That’s Not What I Meant At All

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Words matter. The words we use and how we choose them matters. Even when we are careful the things that we say may appear to be offensive. Communication can be like walking through a minefield. One misstep in how we express ourselves may lead to irreparable misunderstandings. Even the tenor of our voice might be misconstrued. When we write things down the potential for imprecise interpretations of our thoughts becomes even more likely. For that reason it’s generally a good idea to really think before speaking or writing lest the nuances of our communication become twisted into something that we never intended.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock has always been one of my favorite poems because it encapsulates so much of our fragile humanity succinctly in some of the most clever lines ever written. For some reason I have often thought of the words of the protagonist of that work when he stammers, “That’s not what I meant at all.” Each of us has found ourselves in situations in which we meant one thing, but were thought to have said something completely different. Crawling out of such a hole is both difficult and dangerous because as we attempt to set things rights we often find ourselves falling deeper and deeper into trouble. This is particularly true whenever we speak without much forethought or in the heat of an argument. Our words become muddled, distorted and capable of taking on new life in a manner that we never intended. In the world of education we refer to such situations as having unintended consequences.

I was once participating in an exceedingly heated discussion of school policy that turned nasty when one of the members of the committee verbally attacked another member. Thinking that the moment called for a bit of diplomacy I attempted to forestall the ugly comments by reminding the speaker, who was a black man, of the kinder methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The combative nature of the meeting cooled down and we ultimately found solutions without insulting one another, or at least that’s what I thought was happening. I later learned that many members of the faculty who had not even been at the gathering were intensely angry with me for what I had said to the man who was verbally attacking another member of our group. I was befuddled because my intent had only been to find a way to cool the heat of the arguments in a non combative way. I did not see that I had done anything wrong and wondered why the argumentative man was seen as the good guy while I was being viewed as he villain.

I immediately went to the man who had been so outspoken in his criticism of the other faculty member to find out how and why what I had said had been so insulting that it had created a frenzy of anger and mistrust aimed at me. He was not shy about insisting that my mistake had been in using the words of the great Dr. King against a black man when I was a white woman who had no way of truly understanding what they had meant to an entire people who still struggled for their rights. I was so shocked and taken aback that I burst into tears in front of him, something that I rarely do. He was stunned by my stammering, “But I love Dr. King too! He is my hero. I was honoring him, not insulting you.” With my admission our mutual understanding of one another was suddenly complete and we hugged by way of apology.

I’ve thought about that incident for years. I did not understand in the moment in which I chastised the man who was haranguing another that I might as well have stabbed him in the heart. He heard my words as just another attempt by a white person to cut him down. The insult was compounded by my use of the words of someone who, like him, had suffered the indignities of racism. I thought that I was simply defending a colleague, but what actually happened was steeped in a long history of struggle. I had embarrassed this man publicly and in the worst possible way without ever realizing what I had done. Luckily the evidence of my sorrow as witnessed in my tears demonstrated to him that I had not meant to hurt him at all.

My mother repeated the old saw about taking care with how we communicate over and over during my childhood., “If you can’t say something nice. Don’t say anything at all.” We might do well to make that a national goal for a time much like the campaigns against smoking or drugs or drunk driving. We take our freedom of speech so for granted that we have pushed it to a new level of insult and hurtfulness. We bandy about words and phrases without really thinking about how they may sound. It’s just way too easy to tap our fingers on a keyboard and post our grievances in the space of seconds. We react without considering who may be hurt by what we say. Even when we believe that we are protecting some person or some group we may inadvertently be inflaming another. We think ourselves immune from the consequences of our utterances because we have grown to honor the most outspoken among us and thought of those who measure their words out of respect as wimps. Little word bombs go off all around us and we have grown immune to the dangers. Friendships erode. The tension rises.

There is nothing good about verbally attacking someone. We should all agree on this, but it is also wrong to be unwilling to admit and clarify unintended mistakes or misunderstandings. We are not less of a person when we make amends for hurtfulness that we did not expect to happen. It is a sign of courage to be willing to hear and understand differing points of view and to attempt to come together as people with the common goal of bettering the world. The bravest among us think before they speak, and strive to unite rather than to tear apart. Maybe we’d all be in a better place if we were more circumspect when we speak. Words are powerful and we must bear that in mind each time we choose to utter them.