The Limits of Language

Ann, a friend of mine, related this story to me recently:

She was playing cards, and she remarked she needed a 7 or 2.

Her partner threw her a 2.

Ann looked at it and asked, “What’s THAT for?”

“You said you needed a 7 or a 2,” her partner replied.

“No. I said I needed a 7 or 2.”

“Yes. A 7 or 2. So I gave you a 2.”

Oh boy. They were both right because they interpreted what Ann had said in completely logical — if different — ways.

Have you caught on to the different ways these partners understood such a simple sentence?

Ann was saying that she needed either one or two 7s. (Read Ann’s first comment again.)

Her partner heard she needed a 7 or a 2 — two different cards.

Luckily they’re good friends and had a hearty laugh over the simple misunderstanding.

But how many times does this come up with our conversations? We say A, which means A to us. The other person hears B. We proceed as though the only right answer is ours, not always recognizing the other person’s perception of the way we communicated is valid for them!

Stop Arguing About Who’s Right: Explore Each Other’s Stories.

The quote above comes from a book I just reread that came out in 1999 called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Douglas Stone/Bruce Patton/Sheila Heen). In it the authors remind us that we have OUR story (our version), the other person has his or her story — but if we really listen to each other, we’ll realize that there’s a third story: the one that is each person’s version that can come together to form a story we can both agree on.

Thanks to that book (and others), I started teaching this type of information years ago in what became my “Brush Up on Your Communication Skills” program. With the best intent in the world, we sometimes don’t communicate clearly, whether we’re writing or speaking. Too often, when there’s a problem, we stick to our guns, sure that the other person is wrong . . . but is that always right? Or true? Could it be our words contributed in some way to making understanding difficult?

We email our friend, “Let’s meet at 1:30 this afternoon.” She agrees. We mean at 1:30 SHARP; she means at 1:30 +/-. If we never discuss exactly what we mean, we can end up thinking the other person doesn’t even listen to us. But when we realize how our perceptions play into the words we use, we can step back and ask about the timing (or whatever the issue is) without criticizing.

Maybe in my family, time was super important and absolute: 1:30 meant 1:30, not 1:31. That may have become my “normal.”

Maybe in my friend’s family, 1:30 was a suggested time, something to aim for, but not a rigid thing. A few minutes either way? No big deal. That could have become her “normal.”

But if we never discuss this without blame, we may never know (not even about why we each think the way we do about it). And if our discussion is all about blame — “What part of 1:30 didn’t you understand? You’re so wrong!” — “Since when is 1:30 such a specific time? I was only five minutes late!” we might actually fight and possibly lose a friendship.

For me, the book contains great reminders about the limits of language, and specificways to overcome them. My words might have a clear meaning to me, but they may mean something very different to someone else. And I won’t know if I don’t ask.


Have you experienced this type of miscommunication? Are there other resources you’d recommend that have helped you? Please share your thoughts with us.


For the last 25+ years, I have been focused on helping all of us look and sound as smart as we are. And as kind. And as nice. While my main focus has been American grammar, I’ve also been fascinated by how language can both inform and misinform. Life’s too short to have these types of disagreements, especially when we have ways to remedy them, so I continue to look for ways to connect clearly with others.