The Words Got In the Way

I remember being about nine years old (that would have been oh, 1971) when I realized to my utmost horror that because everyone’s experiences are different, that no one will ever understand my words with the exact same “flavor” that I mean them. This shocked me to the core, and I was inconsolable, silently numb for several days.

The whole reverberation only added to my sense of growing isolation. (“They don’t know what I am talking about. They will NEVER know what I am talking about.”) There is a word in Japanese, “yoin”, which means the experiential reverberation that continues to move you after the external stimulus has ceased. That moment was a negative sort of yoin.

My vocabulary (although large for a person of my age) lacked the sufficient abstract and philosophical terminology that would allow me to share my myriads of thoughts, so my failed attempts only served to worsen the angst. Then again, I am not sure how much the people around me, the children, teachers or parents, really tried to understand what I was getting at. Either they did not have the concepts themselves, did not believe a mere child could have such abstract concepts, or did not feel inspired enough to make the effort.

Because of my rearing and education, I (wrongly) perceived this inability to communicate highly abstract thoughts as being stupid, rather than as lack of knowledge. (Just as when I was trying to figure out how to optimize the size of a building one could create from a single sheet of construction paper, I thought I was stupid because I couldn’t do it mathematically. In truth, I couldn’t do it because the calculations I needed required the calculus that I would not study until decades later, rather than the simple arithmetic I had thus far been taught.)

Words are but an approximation, a systematized code to give a mutual “handle” on concepts. Because words are artificial constructs, and each person brings with them a slightly different version of the word, the meanings for words are always created anew, and evolve within the context of the discussion. Both the sender and receive give slightly different interpretations, based upon their ever-changing personal experiences.

Part of what it means to be an intelligent organism is the desire to share experiences with others. Intelligent apes and dolphins communicate things, although on less complex levels*. Humans communicate things not only by words, but also by other forms of expression, such as music, dance, and art. There are some days when any good communication seems a miracle! (Is anyone out there working on that Vulcan mind-meld?)

But when you do find someone of like mind, Oh! but when you do, it is the most amazing thing. The words barely keep up with the tumble of concepts that are flashing back and forth. Yes! They know what I am talking about! Yes! They have thought the same thoughts. Yes! They have seen things with much the same perceptual filters; they have the much the same Umwelt**.

These moments of rare experiential/perceptual connection to another person are a positive sort of yoin. They are yet rare; I can count them on the fingers of one hand. Perhaps finding others of similar neurological bent will increase the incidence for all of us, n’est-ce pas? We are all ever alone — but — I would add that we are able to upon occasion reach beyond our individual alonenesses and connect to others. The utter joy and delight, an almost transcendent sense of epiphany one can find in sharing an understanding with some people can be a profound thing.

But many times I have come off as being stupid or foolish. How do you explain to someone that they really cannot always assign mental processes to the results they see? (I think this is one of the reasons I like entomology; people are less likely to assume they can understand what is going on in the wee brains of “alien” insects; and yes, many insects are even capable of learning.) I cannot tell you how many times people have come off with some entirely off-the-wall assumption about me from what they observe.

I remember an incident from when I was four years old, and they were testing me for entry to kindergarten (my birthday is after the school year has already started, so I was always the youngest). An adult held up a pen and asked me, “What color is this?” I wondered silently to myself, “Does that mean the color of the case of the pen, or the ink inside it?” I could not really see the ballpoint tip to tell. I knew that some pens have colored nibs on their ends to indicate the ink color, but that not all of them do.

Then while I was pondering this, I had a horrifying realisation, “How can she not know what color it is? This is a grown-up!” I was shocked and concerned and trying to think of a rational reason why an adult might not know their colors that I sat there, silent and not answering. It’s not that I did not know my colors, but rather I could not figure out why she would not, and why on earth she would be asking me. I was just a child! Children don’t help adults – other adults do. Why wasn’t she talking to the other grown-ups?

Of course I was being clueless as usual, and did not realize that she was testing me; I took the interaction at face value. Meanwhile, this person told my mother that I was a foolish child who did not know her colors, and then she used the pen to write something down on a form. Fortunately my mother was there to assert that I did indeed know them, and once it was explained to me what I was supposed to be doing, I rattled off all sorts of color identities about objects, including pink and grey and beige.

In the end, it’s our respective perceptions that allow and limit communication. When we fail to do so, we must always realize that we all carry highly individual conceptual sets.

To borrow a line from a song, “I wanted to tell you that I love you, but the words got in the way.”

* Many animals (including insects) can both learn and communicate, but are not considered intelligent because they cannot apply the learning in novel ways to new situations.

** The Umwelt is a term coined by von Uexküll in the 1920s, meaning the unique sensory world of an organism — the stimuli to which an animal is responsive in a given motivational state; contrast to the Merkwelt, the set of all environmental factors that are important to the species, whether or not they can actually be perceived.


  1. Corvina du Kane said,

    5 October 2008 at 13:15

    Words expressed verbally, that truly are spoken from the heart, are always understood!

  2. 21 August 2007 at 0:55

    […] Hey, that’s a lot of social psychology & semiotics for a young child to understand, and heaven knows, autistics are usually slower to acquire that social understanding. I remember being tested for Kindergarten, and having great difficulty understanding not the questions I was being asked, but rather why adults were asking me such questions. They were asking me things that adults should know the answers to, and the fact that they were asking me, a mere child, was so confounding that I couldn’t hardly answer anything, even though I knew everything they were testing me on. (Full story here, “The words got in the way”.) […]

  3. Catana said,

    30 September 2006 at 9:22

    Your story of the pen is pretty typical, really, because gifted kids tend to see more meanings in what is said than what is actually meant. It tends to be a problem on tests, when possible answers (and sometimes the correct answer) aren’t included in the choices. You’re supposed to take the question on the test literally and answer it that way. Which is pretty ironic when you think about it. After all, auties and aspies are supposed to be literal-minded, n’est-pas? Things are further complicated when you do take something literally, as in your husband’s question about eating Italian (in Saturday’s post) and it turns out that he had an unexpressed agenda. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

    I think the real problem is lack of consistency. Many expressions are commonly understood to have one or a specific set of meanings. Familiarity with them means that a literal-minded response is usually the right one. But such expressions can also include hidden personal meanings. I doubt that most people are even aware that they’re messing with other people’s minds when they add the personal to commonly accepted meanings.

  4. qw88nb88 said,

    26 September 2006 at 21:27

    That’s quite true. I remember when we had two sets of drinking glasses, one being a smaller version of the first. I was trying to ask one day at dinner if the smaller set was proportional to my own size compared to the larger glasses and my parent’s size. I had the concept of proportionality, but not the term, and just couldn’t get my point across! Worse, I did understand that it was the kind of concept that a grown-up should have, and also have the term for. So I kept thinking that they should know what I was asking. So frustrating! But I never did get the question across to get the answer.


  5. LB said,

    26 September 2006 at 20:03

    I think it is a very hard concept for some to understand that their kids might not have the words to say what they want – especially if the kids are very verbal. I often talk using examples because it seems to be a clearer way for me to explain things although I know it must be kind of annoying to the listener. I think this may be because of my insecurity about getting ideas across. Also, I remember as a kid not being aware that I should mention certain things and would be unhappy or uncomfortable but not make the connection to verbalize. There often seemed to be a “block” or disconnect from having ideas inside but not knowing how to speak them.

  6. David N. Andrews MEd (graduating Dec2006) said,

    26 September 2006 at 14:03

    I would imagine, being a folksinger myself, that part of their reason for sounding similar is that they are from the same band (both were in Clannad). This would definitely lead (especially in Comhlamh Dun na Ghaimhaill) to similarities in style.

    It is usually only in the company of singers if many different styles that one learns more. I’m reminded of Thorndike here…

  7. Jannalou said,

    26 September 2006 at 12:00

    This happens to me fairly regularly, but the one time that really stands out to me was when, on an e-mail list for people who like the band Iona, I got into an argument about Maire Brennan and Enya.

    Maire is Enya’s sister and is a Christian singer. Her music sounds very much like Enya’s. When I said that Maire sounds a lot like Enya, the response I got was “of course she does, they’re sisters!” No amount of explaining got through to the list (who supposedly understand music!) that I meant the sound of the music, not the vocals (though their voices are also quite similar). My brother and I both write music, but we don’t write the same kind of music just because we’re siblings!

  8. bonni said,

    26 September 2006 at 5:52

    I had to laugh out loud at your recollection. In fact, I still think like this, though I now filter it differently. I still hear the actual question being asked or hear the actual statement, and have been known to answer that, rather than what they actually meant (people hate it when you catch them out like that).

    Once when I was a kid they gave us a “logic test”. The premise was that you were the captain of a small ship and you have to abandon ship. You have a list of ten or twelve items that you need to rank in order of importance, but – this was the part that still sticks with me – you could take them all with you on the lifeboat. So, I asked, if you can take them all, why do you need to rank them in order of importance?

    I still remember the consternation on the teacher’s face when I asked that… I suspect it had never occurred to them….

  9. sharon said,

    26 September 2006 at 2:16

    I always enjoy your posts Andrea. I have experienced that wonderful feeling of connection to another person a few times too, as well as the loneliness of thinking no-one understands you.

  10. Camille said,

    26 September 2006 at 0:52

    The issue of adults not normally asking children questions as if they didn’t know the answer is one reason why theory of mind tests are flawed. Kids don’t understand why an adult would be asking them what is in the box, when it’s obvious to the kid… that even applies to typical kids, they’ll give the “wrong” answer but the answer they think the grown up wants to hear.

    Your recollections are very interesting.

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