UNCOMMON COMMON SENSE

By Bill Frayer

What You Think You Heard Me Say May Not Be Exactly What I Meant!

 

How often have you said something which you thought was perfectly clear, only to discover that your listener misunderstood. I remember when my daughter was a teenager, we were resisting putting specific time limits on phone conversations. So I admonished her, “We all need to get telephone calls, so please keep your phone conversations to a ‘reasonable’ length.” Well, you can imagine what happened! Her idea of “reasonable” and mine were not exactly in sync.

Language is, by its very nature, ambiguous. Words often have imprecise meanings. If you suggest you had a “good time” at the party, we do not know exactly what you mean. If you suggest to a realtor that you are looking for an “inexpensive” house, she will likely ask you for clarification. And if a friend asks to borrow money for a “little while,” you may not have the same time frame in mind as your friend does.

This ambiguity may cause problems with communication. Let’s assume friends have given you directions to their home. “Take the third left off of Santa Margarita,” the directions read. Once you get to Santa Margarita, you start counting possible left turns, and you come to a dirt road which may or may not be considered a legitimate “left.” What do they mean by “the third left?” Is this considered a road or not?

My wife and I always confuse each other with the term “next Friday.” If it is a Monday, I think of “next Friday “as a week from this coming Friday, or eleven days away. My wife considers “next Friday” to mean the next Friday we encounter, which would mean what I would refer to as “this Friday,” four days away.   As you can see, there is lots of room for misunderstanding!

Of course, sometimes people intentionally use ambiguous language. Advertisers are notorious for this. They will advertise a product as “highly rated.” Well, this is not clear. Who is doing the rating? What criteria are they using? The phrase, by itself, is meaningless.

I remember seeing an automobile advertisement several years ago that claimed that the engine in its car was, in reality, a “mechanical symphony.” Sounds good, but its meaning is not clear. Advertisers do not really gain much by being precise. A specific claim can be disputed and get them into trouble. If they claim their toothpaste prevents” tooth decay,they need to be able to back that up.If they, instead, claim their product “helps prevent” tooth decay, it is impossible to know what proportion of the “help” is provided by the toothpaste.

Sometimes we use ambiguous language to spare hurt feelings. If someone we care about has made us a less than delicious home-cooked meal, we might simply lie and say it is wonderful. Or we might avoid lying by using ambiguity. “This is a really unique recipe,” or “This dish is very interesting.” In both of these examples, we have used ambiguous language to avoid being precise about our reaction to the meal.

There is nothing inherently wrong with ambiguous language. What’s important is that we understand that language tends to be imprecise. So, in conversation, particularly about something important, we need to be sure we are getting an accurate sense of what someone is saying, usually by asking unambiguous questions. What do you mean by “soon?” Can we discuss a specific date?

(Next month I’ll examine the problems of ambiguity in public discourse.)

 

 

 

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