Say What?

I love language. I’m fascinated by all the nuances a single language can have. I enjoy knowing that two people, speaking the same language can mean completely different things. Of course, even when two people from the same region of the country, using the same language and dialect, are speaking the message can still be different than intended.

It seems no matter how hard we try, the message we mean to deliver is often poorly transmitted. Years of observation have led me to sort these miscommunications into three categories: Misheard Messages, Misspoken Messages, and Mistimed Messages (Okay, so I really kind of just made that up, but it sure sounds intelligent and scholarly, huh?). I will provide examples to illustrate each category.

Misheard Message

Once while in high school, I was doing something completely out of character. I was sitting quietly at the kitchen table doing my homework (doing homework was not out of character, being quiet most definitely is). I wanted to finish and was intensely concentrating on it. My mom came in and asked me if I wanted something to eat. I explained I would rather wait until I finished because I didn’t want to stop with my homework just then. My mom, of course, has never been too concerned with others’ schedules, so she went ahead and prepared something for me to eat, then set it down for me on top of my homework. One moment I was staring at my work, the next a plate of food was covering it. We then had the following conversation.

“I don’t want to eat this yet,” I said.

“What did you say?” My mom’s tone confused me because she sounded more irritated than she should. After all, I had told her I wanted to finish my homework first.

“I said I’m don’t want to eat this yet,” I helpfully repeated.

“You will eat it!” I became more confused, because she sounded on the verge of yelling at me. Since I was a teenager, I knew I wasn’t to blame, so I got mad myself.

“Actually, I’m not going to eat this yet!” I nearly yelled myself.

“Say it one more time!”

Well, I lost my temper at that and did yell, “I’M NOT GOING TO EAT THIS YET!”




I was utterly confused, but went, mainly because my mom was clearly angry and being out of the same room seemed safer. Later, when we had both calmed down I sought to understand the problem. It turned out that, while I was simply explaining that I did not want to consume the prepared food at that particular moment in time (without ruling out eating it later), what she heard was me refer to said food as excrement. No, really. Go ahead say, “I don’t want to eat this yet,” quickly and out loud to yourself. I’ll wait.

I did not intend on offensive statement, but that is what she received. The message was misheard.

Misspoken Message

A situation such as the one above can clearly work in reverse as well. A person may intend to say one thing, but actually say another. This clearly happened to one of my college roommates.

A little background: this roommate is someone everyone would refer to as a stand up guy. He truly was (and is) an amazing person. One of the things I most admired about him in college was his devotion. This was mainly exemplified in his relationship with the woman who became his wife. After they started dating, he rarely paid attention to another. If the rest of us found a woman attractive and mentioned it, we would have to draw him a map to even point out where she was in the room. He truly did not notice, because he did not care.

One evening, several off us ended up going out for pizza. There was a new addition to our group that night: a foreign student. She was undeniably attractive with flawless skin and the kind of hair that is usually only seen in shampoo commercials (I swear it swished in slow motion). She was very quiet and very petite. Well, she was petite in all but one area which she accentuated with an extremely tight, low cut top.

She barely spoke, but of course most of the guys (including the ones in relationships) could neither stop looking nor talking to her. My roommate, of course, seemed to take no notice of her whatsoever. He spoke with her of course, but he didn’t seem to notice her the way the rest of us were.

I was unattached and ended up sitting next to my roommate. His girlfriend was sitting on his other side and she (isn’t it funny that you know exactly who I mean?) was sitting directly across from him. The server set one of the pizzas on the table in front of us. We all grabbed a few slices, but she would take them one at a time. Each time she did, she had to lean across the table to get one. You can imagine the scene and I will admit that it was difficult to ignore. Except of course, for my roommate who kept eating and conversing.

At one point, we began commenting on the quality of the food. It was truly good pizza. My roommate liked it as well and said, “This is the breast pizza ever!”

We all just looked at him. He had no idea of what he just said. He only believed it later after we all told him we heard it. His message was clearly misspoken (though in this case, I would argue it was actually more accurate, even if unintentionally so).

Mistimed Message

The last category is a little different. The mistimed message is both spoken and heard as intended. The difference is one of context. A quick example would be someone saying, “I have no idea of how to land a plane.” The message is completely different if you are standing on the ground together or in the air with the person behind the yoke of a Cessna. A longer example (clearly my favorite kind) follows.

While I have ultimately been extremely lucky in love, I wasn’t great at dating before I started going out with the woman who became my wife. That’s why I was particularly excited one afternoon in a restaurant when the waitress asked me out by saying, “I get off at seven, wanna go out after that?” This is the kind of thing that didn’t really happen to me, but I liked it.

We went out several times. I thought it was going pretty well until one evening. We had been sitting on the couch enjoying kissing one another when she abruptly pulled away from me.

“What is it?” I asked. She just looked back at me with eyes I could not read. “Really, what’s wrong?” I prodded.

“I . . . I have something I need to tell you,” she said.

“So tell me.”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well . . .”

“Go on.”

“It’s just that I like you and I want you to like me.”

“Were you not just here for the kissing? I do like you.”

“No, no. I really like you and I want you to like me and I’m afraid that if I tell you, you won’t like me.”

“But I already like you. Just tell me.”

“You won’t after I tell you.” Something about the way she said made me very, very nervous.

“I think you’d better tell me.”

She worked up her courage and kept starting and stopping several times before finally getting around to saying, “I’m married.”

“Oh, well . . . wait, WHAT?” I jumped to the other end of the couch.

“I’m married.”

“You said that.”

“I thought you should know.”

“Don’t you think maybe I should have known that before you put your tongue in my mouth?”

“But then you wouldn’t have let me kiss you.”

“Really? You think? Why did you even ask me out?”

“Because I wanted to go out with you.”

“But you’re married!”

“Does it really make a difference?”

“Little bit!”

“I’m okay with it if you are. I really want to keep seeing you. Can’t we try to make this work?”

“I’m not okay with it, so no. We cannot make it work because you are married.”

I just put my face in my hands. I figured at least the evening couldn’t get any worse. I thought that right up until there was a knock on the door. Yes, it was her husband. No, he did not beat me up. It was a bit awkward though (sadly he seemed used to this).

A completely mistimed message. Context is everything. If she had said exactly the same thing to me before we went out on our first date, I would have known and never dated her. Of course, that wouldn’t have been funny at all.

© Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Leighton Brown is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. For more information, please see the Copyright page.

About leighton

I could be considered a true Renaissance Man after having a long and storied (seriously, people actually tell stories about it) college experience and varied careers. I am also a shameless self-promoter (who did you think was writing this anyway?) who is prone to flights of fancy, an abundance of passion on any given subject, ,obsessive behavior, spontaneous storytelling (whether anyone listens or not), and making parenthetical references. I would also be thrilled if I heard someone use the word "raconteur" to describe me.
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2 Responses to Say What?

  1. Christie says:

    OK. I can NOT stop laughing and repeating “I DON’T WANT TO EAT THIS YET!!” in my head. I admit, it took me a minute, but I finally got it. B was across the table from me working and I’m sure he was a bit annoyed at my sudden and random outbursts of laughter.

    • leighton says:

      I read your comment and imagined that scene. You have no idea how happy that makes me. The only way it could be better would be if a spit take was involved.

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