From the time we learn how to listen, hear and speak, words are the basics of our human existence. At least most of the time. We all need to talk, to communicate and engage in what we usually believe to be ‘conversation’. Moreover, we also think we understand what our companions in conversation are talking about, we use words that we believe, without ever really thinking about them, others understand, especially when we’re talking to people whose first language is the same as our own; English. We seldom stop and ask – what do you mean? What meaning do you ascribe to these words used so easily and quickly? Because I’ve come to understand we all have our own meanings for words we toss about without thought or reflection; often nothing to do with the dictionary definition of those words either. Common words like love, friend, family, power, rich, male, macho, female, lady, gentleman, poor, even hate, mistrust, rape, torment, insanity, irrationality and a plethora of others. Real communication, real conversation is innately difficult if you really want to empathise and understand what someone else is talking about. Or certainly to at least try. Or do we take words literally, or what we think is literally, because this interpretation is still often biased and personal. How many times have I looked up words in a dictionary only to realise I’ve used not just the wrong words, but have a very different meaning to their literal meaning as defined in a dictionary. And what dictionary, too? The English Oxford is different to the American Webster’s which is different again to the Australian Macquarie! What exactly do we mean at all when we use words? Too often for me, people don’t even try however to really come to grips with understanding what someone means; they assume they know what you’re talking about because of their own ascribed meanings to the words you use even if your meaning of them is totally different. It’s the same when we write using these words. What does the writer really mean? What is he/she really writing about? Many times it’s really hard to be certain or clear about what’s behind these words. And words can indeed be powerful! The current debate about freedom of speech and expression appropo of the Racial Discrimination Act that the Australian Government is contemplating changing to make it easier to say what you think without regard for others’ feelings in relation to racial issues bears testament to the power of words; but what do they really mean? And are these freedoms absolute? Can we really say what we think and believe even if we hurt others? These are hard issues to wrestle with as these freedoms are important in any democratic country and are often used as an example of how democratic a country really is. What I wrote about China in a previous blog recently reflects how limited freedom of speech can be when you’re exercising, or trying to, the right to dissent. In Australia, we like to think we are so much better than that, we’re a modern, western democracy where freedom of speech and expression is generally upheld as an intrinsic value to be cherished and applauded. China is Communist and denies these basic human rights. Is it that simple?
Or are we all talking at cross purposes, writing about issues such as freedom when we also have very different ideas what that word means too?
As a student who studied English Literature at high school and later university for just one year, it soon became all too obvious how we all have our own critical and analytical interpretations of literature; including the Bible, and of course, even the Koran has been subject to diverse interpretations by Islamic scholars throughout history. Twist the meanings perhaps to prove your own beliefs! Argue about the meaning of words, the intent behind them, the subtle maybe covert messages imbedded in their usage. This is the province of critics; be they of books, movies, poetry, art, architecture et al….the list is almost endless as to how different people interpret and read, see, hear, listen and more importantly, perhaps, think! At university, I was studying King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and I had a different opinion about the role of the supposed ‘good’ daughter Cordelia. I wrote an essay for my tutor trying to argue that she wasn’t that good a daughter either, but my view differed greatly from one of the most respected and revered critics of Shakespeare, Leavis. My tutor told me not that I was wrong or that my argument was flawed but that the English Department professors and lecturers at the university all believed Leavis was right and that if I repeated my arguments about Cordelia in an exam, I would fail. Just follow what he says and you’ll pass. I did so and never studied English Literature again as such. Also, when I worked later as a film publicist, I was bemused at times by how some of the so-called film reviewers albeit critics, had such different views among themselves as well as my own. And books of course, too. How often have I started reading a book that was celebrated and even won a prestigious prize only to be disappointed when I started to read it. Truth is most of us have our own take on all these things; sometimes unconscious and usually shaped by what other so-called famous people think. And how much can you tell about the writer be it of books, film scripts etc by what he or she has written? Is it a reflection of them as people? Or their experience or their perceptions, understanding, knowledge or values? What is their intent? What drives them? I recently finished reading the so-called porn novel Fifty Shades of Gray and would so like to talk to the author because I thought it to be very clever in some ways as a smart metaphor for male/female relationships beyond sex. I told a friend about this and she said the author was just writing about sex; short and simple. Hard to know, isn’t it?
And when we just engage in talk, can you just stop at every word to ask – what do you mean? We don’t usually do this of course and unconsciously we just assume we know what is meant. But so often we have no idea what the other person/people might be talking about; words are heavy with innuendo, and if we do think we know too often we say nothing. And I’ve got to the point that most of the time with people I have little respect for, I just can’t be bothered asking. It becomes irrelevant what they mean because we’re not really communicating in a way that means anything to me. And people often say things when they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. It’s heresay; common gossip, mere recantations of what passes for fact and value and integrity in our social milieu. I might try at first to elicit some real and considered thought from them about what they’re trying to say but you can soon tell when they’re not interested in bothering to think either. It becomes a waste of time and energy. It’s small talk of the inconsequential kind, sometimes I engage because I’m bored, sometimes even because I hope I might hear something new or interesting or stimulating but too often, it’s none of these things so I shut up and walk away. The power of words rendered powerless for me; both as a receiver and giver.
I wrote a long time ago about whether talk is cheap; but it’s the nature of that talk that is the pertinent issue for me, ensuring someone is on your wavelength when you do try to engage in a meaningful conversation, even laughing together at the same things. And that’s another difference, isn’t it? What I might find really amusing can be so different to somebody else! I guess that’s one of the secret ingredients for all communicators is that what they are saying, however they say it and in whatever medium, it strikes a chord with many others; for whatever reason and in whatever way. Hitler achieved this, so too, did John Cleese, Shakespeare, John Wayne and myriads of others. Find a common denominator to reach the masses; be that of humour, hate or hysteria! Millions of women loved Fifty Shades of Gray and I’m sure each and every individual woman had her own reason yet it sold loads of copies so millions of women may just share lots of common ground. If they’re honest!
Sometimes furthermore, we talk in jargon; using words of common parlance that by the dictionary definition, we don’t really mean. I could kill you, You’re hysterical, I hate you, when we’ll use the same words about hating drugs or cigarettes or smelly bogans. Indeed, when people say they love you, what does that mean? Love of course; one of the most contentious words in the English language like God; we all have our own meaning on that one, too. Why do so many relationships begin with love and end often in hate? Maybe because it’s not a shared idea of love between couples; it’s a word so distorted in our world that to really live it, feel it and believe it can be fraught and difficult yet it’s also used so glibly and easily when people don’t even know you. And they’re not even interested IN knowing you or your truth as to who you really are and what you believe in, care about etc
I too do this except that I try more and more to pull myself up on it; what do I really mean when I use words? What am I really trying to say and communicate to make others think? What is the purpose of words, however we use them? And what do I really mean by writing this? What is my underlying intent with the words I’ve used and what am I really trying to say now?