Show of hands, please: anyone remember a kid-moment of wondering whether other people saw the same thing you did when you called the sky blue? I mean, do we all just use the same word, but we’re all seeing something different?
I know I’m not alone. I’m Google-confirmed. Googifirmed. Start typing “Do we all see” and “the same colors” autofills from there. So don’t pretend you aren’t curious.
The Google results are all about eye and light science, but I wonder more about language. How do we know whether anything, in my head, is the same in yours? The idea that with a string of mouth-sounds (just not the gross wet ones, please) we can transmit ideas from the inside of one head into another…astonishing. If I’d known what it was at the time, I probably would have studied linguistics in college. (“Let’s see, there’s math, English, history, some sciency stuff…that’s about it, right?” I was perhaps not the most broadly prepared student.)
But, just as with colors, the idea transmission is not perfect. I probably do see colors a little differently, and the doctor might not fully get what I describe as “sort of a creepy, itchy feeling.” I had a doctor years ago, in fact, who had an annoying habit of nodding and affirming (uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah-yeah) while I was speaking. She was surely trying to indicate that she was listening, but instead she gave the impression that she thought she understood what I was saying before I said it, that she didn’t need to listen to anything further, that I was taking too damn much of her time. (Flip side: she certainly kept her appointments.)
I’m not plowing any new ground when I say folks misunderstand each other a lot. But as we stretch language to written form, then to radio, to film, to tweet, to emoji, to meme, we seem to be getting worse at not only understanding each other, but at appreciating that we have a problem at all. We see the meme and say “uh-huh, yeah-yeah,” and actually imagine we understand the person who shared it.
I love this post from an American family currently in France, which reinforces that when it comes to the limits of understanding, travel and life abroad are mighty forceful teachers. These children are learning in the most vivid, food-based, walking-around way that their own experience and assumptions are not universal. Lucky children. Lucky us, to have them in the world with us.
No surprise, but this is on my mind because it’s at the heart of the book I’m working on now: an American family, a Saudi family, and the web of misunderstanding that connects them. A second novel is always hard to write, and this one is its own kind of scary, but I’m hoping that writing about misunderstanding will make my own misunderstandings in it a little more forgivable.
So, to help the cause, here’s my counter-intuitive proposal for world peace: Forget global understanding. Seriously. Instead, let’s all assume we don’t. Constantly. Assume we’re only guessing about what somebody means. Assume we could be utterly wrong, all the time, about what that creepy, itchy feeling really feels like, and what that wide, blue sky really means to the person telling us about it. Assume somebody else’s language, religious experience, family dynamics, value system, hopes and dreams, are utterly inscrutable.
And utterly valid. And utterly non-threatening.
And utterly fascinating.