Monday, December 07, 2009

You Can't Hear Me

People often assume that because I'm a writer, I must be great at getting across what I mean in conversation. That when I open my mouth, eloquence ushers forth like a fountain.

The reality is that most of the time, I feel like I have a short circuit between my brain and my mouth, and I struggle to find a way to get what I'm thinking past my brain, into words, and out of my mouth.

I recall one conversation I had with a good friend where my response came out absolutely wrong. I knew it the moment I said it. The words alone were enough for my brain to flash red warning lights, but her face also told me my answer was hurtful.

I didn't mean it the way it came out, but for the life of me, I couldn't come up with how I could have said it differently. I grasped at straws for several minutes.

After she left, I continued to ponder on the conversation. Two weeks later, I figured out what I should have said.

This is why I like writing things like novels: I can go back for weeks at a time to fix the manuscript until it says what I want it to. I can show a scene to my critique group. When something comes across in a way totally different than how I intended, they point it out, and I can change it before anyone else reads it.

I have a chance to fix my words.

In real life, I rarely have such opportunities, and the effect is that I often hurt people. The fact that I have strong opinions doesn't help matters, because I'll state them, and apparently, I'm not always smart enough to soften them in public or be aware or how they come out.

Sometimes I hurt people in verbal, face-to-face conversations, and other times it's in e-mail, where we don't have the benefit of intonations and body language to help figure out what the other means.

Several years ago, I was involved in such an e-mail "conversation." (Okay, it was an ugly argument in a public forum.) I said a lot of nasty things on my end, things I'm not proud about. I don't think either of us handled the situation all that well, but as we were popping off e-mails back and forth over several days, I wasn't taking time to really think through my words to see if what I meant and the tone I intended was coming across accurately.

Then I got another e-mail. I don't recall the exact words, but it said something along the lines of how I'm really good at making people feel small, and how I must know that and enjoy it.

I stared at the screen, feeling as if I'd been punched in the gut. I knew what it felt like to be made to feel small. But over the course of the argument, I hadn't meant to belittle anyone. Sure, I was trying to outwit my opponent. I was probably sarcastic and snarky and more.

But I hadn't realized I was hurting her, putting her down, making her feel as if I was stepping on her and wiping her off the bottom of my shoe.

In the darkness of the room, I wept, staring at the monitor for a long time. It was a harsh lesson, but one I needed to learn. I didn't want to be the person she'd described. I replied saying I was sorry and that I'd be stepping back from the forum for awhile.

It's been my great fortune that the other party has forgiven my stupidity and is now, literally, one of my best friends in the whole world. Today, I'm grateful she called me out on that.

I've tried hard since then to not belittle others in the same way. Unfortunately, every so often, I find out it's happened again . . . never intentionally on my part, but it seems to be almost like a reflex. I'm really good at smacking people down without realizing it.

Sometimes it's with situations I really have no control over. (I find out someone is intimidated by my knowledge of grammar. In that case, I shrug and move on, because there's nothing I can do about that.) Other times, it's something I said or wrote, or maybe a comment I made or something I said on a blog post. Maybe something else.

And I realize that I haven't quite learned the lesson. It always comes as a shock to me when someone calls me on the carpet, telling me I was mean or rude and need to apologize or that I was hurtful or whatever.

Then, confused and hurt, I mentally rewind what happened and view it from their lens. And I realize that yep, that could have been seen as rude or hurtful. I didn't mean it that way. If they saw into my heart and knew the entire story or history and why I said it that way and how I really think, they wouldn't have been hurt. They wouldn't have judged it that way. But I didn't say it right to begin with.

And they were hurt. Are hurt. I needed to be more sensitive in how I approached the topic. I hurt someone.

Over the years, I've thought about how we'll communicate in the next life. I've heard theories about how maybe we'll be able to get entire ideas across with our minds without having to resort to speaking words.

That idea is tantalizing to me. I already wish I could take entire thoughts, feelings, and histories from my head and insert them into others' minds with a swoop of my hand.

Now do you see what I see? Feel what I feel? Do you understand what I mean?

As much as I adore words, I hate them just as much. They limit me. They cause confusion and hurt and miscommunication. I think the urgency to make people hear my thoughts and understand what is in my mind is one reason (aside from the genetic component) that I talk fast. Words hold me back. I want to get the thought out of my head and into the other person's.

I pray that one of these days I'll be able to open my mouth, truly speak what's inside, and be understood.

To be able to type what's in my heart without fear that it'll be the wrong thing and that I'll be misjudged.

That someone will not be hurt by me. Again.

Because just when I get comfortable, thinking I've made it, that I've finally learned the lesson and know how to prevent it from happening, I do it again.

The cycle is repeated.

I'll keep trying, but I don't know how to overcome it, once and for all.


Kristina P. said...

I can totally relate.

I know this probably comes a surprise, but I'm a sarcastic person by nature.

And I've had to learn to reign that in and make sure I'm not crossing the line from funny sarcasm to snarky sarcasm. I still find myself doing it on occasion, but it was a real problem in my early 20s.

Lara Neves said...

And so it is with all of our weaknesses, no? I think it's wonderful that you're teachable enough to realize that you had a weakness and humble enough to work on it and recognize when it still needs more work. That's not easy. And I know, because I am often not teachable nor am I humble in these situations. Which is one of my weaknesses.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I think you're too young to figure out how to overcome being human. The fact you've focused on this and are striving is a huge credit to you. And it must be effective to a certain extent because you've never hurt my feelings!

And you've expressed so exactly my own thoughts. In fact, half the reason I yearn to write is because of a lack of verbal eloquence.

Anonymous said...

You could have taken this straight out of my mind and heart. This is exactly how I feel about words. I both love and loathe them. It's one reason I write also. I can take the time to sort out those thoughts and words where in public, I'm a spewing, vitrolic mess. And usually, I end up making it even worse when I try to explain.
People have told me that same things before, about being good at putting someone else down, and you're right--it hurts. Both because I know I can do that and because I really don't want to.

It's not much, but I love your words. I think you're a kind, strong, intelligent woman and I have so much respect for you. I can't begin to describe how well I think of you.

Angie said...

It's especially hard with email or forums because there is no body language or tone of voice to help; plus it's really easy to dash something off in an email that you'd never say out loud to someone's face. I've made that mistake many times. I can totally relate to what you are saying.

Charlie Moore said...


A while back you posted what I perceived as a generally negative post (I don't even recall the basics of it anymore) and I responded by saying maybe you'd taken off your LDS cap temporarily. In that case my response was inappropriate because you and I don't know each other. We haven't met nor have we talked to one another. When I responded then (like now) I was/am responding to words.

My wife is like you, opinionated. I tend to be the polar opposite. Very timid. I have opinions like anyone else, but I rarely voice them. Perhaps that stems from the temper (I keep myself guarded) I inherited from my grandpa Hansen. Or maybe the quiet, brooding nature my grandpa Moore passed on.

Anyway, based upon many of your posts I've read my opinion is that you're like most other people, a very good person who cares deeply, but who occasionally makes mistakes. We all do that.


That Girl said...

Oh, I am THERE. If anything, I think writing more as decreased my verboseness. (See what I mean?) At least in real-time.

The backspace is my favorite button.

Jami said...

I have the same theory about no words being necessary in the next life. Who I am and what I truly think will be figuratively shouted from the housetops. If my thoughts aren't kind or pure or noble, there will be no hiding behind clever words. My job between now and then is to become what I want people to see.

Isn't it odd that each talent from God comes with it's own challenge? One with great beauty may be tempted frequently to lower her standards or to rely on that beauty instead of developing other talents. Wealth has a different set of challenges. As does fertility and infertility. Those of us who have a gift with words have our own set of temptations.

OK I'll stop now. You just really struck a thoughtful chord today.

Heffalump said...

I think we all have moments like that, where our intentions are not understood. I know I sure do!

Erin said...

I almost always feel like there is a short circuit between what I want to say and what I actually say. It is very frustrating to me. (I cry about it with my husband a lot.) But I err on the kindness side. I never say anything that anyone could construe as mean. And it drives my husband crazy. I mean, CRAZY. He says, "Are you being honest right now, or just being nice?" I have to figure out the space between being honest and being kind. So hard for me!

An Ordinary Mom said...

Oh my friend, you are so not alone in this issue! I can't tell you how many times I have unintentionally hurt someone's feelings either through words, a look or an action. I, too, am striving to be better and I hope people afford me forgiveness like I give them. I admire deeply how you have taken the high road in this matter and aren't getting offended when someone calls you out on the carpet. That is a tough thing to do and you are handling it beautifully! And one of the most amazing things about this life and the glorious gift the Lord has given us through the Atonement? That He can save us in and from our inadequacies and that through Him we will become perfect. Life is supposed to be full of mistakes so we can learn.

Rebecca Irvine said...

I often get tongue tied and have difficulty expressing thoughts verbally. I love writing for the same reason you do in that it allows me to edit and clarify until it is perfect.

Sher said...

I have the same problem. I think I've said before, I think in pictures. And I have a very hard time translating my thoughts into words. And I have offended people before because of it.

Rachel Sue said...

Oh! Oh! Oh!

This is so me! I hate talking sometimes because I say stupid, stupid things.

* said...

Here's my process:
Open mouth, insert foot.
I do this plenty of times a week in fact.

I wrote once about how I mistakenly handle people a little roughly, like utensils in a drawer. Then my husband said that yes, I hit on a real truth in that (ouch!).

I can be like that. The unlearning of it, though, and the lessons that come through change and growing, stretching towards Christ & eternal life is what this life is all about.

I tend to repeat cycles of behavior, too, as easily as tossing another load in the laundry.

But we keep on trying and that's what's important.

amelia said...

This is a good reminder for me to really monitor what I write because the tone sometimes gets lost.

P.S. GREAT job on your essay! I enjoyed reading it!

Heather Moore said...

It's really hard to get across emotion and intended meaning in emails. Maybe we should write our emails like a novel with the internal dialog inserted, etc.

Or maybe we should learn Italian and French, then we can find better words for our true meanings.

Also, just so you know, I read all of your blogs, but when ever I click on your link, my browser makes me go through FaceBook. It's the WEIRDEST thing ever. So I rarely comment.

Julie Belnap said...

I honestly thought that you were a nice person when I saw you at The Teen Writer's Conference. I when to your seminar, and was totally overwhelmed with the thing, and ended up talking to you after. You were really nice and talked to me in a Mentor-to-Apprentice type of manner. I liked it, and you signed my book thingy (that you made but I don't know what its called).

So when I read this article, I was rather surprised. You were nice to me, at least, that's how I remember that early June afternoon, where you overwhelmed my 14-year-old head with knowledge. I want you to know that you were nice to me. You actually were my favorite author their, by personality, even though I had only heard of the 13th reality once, and I didn't even read any of the books. Julie Wright was going to be my favorite, but she wrote a slightly embarrassing comment on my end, when my period day was at its heaviest. A little bit embarrassing if you ask me.

Now I would like to say thank you for being so awesome with your words during the Teen Writer's Conference, because you made me realize that my favorite character sidekick was the true hero, so I shed my old skin and became a better writer for the last six months. Thank you, Mrs. Lyon, thank you.

Danyelle Ferguson said...

Wow, Annette. What a heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing. Communication can be so difficult because we all have different life experiences & what one thing means to one person, may mean something completely different to another. My hubby & I have found ourselves in many situations where we thought the other had taken care of something specific, only to find out we had misinterpreted each other's questions and responses. Now we've learned that we must be MUCH more clear with each other. =)

Thank you for sharing a part of yourself that's not easy to put other there to the world.

Shelle-BlokThoughts said...

Great post. I have this very same problem. I can't explain things very well though. I try and try and try, finally I have to say, let me write it in an email.

How pathetic is that?

I've had people talk about conversations we have had and have said that I was mean or something or other...

LeeAnn said...

I understand and I feel exactly the same way. Enough so that I am often afraid to talk to others.

Don said...

I'm right there with ya on this one. I tend not to offend with my impromptu speaking, but come across sounding rather dense sometimes. When writing, I can mold and caress the words into exactly the form I want.

The same thing happened to me when participating in the performing arts. I could practice a difficult piece to perfection, but fail miserably sightreading something simple. Probably the same mental wiring at work.


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