You Don’t Get to Decide Your Meaning

The meaning of your communication is the response you get, regardless of your intent. Presuppositions in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Via @scotylang

I read this quote, aptly posted on the Twitter profile of @scotylang. It chimes with something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while; that we have to interpret a huge amount of written information every day and that interpretation is one half of communication.

Note: I have ascribed my own interpretation to the meaning of this quote.


Meaning and Interpretation


We all write and instantly publish so much without a filter, whether that be on Twitter, Facebook, a blog or any other social network. We do it without thinking and within our own frame of understanding, context and tone.

We are often not careful enough to step outside of ourselves and read what we are saying from the perspective of someone who a) can’t hear HOW we are saying it, and b) doesn’t have the background context of our specific experience.

Communication is two-way. It’s not just talking, or writing, or some other means of ‘getting a point across’. Half of communication is receiving and interpreting the information. This is where the meaning comes from. Meaning is what results from the collision of communication – without the second person there can be no meaning.

‘That’s not the original meaning’

I remember when I first did English Literature at school I got irritated when we were encouraged to find themes, motifs and little nuances of meaning in all the pieces that we studied. I used to think that we were coming up with contrived nonsense, finding things that were accidents and never intended by the author. And we were. There was lots of stuff that we discussed that would never have crossed the mind of the creator.

But then one day I realised that this was the beauty. The thing that irritated me was the very thing that made our experience of literature amazing.

We were reading it through combining our interpretation of the context in which it was written, with our understanding of the new context in which it is currently being perceived today. What was the author’s reality? How does it speak into my reality?

That is the key to meaning. Connecting minds and ideas. It is the provoked response within the recipient of the message.

Know Your Audience

It is important to know who you’re talking to. Why? So that you can adjust the way that you communicate the message you are trying to convey. Not the message itself, just the way it is delivered. What is their context? What is their story? How can I connect with that?

For many of us, we don’t realise that we don’t control the meaning of our message.

This is one of the hardest things about art.  Having the humility to let go of your work and allow it to be interpreted however it is interpreted. I’ve had all sorts of meaning attributed to my stuff over the years, and I’ve realised that it is important to let go of the need to set people straight.

Once you’ve put it out there it is no longer yours to control. If it is misconstrued or misinterpreted, it is not because the audience is foolish.

Your intended meaning is neither here nor there if the audience has missed it. You can’t run after it and attempt to justify yourself now. You will look like a control freak, and profess an inability to hone your intentions.

Have you ever…read a transcript for a stand up comedian’s routine and then seen them perform it?

It fascinates me. The difference between reading the words a comedian says and seeing them actually perform those words is incredible. The context is provided within the delivery.

Communication is mostly non-verbal.

Tone, humour, and the intention is all clear when you see the performance. But it can often just sound obnoxious and rude when written down and read in your own head.

It’s the same with our everyday written communication. We are all writers now and we are all interpreters and analysts of this writing.

If you use Twitter and Facebook (etc) do you step out of yourself and read your message in someone else’s head before you press send? Next time you send something just ask yourself, will my followers need to hear my tone or voice to understand my intention? Am I being sarcastic? If so, is it obvious to anyone but me? Can my intention be misconstrued and taken at face value?

  1. ‘That’s not the original meaning’
    This is something everybody has to deal with everyday. Saying something only to misunderstood always leaves you with a bad feeling where you realize that you thought you and your conversation partner where on the same page, but in reality he doesn’t know you well enough and vice-versa to understand what you are trying to tell him.
    Never take for granted that what you said was understood by others as you intended it to be. Always go the extra mile to explain and give more details.

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