Do You Understand? A Simple Question That Isn’t Simple


Being invited by a beautiful woman to “knock me up” does not always mean what a virile American male might think. Were a female from the UK making the request, there is a good chance she asked you to come to her residence or awaken her. A man might as easily suggest the same. Achieving comprehension of speech is no sure thing.

In the course of conversation we often ask, “Do you understand?” Dictionaries tell us if the question is followed by a “yes,” real understanding exists.

I say, not so fast. Let me give you another example.

I remember treating a two child, two adult family. The boy was between 10 and 12, his sister much younger. I’d been seeing them all for some time when the household came to their appointment in a state of alarm. The dad wished to talk with me alone. He said his boy had threatened to “rape his sister.” I wanted details, including whether the father had questioned his young man’s understanding of the word “rape.” “Yeah, I asked him if he understood me — knew the meaning — and he said he did.”

I then spoke with the son alone. This gentle but troubled and ashamed boy recounted the incident. I requested him to tell me, in his own words, the definition of rape. The answer was some version of “beating-up” his younger sibling because she teased him. It was a word he got from TV.

Wanting to strike his tiny tormentor was not a thing to be encouraged, but it wasn’t rape. Everyone was relieved once I explained. Comprehension can go wrong in unpredictable ways. Indeed, if you ignore this you are going to create a large number of miscommunications.

First, imagine how often we ask someone, “Do you understand?” or are so queried by our conversational partners. The expression is conventional, polite, and engaging. “Yes” can mean yes, indeed.

Why then does “Yes, I understand,” not come with a guarantee? Here are a few reasons:

  • The person misheard you. Noise in a restaurant, on TV, or outside might have interfered. Perhaps the individual is hearing impaired. Did you mispronounce something?
  • Some people will say “I understand” for fear of appearing stupid.
  • The two individuals in conversation, as in the “knocked up” example, possess different backgrounds: nationality, command of language, unfamiliar jobs, etc. The world of medicine, for instance, is so specialized that not every MD boasts adequate knowledge of another physician’s well-studied sliver of the human body. The same is true of allied health professionals and subdivided technical fields.
  • Differences of experience can encumber conversation. For example, can anyone “understand” being unemployed and poor without “living” this misfortune? Can you fathom the torment of severe illness if never touched by its evil middle finger? How might you acquire the ecstasy of watching your own child born in the absence of being present in the moment itself?
  • If you are youthful can you appreciate the perspective of the aged?
  • By the same token, say you are 75. Will you find yourself capable of dissecting the language of a 15-year-old who was born into a world transformed since you entered in the days of propeller airplanes?
  • A 2013 Reuters/Ipos poll indicated “About 40% of white Americans and about 25% of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.” Do you believe these circumstances lead either group to comprehend the experiences of the other?
  • Can you adequately imagine possessing towering wealth without being part of the top 1%?


In conversation, people are searching for meaning, not words. We rush ahead to a conclusion, sometimes too soon. We might even stop listening when others begin speaking!

Now consider how often communications take the form of email or texting. More than a few people hit the “send” button before carefully reflecting on the impact of their message, and how they will feel about having sent their bulletin in an hour, a day, or a week.

What is the best way to achieve understanding on any subject? Be in the same room with your communicant, having first gathered your thoughts. Be careful to require enough time to explain them and the opportunity to find out whether the other person can accurately paraphrase the statement back to you.

This situation offers you several tools to make yourself understood and inform you if your message has been received. You will deliver words, of course, but they can be altered by tone of voice, inflection, volume (loudness), and pace. Body-language, facial expressions, and eye contact are also in your control. As well, you have the opportunity to assess every one of the same elements in your listener as the conversation proceeds.

Should face-to-face communication be impossible, perhaps a phone call will do. Consider, however, the loss of eye contact. Without body-language and facial expressions, the probability of misunderstanding grows. Even skyping usually limits how much can be viewed.

Worst of all is the written word. True, if you are a thoughtful person who is good with language, you can craft your message more exactly than when speaking in conversation. But, once the back-and-forth of an instant-message (IM) or text-message occurs, one loses the opportunity for careful consideration one had in the days of letter-writing. Moreover, you have lost not only the possible message-clarifying assistance of what is observable in the other person’s expressions and posture, but also all the things a telephone still conveys in sound: inflection, emphasis, strain or ease, intensity, urgency, and so forth. Your chance of being misunderstood has multiplied.

A clever old book, How to Make Yourself Miserable, by Dan Greenburg with Marcia Jacobs, describes written communication from a dark but amusing perspective in a section called “Seventeen Masochistic Exercises for the Beginner:”

Write a letter to somebody, mail it, then figure out which part could be most easily misunderstood.

The authors wrote the book well before the days of text-messages, so an update is in order to include the destructive possibilities inherent in those speedy missives. I’m ignoring the limitations of a tweet, but I’m sure Greenburg and Jacobs would address that potential grenade lob, as well.

Sometimes the oldest advice is best: to talk productively about something important or emotionally charged, first take a deep breath and wait. Write if you need to (just to get your feelings out –- don’t send it), speak with friends or a counselor, but slow down before you address the issue with the person himself. Make sure your meeting will allow enough of the day to sort out the details and to ask him/her to paraphrase the crucial points back to you. Beware of the IM or text-message.

If you lived before the Soviet Union collapsed, try to remember when the alarming initials in the daily press were not IM, but ICBM: Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

An IM or a text message is a little like that. It might just blow up in your face.

 The top image is called Puzzled Face. It is authored by Christopher Dioux. The second image, Puzzly, is the work of the Wikimedia Foundation. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.