Same Words, Different Dictionaries

Published on May 28th, 2011
Black's Law and Urban Dictionaries

Based on a true relationship story.

Honey, you should check out this great book I just read.
Honey, you should watch out this funny video on the internet.
Honey, you should try this new item on the dinner menu. It's fabulous!

Question: Are these "shoulds" commands or suggestions?
Answer: It depends on your dictionary.

It's a funny story, but it carries an important message for every relationship.

North Versus South in The Battle of Should

"Stop telling me what to do!" The woman was stunned. Why would her future husband react so strongly to what, in her mind, was merely a helpful suggestion. The man was upset. Why did she constantly boss him around when he was in the middle of something? She loved to learn and share. He didn't like being ordered around. See the disconnect?

What's in a word? Everything! To the woman born in Long Island, should'ing is done all the time and could be translated as "hey, I found something that you might find interesting and you may or may not want to get around to it whenever you so choose." To the man born and raised on a farm in Florida, should was used sparingly and essentially meant "stop what you're doing right now and attend to this request immediately."

Same word, but two COMPLETELY different dictionary definitions. Thankfully, this couple noticed this pattern and can laugh about it now.

My Experience

My wife and I have different backgrounds, different belief systems, and different ways of looking at the same situations. Clearly, this can result in some funny misinterpretations. It can also result in hurt feelings because each of us thinks we are being clear in our communication. And from our individual perspectives, we are! But it's important to remember that all communication requires both a sender AND a receiver. And if the receiver uses a different interpretation protocol, there can be a disconnect.

An example: Imagine if the internet didn't use the exact same translator when both sending and receiving requests for information. I could send a request out in english asking for a wikipedia page entry on football. The receiver mistakes my American English for British English and all of a sudden I'm reading an article on soccer (also called 'football' in that culture). A more extreme example might be requesting information on "Japanese anime" and getting "duck hunting tips" in return. Unless you happened to like duck hunting as well, the internet experience would probably be a frustrating experience if this was a common occurrence.

Laws and Interpretations

The supreme court has more than one judge, and the votes are often not unanimous. Each judge (allegedly) tries to do their best to weight all the factors in a decision. What is the context? What are the greater implications? What is the critical aspect to this case? It's often not cut and try and there can be a tremendous amount of grey area. But at the end of the review, they have to give a very black and white answer of a 'yes' or 'no' vote. And that binary decision is now binding as law.

So even in the more objective setting of law interpretation where there is nothing personal at stake, it can be very difficult to come to a consensus, even among people who are specifically trained in finding the most accurate interpretation.

Assumptions, Awareness, and Questions

Communication mishaps are inevitable (not a fact, just my gut belief). But is there anything we can do to avoid them or mitigate their effects? I can only offer 3 suggestions.

  • Never assume the receiver will hear your words exactly as you intend.
  • Be aware that the person talking to you may mean something else.
  • Have the courage to ask for clarification as well as clarify your words in return.

You should try them out, but that is more of a suggestion than a demand!

What's In Your Dictionary?

Are you constantly misunderstood? Do people mangle your words? And do you do the same for others?

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.