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what are you saying?
on the difference between what is meant and what is understood
by jeffrey d. walker

If you’ve ever seen the motion picture Rush Hour, there is a memorable scene where Chris Tucker yells at Jackie Chan, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”

If you haven’t watched that film, maybe you understand the feeling anyway. That feeling of not being understood. I know I have. I’ve never resorted to screaming “Do you understand the words…” myself, but there are many occasions in my life where I was horribly misunderstood.

I’m not talking about the times I’m trying to be cryptic, like when I tell an inside joke, or try to write a song that isn’t specific. If people don’t understand that, it was intentional.

And I’m not talking about my poor grammar, like when I use a double negative. I like to do that on purpose. I like to see how people react. Some people will correct me: “It’s 'I’m not going to do that,' Not ‘I ain’t never gonna do that.’” Some people will just stare for an extra long time before continuing their next statement. Some will repeat it back to me: “I ain’t never going to do that” -- some ending that with a “.” And some with a “?”. Some say it at the same rate that I say it while other repeat it very s l o w l y .

But I don't mean that. What I’m talking about are the times where I’m trying to be clear about something, but what is understood is not the same at all.

I’m sure that this has been going on for a good part of my life. As a baby, I’d yell out, “I pooped myself,” but it would just come out as, “Whaaaaa. Ahhh.”

More recent episodes occurred here at Intrepid. I’d write a column about something, and I’d suddenly get an e-mail from someone who missed my point completely. Or misconstrued what I said. Or just generally didn’t catch my drift. And we’re talking about stories I took my time and crafted with a particular reason in mind. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I’ll get a question so far off subject that I have to go back and re-read my own article in an attempt to understand what the question is even supposed to be asking. And even then I’m not sure.

I’ve seen discussions on articles here at Intrepid run far a field of anything ever mentioned in the article. I’ve seen innuendos drawn where none were intended. I’ve seen love misconstrued as wickedness.

One time I wrote about an incident from one friend’s point of view. The day before the piece posted, I ended up in a conversation with another friend who had a totally different (and opposite) version of events as I had written. The next day, he accused me of twisting his story against him. I explained to him that the story was done before he and I had even talked and, luckily, things eventually were fine. But it was a tense moment to say the least.

One of the most interesting occasions of miscommunication, though, came the first full week of June when I was attending a trial advocacy seminar. For a week, we were given a case and we ran through each of the steps involved in a jury trial, including a mock trial at the end of the week. Having still never had an actual jury-trial before (I’ve only done trials by judges), I was very excited to participate in this program. It was great to practice preparing so thoroughly for a trial. But the biggest surprise came at the end of the week. After the plaintiff and the defendant (whose side I was on) had presented all the evidence, the judges asked the jury if they’d mind deliberating in front of us. Historically, this is a private affair, so it was exciting when they agreed.

What I heard from the jury was just short of shocking. I won’t be so presumptuous as to say that the case put on by my partner and I was so amazing that we’d win hands down. But we were at least even, I figured. Turns out we lost; but that wasn’t the astonishing part. What blew my mind was listening to why we lost.

When doing a trial, there is a message you are trying to convey. They call it the “theme of the trial.” In essence, there is a story you are trying to impart to the jury that you want them to find true. Your opponents are busy presenting an alternate version of the same story and hoping that the jury will believe them. Accordingly, I figured that the jury’s discussion would revolve around which story they preferred and why. And there was some of that discussion. They discussed things mentioned during the trial, things they would have preferred during the trial, which witnesses they believed and also which they didn’t. They discussed things that were “never said” during trial, though I swear that there was a couple of examples they claimed were “never said” that actually were. Also, we were criticized for not presenting any additional evidence that could have bolstered our stories. Our case involved an alleged misconduct by a police officer. One juror said that there would have to be a record of the police radio call, and I was thinking, “What has that got to do with anything?” But for whatever reason, he believed that those records should have been produced. Then some jurors started theorizing what the cop should have done. Then they started discussing what they would have done. I watched in astonishment as one man began to discuss the proper police procedures for something like this, even though he wasn’t a police officer, nor were they informed about proper police procedures. One said, “this is what should be going though an officer’s mind.” And I was like, How could you pretend to know that?

I and the other attorneys watched as this jury took our “story” of the case as both sides had presented it, and ran with it into places that neither of us had intended. They discussed topics none of us had contemplated them discussing; that we had never discussed. They rendered a verdict based on logic none of us had ever reasoned despite a week of working with the facts. Stranger still were times I heard a juror make a point I had never thought of before that I was certain would be construed in my favor, and then explain why that point went against me.

I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to see a jury deliberate again on one of my own cases, and frankly, I don’t think I ever want to. It was one of the more brutal experiences of my life. It was especially painful after having gone through law school and having worked as an attorney for almost three years now; I thought I was getting better at this. But it seems I never get it totally right.

I mentioned this miscommunication issue to my wife. She quickly mentioned two situations at work where she gave someone directions on doing something, and got something totally different. She explained her frustration despite having worked at this for some time.

Then as I wrote this, I turned on my television. By coincidence, I saw a Bob Dylan interview on "60 minutes". At one point, he discussed how the public saw him and how that was totally different from how he viewed himself. The difference was described as "polar opposites."

If I ever do another trial, I’m almost sure that someone on that jury will somehow misunderstand even my most well thought-out presentation. And it won’t be because that person is stupid. It’s because sometimes I don’t make sense even when I’m trying. But I guess I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one.

For those of you who don’t understand what I mean at all by all this, I suggest you pick out a belief or opinion that you have, write three or four paragraphs on the subject and post it in the gallery here at intrepid. The more controversial, the better. Then post it for the general public, and e-mail that story to about 30 people or so. Ask each of them to do you a favor and discuss something about it. I bet you’ll get one or two replies that will leave you scratching your head. You’ll wonder if they even read your article.

But even though you're misunderstood, it's worth the effort in my opinion. We may not always understand each other, but we don't get anywhere by not trying. Besides, listening to your message get scrambled like eggs can feel a little like a roller coaster! So write it up, and hold on!


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker


thanks for the memories. no regrets.
no one ever says don't quit your night job but i am anyway.
by jeffrey d. walker
topic: writing
published: 1.25.06

what day is it anyway?
a way to cope, a way of life
by jeffrey d. walker
topic: writing
published: 11.16.01


tim lockwood
6.20.05 @ 11:19a

I can offer a prime example of this in my own life.

As someone who has been involved in the start-up of a brand new labor union for pizza delivery drivers, I have occasion to post to message boards where pizza shop owners and others interested in the industry congregate.

Now, when we started this thing, I knew that not everyone liked unions, but I don't think I understood that the reasons people didn't like unions went way, way beyond reason. I can understand that if someone had a poor experience with a union, or a relative did, you might allow that to color your judgment somewhat. You expect that, and you learn how to argue that this union will not be run like that.

What I didn't expect was how much emotion gets in the way of cold hard facts. For instance, even if we explained that this was a volunteer operation and no one in the union had been paid anything for their efforts (and probably wouldn't be for some time), we'd still hear how unions are just stealing the money of the employees and we're just using this as a get-rich-quick scheme. Or if we explained that no one will likely even want to try to form a union in a happy workplace where workers are being treated equitably, we'd still hear how we're trying to march in with jackboots and make the employers and the employees take a union against their will, and "I'll close my business and go on welfare before you unionize my shop."

I guess my point is, blind emotion will win over reason, truth and justice any day of the week, and you just have to factor that in. That's why in your profession there is a niche industry for jury consulting - people who learn to read the emotional character of others based on both demographic and instinctual knowledge, and help you pick the right jurors based on what your "theme" is.

sandra thompson
6.20.05 @ 1:31p

I'm still not entirely sure why you are so obsessed with kangaroos, Jeffrey.

(Is that sort of what you mean?)

jeffrey walker
6.20.05 @ 1:58p

yeah, Sandra! that's funny!

And thanks for the good example, Tim. I suppose you and I have to be thankful to live in a country where people are free to interpret facts in their own way,a dn then speak out about how they feel. But that freedom can lead to headaches and more headaches. A problem that looks black and white can end up getting shaded every color of the rainbow.

tracey kelley
6.20.05 @ 2:03p

I find written communication to be a real pain in the ass for clarity...but I can't imagine what it would be like to stand before a jury and hope they "get it." Eesssh.

stacy smith
6.20.05 @ 3:21p

As annoying as being misunderstood is, it's part of life. Who isn't misunderstood at some point or another?

We're not drones. Not everybody "gets" something in the same way.

Some people intentionally pick things apart just for the sake of twisting it around to make themselves look better. Others take the easy route and just follow the herd as there is no thought required.

As I see it, people have a choice. They can either ask for clarification, or continue to go about their business with bad information.

Then there is the simple fact that opinions are like @$$holes. Everybody has one, and everybodies stinks.


robert melos
6.20.05 @ 4:33p

People generally hear and see what they want to hear and see. In NJ the law states pedestrians have the right of way IN THE CROSSWALKS. I capitalize that last part because most pedestrians seem to jaywalk and assume they still have the right of way. They either ignore that part, or just don't read it beyond the first part.

As a realtor I deal with interpretation issues daily. We have a disclaimer on all our listing, "deemed reliable, but not guaranted". We still have people insisting on accurate information. The world simply is an inaccurate place.

tim lockwood
6.21.05 @ 12:41a

Tracey said: I find written communication to be a real pain in the ass for clarity

I find writing MUCH easier to deal with, clarity-wise, than having to speak to someone. All you have to do is pick the exact words you want, and voila! Just the message you want to send, worded just the way you want it - nothing to be hidden in a funny accent or weird inflection. Plus it never changes; the phrasing you used yesterday remains on the page forever.

But if someone doesn't "get" something I've written, I'm at a loss to clarify it, because I've probably already made it as clear as I can.

tracey kelley
6.22.05 @ 3:05p

No seriously, I just fired a client because all she wanted to do was communicate via book-long email, which made things twice as complicated as they needed to be. Everything could have been handled in a 20-minute phone conversation.

stacy smith
6.22.05 @ 3:25p

Did you tell her that?

jeffrey walker
6.22.05 @ 3:53p

Better than a several minute voicemail.

tim lockwood
6.23.05 @ 1:11a

Tracey said: I just fired a client because all she wanted to do was communicate via book-long email

Being concise is the key. There's nothing wrong with dropping an email to someone. But if you can't get to the point in a short message, you should probably try to find a quicker, more effective way of getting your message across.

Tracey, I wonder what your client would have done in the pre-email days. Spent a fortune on typewriter ribbon, postage, and stationery, I imagine.

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