You Can Misunderstand People While Communicating in Person, Too

black and white photo of two people sitting on a park bench with a lot of space between them. Both are turned away from one another and texting on their phones.
Image by Eva Vanassche / CC BY

I recently wrote a post called “I Wish I Could Send Feelings to You When I Have Them.” Here’s an excerpt:

You can do a lot with words, that’s for sure, but they’re not enough. No matter how hard you try to be careful about what you say, no matter how carefully you select your words, it’s so easy for them to hit the person you’re talking to the wrong way.

For them to be misinterpreted.

When we think about misunderstandings, it’s typically the more dramatic conflicts that come to mind. Situations in which you said something harmlessly and the other person heard it differently than you intended, assumed you felt a different way than you actually did, and took great offense.

These are most memorable because of everything that typically follows.

But the truth is that we have way more miscommunications with other people than we realize.  And we never really notice most of them when they’re happening. Because a lot of these misinterpretations are harmless — at least when taken in isolation.

The trouble, however, is that over the weeks, months, and years, these harmless miscommunications can pile on top of one another. You can easily form false beliefs about someone who you are trying desperately to communicate well with  — and who is also on the other side of things trying desperately to listen and understand you.

And it’s really frustrating. How we end up driving down roads that no one really wanted to go down anyway. How we’re tasked then with finding our way back.

Lots of People Blame Texting as the Sole Cause of Miscommunication

A lot of people wrote in after this piece — and surprisingly a lot of them commented that texting is the problem. That it’s an inferior method of communication that causes a lot of problems.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, as I’ve heard this sentiment countless times.

But I was surprised. And the reason for that is because I’ve been wrestling with the futility of communication for a very long time. Much longer than texting has been a staple of everyday life. The conversations I was thinking about when I wrote that essay all happened in person.

And I’ve noted that any time you’re communicating, you can have plenty of misunderstandings — regardless of the format that communication takes.

You Can Misunderstand People While Communicating in Person, Too

This shouldn’t be controversial, but people do forget: You can misunderstand one another while communicating in person.

And in fact, my most fraught problems with communication, the relationships where this disconnect jarred me the most… well, they were all in-person communications. Typically, these were people I was living with. So we spoke face to face a lot.

It’s said that something like 90% of communication can come in via non-verbal communication. Things like posture, tone of voice, facial expressions.

There’s a problem with all of that, however. It’s ambiguous, too, just like flat words on a page can be. The way we interpret someone’s tone of voice, their facial expressions, their posture — all of that gets sent through our own filters. And sometimes when that happens, we warp it. Based on our personal histories, unique life experiences we’ve had. Or based on whatever strong emotion we’re feeling at the time.

And there are still other things that can go wrong. We can misinterpret someone’s gut reaction as communication intended for us to take action on. I’ve personally been repeatedly frustrated by times when someone I’m talking to reads waaaaaaay too far into a fleeting facial expression. For example, someone could give me very bad news that hits me kind of hard. But I understand that they are not to blame and it’s not their fault; they’re just the messenger.

But in the instant that I hear bad news, my face might take on a negative expression. And someone reading my face in that instant might just to the conclusion that I am angry with them or going to blame them somehow. That I’m about to shoot the messenger.

And even if that’s not my intent, even if I plan on taking a second to gather my thoughts and calm down before engaging with them, I’ve absolutely had people start defending themselves from things I’ve not only not said but have no plan to say.

The first reaction, the automatic one that some fearful primal part of our brain might shriek out reflexively, is not always the one that I settle on. Nor the one that I expect another person to engage with.

But I can’t tell you how many times someone has read something on my face and launched into a defense — and sometimes even a counterattack — against an attack that isn’t coming.

I’ve Found It Matters Less How I’m Speaking to Someone Than Who They Are

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I had a partner tell me that the fact that I try to act intentionally and not to just accept my kneejerk responses as gospel or factual means that I don’t know what I feel. That I’m out of touch with my feelings. And that I lie to myself.

And they didn’t tell me this once. But over and over. It didn’t matter how many times I tried to explain where I was coming from. My thought process — cognitive, emotional, and otherwise.

No matter how much we talked, they’d circle back around to the same thesis: That those fleeting kneejerk reactions were who I really was. And that I was being dishonest by interrogating them or wanting to take a second to figure out if that’s how I really felt. And if I were considering all of the facts (and not simply reacting).

It was beyond frustrating, this phenomenon. And in those moments — like so many others — I longed for the ability to somehow transmit my feelings so that they could feel them, too. Because as much as I described the process, as hard as I tried to explain, they wouldn’t believe me. They settled on the idea that those kneejerk non-verbal reactions were who I really was.

Anyway, I’m in a much better place these days re: love and life. But I did learn something valuable from the experience.

No matter the medium, it is possible to have a miscommunication. Or many that pile on top of one another to the point where you find you can’t even inhabit the same truth with someone else.

And personally, when it comes to miscommunication, I’ve found that it matters less how I’m speaking to someone than who they are.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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