Thursday, March 23, 2006

Something to Think About

I get a weekly email from a web place called Absolute Write, and it always includes a Discussion of the Week. Here's an exerpt from this week's:

macallister made a comment last night that has vexed me ever since. basically it was about whether or not the intent of the author should trump the interpretation of the opinion, as i stated in response to her, is that the intent of the writer should prevail. i believe that the full experience relies on full understanding. even if it moves you in a very personal and vulnerable part of your heart, if you are misunderstanding it, then impression you've gotten from it, even if you embrace it, even if it's life-changing, is based on a lie.

I have been grappling with this same question in slightly different terms: if someone takes what I wrote differently from what I meant, is it my fault or his/hers? The answer to this seemed obvious to me during an email conversation after my latest article came out. If you read it, you might recall that I wrote about friendships and how, when I lived on an Indian reservation,my one simple requirement for a friend was that she knew how to speak English.

I got an email in response that said, essentially: "Do you realize how awfully racist you come across with your English-only statement?"
I wrote back: I did not speak Cree very well, and friendship for me means sharing from my heart, which requires a shared language, in this case English. If you have had a close friendship with someone who didn't share your language, I admire you.
She wrote back, essentially: I figured you didn't mean to sound racist but all of us sometimes come across different than we mean so I'm glad you see the light now.

I was irked, as it seemed to me that my sensible email hadn't made the slightest difference in her thinking.

So, was the burden of proof mine or hers? Whose problem was it if I came across as racist to her? I like to think my intention was clear and she was simply a bit skewed in her thinking, since no one else seemed to read the same thing into it.

But it's not always this easy. I have, several times, talked with preachers who I felt were making very strong statements such as, "If you can't agree with everything your church does, you should be attending somewhere else." When I ask them about it afterwards, they backpedal rapidly and say, "Oh, well, I didn't mean it that way exactly. Perhaps I came across stronger than I intended."

In this case, I feel like they ought to change what they're saying. I don't feel the burden should be mine to discern whether or not they feel as strongly (and often harshly) as they come across.

But how does this relate to the woman who found my article racist?

And we may as well mention here that while I found the stories about Frank Kropf humorous and blogged about them simply as a bit of interesting history, it turns out that others in the extended family felt that they were very one-sided and should have also included the fact that Frank mellowed in his old age and was a very generous, innovative, hardworking, Christian man.

Did I imply that he was a one-dimensional, angry man? I didn't mean to, but if someone took it that way, is the problem mine or theirs?

Quote of the Day:
"According to the annoyingness of the brother, so shalt the sister tickle him."


  1. Ah, the travails of public communicators -- writers, speakers, hybrids-thereof-now-known-as-bloggers.

    It never dawned on me that your English-in-a-friend "requirement" was racist. But then I know you somewhat so I processed the information you provided through that filter.

    One thing I need to do better at in my own communicating is this: Remember, Mark -- not everyone knows you, so beware of saying things that require a that's-just-Mark filter to correctly understand what you're saying.

    I don't know if that says what I mean. :)

    Regarding this about Frank Kropf:

    Did I imply that he was a one-dimensional, angry man? I didn't mean to, but if someone took it that way, is the problem mine or theirs?

    No, I don't believe you implied that. But when I read that particular post, I wondered if Frank professed to be a Christian.

    Not having known him and going only by the information you provided, I was left entertaining inferences that.... Well, I don't want to go there here.

    So was the problem yours or mine?


    Mine, in that I should know better than to leap to a conclusion when the landing point is lost in the fog.

    Yours, in that you provided the launch pad as well as the fog. :)

    Perhaps this is the wrong forum to say all the above, but since you (seemed) to ask....

    I suppose I should write all manner of qualifiers and clarifiers to remove any fog from my own comments here, but I've written enough. So I leave myself vulnerable in that regard.


  2. Thanks, Mark. That's exactly what I was asking. No need for you to qualify and clarify. you put it well.

  3. Dorcas, you can never please everybody. Just keep writing! Pauline

  4. Dorcas, remember that the "racist" interpretation was only one persons idea. I took it to mean exactly what you meant it to be. Keep up the interesting blogging. Your Ohio fan!!

  5. Dorcas, this is one area, that you can't please everyone. There will always be somebody that is looking for something to make a case out of. Just keep on doing your best and leave the rest go.

  6. I totally agree--never will any of us please everyone--its not just in writing--I know I've made remarks that have been taken totally out of context--so whos job is it to make sure everyone understands and gets the context! I'm not sure but I do know that you can't please everyone and I love your stories and will always read your writings even if I might not agree or "get it"!!:)

  7. This reminds me of the Scripture that tells us not to cause a brother (or sister) to stumble. Sometimes it is a matter of whether the offense is given, or an offense is taken. Living in a sinful and terribly wounded world, I think it is impossible to have any kind of communication that doesn't run the risk of offending...either in the giving, or in the receiving. We can only speak the truth (let our yes be yes...) in love, and let God sort it all out. You and God know your heart.

  8. Say what you will and let the chips fall where they may

  9. Dorcas, if you need to need to be perfect before you can write (or do) anything, you will be paralyzed from ever doing anything. We are all dealing with the consequences of sin, unfortunately.

    But once you have written and someone reads it wrong, at that point, how do you respond? I think that is the bigger challenge, for me at least.

  10. Maybe the woman who protested had a point, but didn't voice it well. There are a number of women on our street who are Japanese or Indian. My neighbor doesn't speak English. Can we not be friends?
    Will my nonverbal son be unable to ever have friends, even if he never learns to talk?
    Maybe the woman was uncomfortable with you putting boundaries on friendship.
    I know what you meant, but there are different kinds of friendships.

  11. Intent of the author should trump. The other smacks of post-modern thinking. (the word means what I mean it to mean)


    Both sides have responsibility... Did I as reader take time to read/listen carefully or skim read and assume? Were you as author careful in choosing words and tone that matched your feelings? Did you intend to give a balanced view or only one slice? Balance can be so impossible to achieve if someone wants to be critical... but we still need to think about that aspect.

    Good thoughts.

  12. Communication needs to be two ways to be close or significant. One talks (or writes) - but the other listens. And an active listener (a good thing) asks and clarifies. The listener who doesn't ask to clarify, but assumes and takes offense, is simply a lousy listener.

    As we all learn from marriage or other close friendships, we all have to work at "our" side of communication all the time - better and clearer communication when talking (or writing), and better listening (and asking and clarifying) when the other talks.

    Keep working on your part, and don't let lousy listeners get to you!!