Paul Prather

If my words offended, let me explain my thinking

Back in the day, I spent years as a graduate student in communications.

When I try to recall what I learned, I'm reminded of Father Guido Sarducci's "Five-Minute University," a routine that comedian Don Novello, pretending to be the priest, performed on Saturday Night Live years ago.

The conceit was that Father Sarducci could teach you in five minutes everything a university student remembers after graduating.

Economics? "Supply and demand."

Similarly, I remember only one principle from the communications discipline, but it's a doozy: If people can possibly misunderstand you, they will.

It's an unfortunate fact that affects us at church, at work, at home, everywhere. We're often misunderstood. We often misunderstand. And that causes problems ranging from lost friendships to divorces to church splits.

I was reminded of this after my last column appeared. In that piece, I laid out 20 principles that would, if we followed them, lead us to more contented lives.

I mentioned in the opening paragraphs that we live in a country in which we're inordinately blessed. Few societies in history, and few contemporary countries, have been as free from want, violence or tyranny as the United States is today.

I wrote: "We're not governed by a totalitarian regime that bashes in our doors; we don't have terrorists detonating suicide bombs on our sidewalks. Our economy has been in the pits, but most people who want to be employed are."

Whew. That last sentence, which seemed benignly optimistic to me, got me in trouble. Several readers wrote blistering e-mails. I was described as, to quote one correspondent, "ignorant, mean, smug and judgmental." I was said to have blamed the unemployed for their suffering. I was told I'm not even a Christian.

But here's what I thought I was getting at.

I was thinking our economy has suffered a rough recession. The latest report I saw placed unemployment at 9.7 percent. Some experts speculate that the real rate is twice as high; many out-of-work people no longer show up in the government's official figures.

Of course, some people don't want to work and aren't included in those statistics. Some are retired. Some are independently wealthy. Some are stay-at-home moms. A few are bums.

The vast majority of adults do need and want jobs. Among them, unemployment officially stands at almost 10 percent and might really be twice that.

By definition, though, 80 percent to 90 percent of the people who want jobs have jobs. That, by any measure, is "most people who want to work."

My point was that no matter how bad things are here, even in a deep recession we're better off than are, say, people in Haiti, Iraq or Somalia. Millions of Americans are struggling, but, on the whole, we're a very lucky nation.

I meant no offense to anyone. I wasn't blaming anybody for anything.

(I'll also admit that at other times I've been praised for saying things people liked — that I didn't intend to say, either. Maybe it balances out.)

Human communication is a fragile thing.

When you or I try to speak or write, we start with an idea in our own heads that's based on our unique agendas, experiences, doctrines and assumptions. We then try to form a message into words that, being only symbols, comprising alphabetic letters, are in the best circumstances imperfect transmitters of our invisible thoughts.

We release these symbols into air or onto a keyboard. Our spoken message might be half drowned out by the blare of a TV or someone interrupting us. A written message might be impeded by typos or because there's no body language visible to help convey our tone.

When a distorted portion of our message reaches the recipients to whom we're sending it, it has to enter through their ears or eyes. They might be hearing-impaired or nearsighted or distracted. Then they decode an already flawed message through their own agendas, experiences, doctrines and assumptions. They interpret what they think we intended to say.

The margin for error on both sides is infinite.

I learned this in graduate school, and I've frequently relearned it as a preacher, a parent, a son, a teacher, a boyfriend and a newspaper columnist.

I'm guilty myself of misjudging others' intentions.

I'd bet you've been guilty of this. It's pretty much the human way.

We need to make every effort to communicate more clearly. But we also need to give others the benefit of the doubt when they appear to be saying things we don't like. We very well might have misunderstood.

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