia Commons.

10 thoughts on “How to Avoid Common Misunderstandings

  1. Truth! Pronouns are THE worst for miscommunications! Hubby and I have worked hard to improve our comms and it really has helped.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m grateful for your mention of pronouns, Laura. Some folks don’t mention the name they wish to use as a sentence’s subject. Instead, they lead with a pronoun (he, she, etc.). That leaves most of us clueless, guessing who or what they are talking about. When this happens repeatedly, the listener quickly becomes frustrated. I share your pain! Thanks again, Laura.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. People reveal themselves pretty clearly about being on time and being in debt. In my experience, these traits don’t change over time. Accept or not, it’s up to each of us. The rest? I think your suggestions are right on target.


  4. people reveal themselves pretty clearly about being on time and being in debt. In my experience, these traits don’t change over time. Thanks


  5. I am glad you’ve had that experience, posh. The array of stories I heard during my practice was wide, many of whom would agree with you, but some whose experience was different. Indebtedness sometimes involved a sense of entitlement, sometimes a private attempt at making an equivalence between giving the other money vs. the other’s giving of time and displays of kindness, etc. The best thought I ever heard on the subject came from a friend who said, “Buddies don’t count.” By that, he meant they don’t keep score. Thanks for your comment and best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m still trying to understand why the leader of the CDC would say words that completely undermine the elderly, the immunocompromised, and many high-risk disabled persons. It’s hard to see what as a “misunderstanding.” Privilege comes in all shapes and sizes (not just colors), and it would appear that the able-bodied (fittest-of-the-fittest) slip up a lot, or are overtly blunt, about their disdain for the “less-than.” It’s painful. Such misunderstandings truly affect relationships, cultures, survival, safety, and more. It can spread like a cancer and turn from mere misunderstanding to misinformation to intentional-and-toxic disinformation. Empathy is left on the victims, not oppressors. Able-bodied oppressors/controllers would rather claim that their “fatigue” and/or “economic losses” and/or “freedom rights” and/or “worthiness” is worth being callous, unemotional, harmful, and even hateful and violent against those they see as “less than,” “less worthy,” “less fit,” etc. It’s sad how misunderstandings that fester could create such divisions. And even if the (true) victims (those who are often identified as minorities) find some apologetic way of “understanding” the “misunderstandings,” those offenders who created the misunderstandings from a position of power tend to continue on with their “misunderstandings” until it becomes commonplace, then transformed into misinformation and then transformed yet again into their final end-game: disinformation campaigns. Psychological warfare is nothing new to our enemies, such as Russia, who knew how to start with subtle misunderstandings until it spreads so much that it becomes blatant disinformation campaigns. By then, it’s hard to see such as simple misunderstandings.

    In this day and age, those on the political right and those on the political left are themselves divided, and such “misunderstandings” are hard to see when the origins push loyalists to continue without apologies or change. It’s hard to find common ground or peace when we are dealing with psychological warfare on a daily basis – via social media, via divisions within and between groups, etc. Hopefully people will understand that misunderstandings can be repaired to the point of preventing misinformation and disinformation and the resulting divisions, hate, and war. But it would appear that we in this world, day and age, have failed.


    • I have noted some of what you describe. In my own family, someone has a number of the vulnerabilities you do.

      Yes, the political wheel seems to have turned, so that public health measures disfavor those most vulnerable to COVID.

      Those individuals can only take special care now and keep up on international scientific sources like Israel, as well as the best domestic epidemiological and treatment information.

      You can contact your House and Senate representatives, and talk to your MD about your own personal health. It might also be that there are groups with the same concerns who are organizing to make their collective voices heard.

      Good luck, Dragonfly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am sorry one of your family members is struggling in similar ways I do, Dr. Stein. I admire Israel’s care for the vulnerable and research on 4th doses of the coronavirus vaccine. The concern I have with that is whether our bodies will tire from too many vaccines too soon, so I see double-masking with a N95 or the newest N99 (has a rubber seal inside) as the best protection for the wearer when vaccine efficacy remains questionable. Sadly, public health institutions across the globe have let their own pandemic fatigue affect their decisions, which in turn allowed them to be more vulnerable to the alt-right’s tiresome and fatigue-exacerbating political rants and riots. Politics seem to increase biases in science, which have led to the politically charged public health measures that negate science with their own political biases and/or psychological fatigue. I do not know anymore where misunderstandings begin and disinformation ends, besides the deaths, increased disabilities, worsened preexisting conditions, new physiological conditions, increased bigotry, worsened economy because of lack of cooperation among all (as opposed to the opposing view of the competition between the fit and the ill), increased ad hominem attacks, decreased peace buildings, increased violence and other related behavioral problems, increased discrimination, and ultimately, increased hate. I felt like I wasted my time trying to forgive and understand the misunderstandings perpetuated by the right and alt-right. I felt fatigued from that alone. I think pandemic fatigue is more heterogeneous than what is being said about this phenomenon.


  7. I think Israel is following science, at least in this instance. I don’t know enough about their government having more concern for the elderly and immune-compromised than other countries. Still, the belief in education and books goes back a long way in the Jewish community. One of the Scandandanavia countries is also providing the elderly, immune-compromised folks access to “early” second boosters.

    The weariness with COVID is present in virtually all of us. Significantly, there are some good arguments for putting kids back in school without masks.

    We are living through a kind of experiment. Will the lack of face-to-face development and use of social skills, comfort in crowds, and similar talents erode or deform our ability to relate to each other? I don’t know.

    For myself, I’m not trying to outguess the scientists (as opposed to those politicians who take on both the scientific and political role in government). However, so much of the information concerning COVID is necessarily new, that I try to be grateful for the imperfect efforts of those who are dedicating their lives to studying, communicating, and treating those caught in the pandemic. Regrettably, the population of health care professionals on the front lines is buckling.

    Even I would be unlikely to put on two masks simultaneously. There are benefits and costs in virtually all decisions. We might have to wait a long time if we are waiting for 100% protection from a single inoculation. Nor does the standard annual flu shot or the best shingles shot produce anything near the protection of the best COVID shots for most people.

    But, I would underline the vital notice you have brought to recognizing our responsibilities to other human beings, a consideration many of those who talk about their personal “freedom” seem to ignore or dismiss.


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