Communication can be hard but the basic goal is to share your ideas. Sometimes we even make it harder than it has to be when we focus too much on gestures, tone, and word choice of the person we are communicating with. I often overhear conversations with people asking questions like “What do you think he meant by that?” or “Why would she say it that way? What does she really mean?” The ideas we try to communicate are called intentions and our language has problems when it comes to expressing intentions.
In an era where positive words are a majority of the language, it can be tough to truly show your intention. How many of us are guilty of replying “maybe” when asked to an event when you know you won’t go? How many of us say that we are good when somebody asks “How are you,” even if that’s not the case? How many of us have yelled mean things at the ones we love because we’re feeling hurt? We seem to have a fear of expressing our true intentions in society and it’s causing lots of communication problems.
To clarify, let’s look at the previous scenarios in both the mental plane and physical world. You are eating lunch when you’re approached by a peer and asked to go to an event later. You don’t want to go but you don’t want to hurt their feelings, believing they will be upset by a rejection. Your intention is to spare the feelings of your peer while not committing with a yes. You say “maybe.” They will interpret your maybe as a likely chance that you will show and therefore create expectations of you there. Your absence is now more harmful than your rejection due to the unmet expectation.
Let’s say you are in the grocery store and the attendant asks how you’re doing, to which you reply “Good, and you?” The attendant will reply automatically and you’ll both move on. In this scenario, the attendant’s intention is to greet you, your intention is to reciprocate the greeting. Neither of you truly cares about the robotic “good” response, but for some reason we are unwilling to reach out to those who ask when we are not “good.” Your intentions might be “I’m actually having a terrible day but you don’t deserve to have a terrible day too so I’ll just lie.” This is a lack of understanding between sympathy and empathy. Hearing about someone’s bad day doesn’t ruin your own day.
Finally, imagine you come home to find your friend in a terrible mood. You ask if they want to talk about it and they respond by telling you off and calling you a hurtful name. Your reaction in this case might be to retaliate with rudeness or simply ignore it and leave them alone, but since you just arrived you can assume that their anger wasn’t toward you. You are able to understand that your friend might be saying mean things while intending to ask for help. Here, seeing the intention is the difference between fighting and helping. You forgive the rude language and name calling because you understand their intention wasn’t specifically to hurt you.
In each of these examples, significant differences between the intentions and the actions exist; and yes, speaking words is an action. We are constantly creating characters of the people we meet, learning more about them to form a more accurate character in our minds. When we meet a new person, it’s natural to fill in some unknowns with what we do know, putting our assumed intentions onto them. However, just because we can anticipate a person’s thoughts, does not mean that we are correct. Just because you think a stranger doesn’t want to hear you’ve had a bad day, doesn’t mean the stranger would agree with you. If you would gladly be a stranger to hear about someone’s bad day, trust that there are other humans out there who share your intention.
When you begin to see intention, you can start to ignore previous obsessions over why certain words or tones were used. You can accept what the person was trying to say and understand that their chosen words were just their way of getting that intention out to you. We tend to be quite good at this when talking with children or people who have a difficult time speaking. We are more patient and try to piece together their intention from their words. Why is it that we stop trying when listening to a fully functioning adult?