What We Say, What We Hear

A Tony award for best play was recently given to “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”  Based on a book by Mark Haddon, the story is about a teenage boy named Christopher, a young mathematician who has some strange behavioral problems related to his difficulty interpreting the world around him.  Living in a complicated family situation, he discovers the dead body of a neighbor’s dog killed with a garden tool.  He decides to investigate the death of the dog and in the process his adventures cause his family story to unravel.

The play depicts the difficulties Christopher encounters because of his inability to interpret correctly the words of others and the inability of others to understand Christopher’s reactions to what they say.  Both the novel and play have been described as being about a boy with Asperger’s or autism.  The author has been known to say that he regretted the use of those terms on the cover of the novel because he doesn’t want Christopher to be labeled and doesn’t consider that to be the most important thing about him.

Although the story turns on Christopher’s difference, the reader or viewer is drawn into an understanding of his perspective and reactions.  His behavior begins to make perfect sense as an expression of his mind set.  The play communicates that graphically through the actor’s performance.  There are numerous incidents in which he gives literal meaning to what people say.  An example is, when given the instruction, “Don’t move,” meaning don’t leave, Christopher stands with a foot in the air mid-step, afraid to put his foot down.

Many times what people say makes no sense to Christopher and his behavior in response to his misinterpretation makes no sense to others.   His story is a demonstration of the way communication depends on an ability to interpret correctly what others are saying to us, as well as the ability of others to interpret correctly what we say.  A phrase that describes that issue is, “What you heard is not what I said.”

The sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen, has studied and written extensively about this problem in communication.  In two of her books, “That’s Not What I Meant,” and “You Just Don’t Understand,” she analyzes patterns of speech between people generally and between men and women in particular.  She points in particular to the way gender differences in modes of expression reflect cultural differences in socialization.  A familiar example is women talking about something seeking emotional understanding which men hear as a request for solutions.

This at times is a problem between parents and children.  As adults we use figures of speech that may be incomprehensible to young children.  What do they make of “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” or “The early bird catches the worm?”  Before reaching a certain level of development children are unable to understand the deeper meaning.  They are more likely to be interested in the concrete meaning and ask why moss doesn’t stick to the stone or what is an early bird.

In the same way, young children are not ready for symbolic meaning.  We may be impressed when a young child learns the alphabet, but what do the letters represent?  As a teacher I know once said, “You have to know what an apple is before knowing what A means.”  In the same way, when a parent says, “In a minute,” in response to a child’s request, children may come to understand that “in a minute” means a long time.

As parents, it is important to think about this when we talk to our children and when they talk to us.  It is also useful to remember when children relate things they have heard in the news or those others have said.  At times we need to try to understand what children think they are saying or what we have said to them before responding.

What we say may not be what they hear, and what we hear may not be what they are saying.