The Message

I’ve heard people say that in every oral communication there are at least three distinct messages. There is the message the speaker intends, the message actually conveyed, and the message the individual hears. I recently saw the truth of this principle when I took my three little boys to Fort McHenry, a lovely national monument about an hour from our home. Fort McHenry is where Francis Scott Key penned the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, and our visit there was quite educational. I had always thought our anthem was written during the Revolutionary War, but now I know better and my little boys know better. It was written in 1814, during the Battle of Baltimore when the British attacked Fort McHenry.

I have to admit that I was rather pleased with myself and with them that afternoon. On our drive home Will, who is six, and Nate, who is four, were spouting out all manner of facts and figures regarding the War of 1812. The recitation put Baby Sammy to sleep, but I had a surge of pride over my budding history buffs, and found their level of interest, and seeming comprehension, remarkable.

But then came bedtime. Nearing tears Nate told me he was afraid to go to sleep because “those bad guys with the cannons might come back.”

“You mean the British?” I asked, trying not to laugh too uproariously.

Nate nodded gravely.

“Sweetheart, there is absolutely no chance of the British attacking us again,” I offered.

But big brother found my assurances wanting, wholly inadequate. “Nate,” he said, tenderly, “don’t you remember? The Americans won. The British can’t attack us again. We killed them all.”

So much for history lessons! I’ve laughed and laughed about it, but could the message received be more different than the message intended? And how often do we fail to discover that the little ones in our lives, or even the adults, have so miscontrued our message that they effectively believe we’ve wiped out the British race?

Isn’t it astounding what poor communicators we are? I mean we do it all day everyday, yet so few of us are much good at it. One of my favorite authors, C.S Lewis, once wrote that “to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” But it is often an elusive joy, isn’t it?

I think that’s the treasure of good friends–an implicit agreement about the art of words, a shared joy over their meaning. When we muse in a self-deprecating way about life, a friend laughs. But there’s always a danger that a person still outside that lexicon barrier will say “awww,” and rob you of all the joy your words intended. And nothing ruins a funny moment like pity. For example, when I joke about proudly wearing a fabulous new sweater only to find at the end of the day that the strip of plastic identifying the size was never removed, I don’t want someone to think the Large, Large, Large, Large, Large I was branded with all day is sad. I want them to join me in finding it hilarious, absolutely side-splitting that I could do such a thing…AGAIN!

And when you tell a friend that you’re stressed or tired, they know just what you mean, whereas between strangers, these are very subjective standards. You need to know tolerances, personalities, even sleep patterns, to rightly associate the real meaning of such labels. It can take a long time, a lot of interactions to come to mutual understanding, a consensus about words.

It shouldn’t be too surprising then that relationships, especially new ones, can sometimes feel like work. But the payoff, the wonder of being understood, is a sweet reward so be willing to work at it, be willing to suffer through all the misunderstandings. Reflect on the fact that you sometimes hear a different message than was intended, and that sometimes the message you send is not what is in your heart. Most of all, just keep trying, because that elusive joy is a wonderous joy.

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