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.

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

Of Clocks and Weddings and Getting Cold Feet

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/29/Marshall_Field_and_Co._clock_at_State_St..JPG/500px-Marshall_Field_and_Co._clock_at_State_St..JPG

It could have happened to you, but it probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he had finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn. Marriage was now possible, his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

A marriage license would be required.

They agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at the famous Marshall Field and Company Building, now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From Field’s they would make the short walk to City Hall to get the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the Field’s clock,” he’d said off-handedly and she’d quickly agreed.

The day came and at the appointed time he was there. Right under the clock at Randolph and State as he’d promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What could have happened? Did she get delayed? Was she injured?

Or, just perhaps, did she get cold feet?

Meanwhile, a lovely young woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

And she was thinking to herself, “What happened to Milton? He is always so punctual. Where could he be? I’m standing under the clock just as we agreed.”

You see, a small misunderstanding had occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. The meeting occurred, only a little late. The marriage license was obtained and the wedding followed later that year, just as planned.

Both the bride and the groom showed up for that, on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it all could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it, because I never would have been even “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married me — a man who didn’t exist. And our kids would never have been born, etc., etc.

Getting “stood up” at weddings is hardly unheard of. Movies have been made about such events. Think Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Then there was the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared in order to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (in an effort to explain her absence at the alter) that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst “real life” tale of this type that I ever heard from someone personally involved in the event concerned a “high society” wedding — one for which no expense had been spared, enormous numbers of people had been invited, and everyone showed up other than the groom, who didn’t even call ahead to cancel or ever apologize to his fiance by letter, e-mail, phone, or text message, and certainly not face-to-face.

And then there is an Internet story of a young man who actually went so far as to go through the wedding ceremony and reception, only to speak to the assembled throng of well-wishers declaring that he intended to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with his best man, upon which he pulled out photos of the two that more than verified his report.

Now there are those who would say that “everything happens for a reason,” and that everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, good and bad, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our best efforts to control events.

And, as far as happy endings are concerned, they do happen sometimes, although not everything ends happily.

But, I do believe that you have to make the best of things.

The young woman of the “high society” wedding I mentioned was humiliated and devastated, but did eventually marry a man who loved her to pieces and actually showed up on their wedding day to prove it. They’ve been married forever and continue to be very much in love.

And, it’s hard to argue that the man who promised annulment would have been better off married for more than a day to his unfaithful if temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something from the experience and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, especially when you are young, most set-backs are relatively brief, especially if you have some resilience.

Of course, whatever children might have been born of the last two ill-starred matches I’ve described never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a very unhappy marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around, and that one of them walked down the block to find the other.

But for that… well, you know.

One of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Company Building in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons, photo by DDima.