I’m on a rant. Try as hard as I might, words get misinterpreted or misheard; somebody thinks somebody else is ignorant because of the way they turned a phrase or used a word. Judgments are made about a person’s intelligence because of words. I’m not talking about words of hate, fear, anger, or despair. I’m just talking about regular words. Folks don’t hear each other.
“Hey, Britt. How ya doin?”
“Did you just call me a bitch?”
Okay. I’m exaggerating a little. But not by much. We don’t listen, and as a result we don’t really hear.
American English is not an easy language. I have a lot of compassion for people who are trying to learn American English as a second language. Where else can a word that sounds the same be spelled in two or three different ways? Hear and here. They’re, their, and there.
Folks will also use the same word to mean completely different things depending on their geographic or cultural background. The word “fresh” is a great example.
1. “Don’t get fresh with me!” says the parent.
Translation: don’t be disrespectful and try to make yourself an equal to the adult.
2. “That girl is just fresh.”
Translation: The girl is sexually provocative and acting older than she should at her age.
3. “These eggs smell fresh.”
Translation: The eggs smell bad. They aren’t safe to eat.
4. “The milk is fresh.” “The flowers smell fresh and sweet.”
Translation: The milk is okay to drink. The flowers smell good.
5. “It’s fresh, exciting…” sings the song.
Translation: It’s new and innovative.
FIVE different contexts. Is there any wonder that it’s hard to hear what someone is saying?
So given the contextual complexities of the language, why don’t we try to listen harder? I understand that there are circumstances where the language of the broader culture makes one more easily understood. Still, isn’t it rather unforgiving to put all the responsibility on the speaker. As my sister says, “it takes two for relationship.”
Okay, so about “fresh.” Regional and cultural contexts matter. I have personally heard fresh used in all five contexts. Within the context of culture, who can judge what’s right or wrong? We can talk about the need for the use of a word in the context of the larger culture, but we cannot strike the use of the word in all of its contexts. That would be a serious linguistic bias.
The word fresh will have a different meaning depending on whether a person is from the northern or southeastern United States; whether a person is 75 or 15; or whether a person is from a rural or an urban area. It also matters whether a person is Caucasian or non-Caucasian. This being the case, I say that we need to learn to listen more deeply.
Now, clearly there are people who won’t agree with me. That’s okay. This is my blog. A woman once told me that my contribution to a discussion didn’t matter because I was from the “country.” I was shocked. I had shared an anecdotal story about my grandparents’ farms in the south. I shared it with a lot of love, and I guess something in what I said led her to believe that I’d been raised in the rural south. I was not raised in the rural south. At all. She had stopped listening and made an intellectual judgment based on racial and linguistic bias. The pity, really, was for her, but I will never know what led to her judgment, and I will never know if she ever learned to really listen. She died last year.
Lesson? We’ve got a lotta listening to do–a lot to learn about hearing what people are really saying when they say what they say. We don’t really have a choice.
We can do it.