Doublespeak

When my dad first got a cell phone with texting abilities, one of the first text messages I received from him looked something like this:

WHEN ARE YOU COMING HOME

Alarmed by the implied screaming, I quickly responded “before midnight” and wondered why my dad was so upset. After a few minutes of racking my mind as to what I must have done to deserve the wrath of all caps, my phone buzzed and I got this:

OKAY LOVE YOU

My dad had somehow set the caps lock on his phone. He wasn’t upset at me at all. I had simply misunderstood the situation, and my dad had unknowingly sent me a message that was easily misinterpreted.

I call this phenomenon “doublespeak”.

Doublespeak is defined by Merriam Webster as, “language that can be understood in more than one way and that is used to trick or deceive people.” Doublespeak as I see it falls more often under the first half of that definition, “language that can be understood in more than one way”. While it’s true that we often use words to deceive people, I want to focus on those incidents where the miscommunication is purely accidental, not intentionally hurtful or decpetive. For example:

“That’s not what I meant.”

Have you ever heard this before? You’re having a conversation with somebody, and seemingly out of nowhere, something you say triggers a response you weren’t expecting.  All of a sudden you’re back peddling and trying to explain, “What I meant was…”

Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of this scenario. In the middle of a coffee date your friend says something that sets you off, and as soon as you hear it you blow up or shut down or cut in with some variation of the, “What do you mean?” phrase. “What do you mean I never listen to you? What do you mean by a little immature?

Doublespeak strikes fast and furious, often before we have any idea what we’ve just done. Family arguments, frustrations in friendships, and rough patches in relationships are all situations that can often be traced back to Doublespeak.

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Think of it this way; anytime you’re talking to somebody, your words have their intended meaning, whether you’ve thought about what you’re about to say for days or for seconds. Imagine this intended meaning as a little thought bubble floating above your head as you smile, because you know exactly what you mean to say with these words.

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And then, as the words pass from your mind and leave your lips, they enter the Doublespeak universe, where your meaning is just one of an endless number of possible interpretations. You’re still smiling, because chances are you’re probably oblivious to this.

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Next is the moment of interpretation. Whoever you’re talking to, consciously or not, decides how they will interpret what you said. Again, this could happen in a split second, or it might be brought up much later (“Remember when you said ______ last week? I thought you meant ______”)

And lastly, what almost always follows is the blame game. You’ve been hurt, or the person you’re talking to has been offended, and somebody has to pay. Our tongues become swords and we throw around sentences like “I can’t believe you would say that.” or “I guess now I know how you really feel.” and “I can’t believe you would be so heartless.” War breaks out and we’re not satisfied until we’ve won, until we’ve put someone in his or her place.

So what do we do about this phenomenon, this doublespeak?

I believe we need to think about it this way; imagine you’re planning a romantic picnic and you have set up everything perfectly, ready to stun your lucky date, when out of nowhere it starts pouring. Who do you blame? Your date? Do you assume that he or she did a rain dance before your big day, calling down water from the heavens? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. Should your date blame you, assume that you choose a day with rain in the forecast just to ruin her perfectly styled hair? Again, that’s a negative. It’s no ones fault.

Oftentimes, the same is true of doublespeak. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we speak without thinking and say things that hurt people. Sometimes we want other people to know exactly how our mind works (which is impossible by the way), and then we get offended when they can’t. We’re all human, and doublespeak is bound to happen sooner or later. I think it would benefit our relationships and ourselves most if we chose to look at doublespeak moments like rain on what has otherwise been a sunny day. It’s no one’s fault, it just happens sometimes. And if we can do that, without attaching the mistake to our pride, or our ego, or the value of our friendship, we can identify what happened and move on. Let’s be willing to give the grace we would want to receive ourselves.

Unlike the rain, we can control the consequences of doublespeak. So here’s to sunny days, and plenty of grace for ourselves and those we love! Have you ever experienced doublespeak? How did you deal with it and could have been done to improve the situation?

A special shout out goes to Thirteen O’Clock Theatre for planting the seeds of this post in my brain last summer. Check them out at thirteenoclocktheatre.com.

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6 Comments

  1. Hi, your post was fascinating and actually reminded of a concept being taught in one of my classes called ‘intent vs. impact.’ We discussed how people can be triggered by certain words, specifically problematic language surrounding issues of diversity, when the speaker may have the best intent. Being open to understanding how we impact others can help us understand the importance of managing our own pride/emotions and how to be better equipped to make change.

    • Hey Jeremy,
      That sounds like an interesting class, what is it called? Recently I had a friend give a talk at my last departmental meeting about trigger words in the same context you’re talking about, it was really illuminating information. I completely agree with your last sentence, selflessness is a key component of successful communication. Just because we didn’t mean to hurt somebody doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the time to apologize and find out why what we said was hurtful

      • SO TRUE! Empathy is such a beautiful thing. The course is EDP 369K, and it’s the Orientation Advisor training class. The program is amazing, they want us to be as aware of diversity issues as possible so that we can help foster an inclusive environment and make the new students feel comfortable. It’s interesting to learn about, and so powerful to see my peers grow as leaders.

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