communicate – verb | \kə-ˈmyü-nə-ˌkāt\

: to give information about (something) to someone by speaking, writing, moving your hands, etc.
: to get someone to understand your thoughts or feelings

Over the weekend, I received a couple of cryptic text messages from a friend who was traveling. The first note apologized for sending something twice, but I hadn’t received any other messages. Later, she typed: “Take a close look.” But there was nothing to look at. “Did you send a photo?” I asked.

For the next 12 hours, messages arrived out of order but time-stamped so that I could slowly piece together what had happened. My friend had sent a photo of an airport sign that had a glaring misspelling. I had completely missed her playful challenge to find the typo because our communication was so disrupted.

communicate typewriter phone computer

A few days earlier, I texted my mom to tell her that I was heading out to a meeting that evening, and I’d call on my way there. What I meant was that I’d call on my way to the meeting, but she translated “on my way there” to mean on my way to her house, the “there” where she was.

When I finally called her, she answered, “Are you almost here?”

“What?” I said, assuming I had misunderstood.

“Are you in town?” she asked again. And it took us at least five minutes to figure out what had happened. In the course of the conversation, I learned that she had been frantically cleaning in anticipation of my arrival. Meanwhile, I was a good hour and a half away.

On another recent occasion, my oldest stepson and I were attempting to coordinate our calendars after he told me he had volunteered to help with a church project on Saturday.

“Is it during the day or at night?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “But it wouldn’t be at night.”

“I’m pretty sure the event lasts until 10 o’clock Saturday,” I told him.

“Yeah, but that’s not overnight.”

“Okay, I meant evening.”

“That’s not night, though,” he said. “I still don’t know when it is.”

So, I texted his mom, and she told me: 4:30-9:30 p.m. At night, just as I suspected.

As a writer who majored in communication in college, I pride myself on getting the point across, sending a clear message, and connecting with readers. I like to think I’m a good communicator, and usually people know what I mean by what I say.

But even the best communicators aren’t always as clear as they think, especially when some of the pieces are missing, when assumptions are made, or when not everyone agrees on what the words mean.

As I’ve thought about my week’s worth of communication blunders, I couldn’t help but think of the arguments and the rhetoric blowing across our country. It’s true some of it is intentionally misleading and purposefully vague. Some people are trying to hide important pieces of the puzzle so you’ll never have a complete picture.

But most of us are trying to communicate clearly and carefully, but even on the best days we’re at more of a disadvantage than we realize. That doesn’t mean we give up trying to talk to each other; we just have to be be clearer. We have to recognize that sometimes the words we use don’t mean the same thing to others, or that there are underlying assumptions behind phrases, or that occasionally, some of the information is simply missing. If we knew more, we’d communicate better.

Today, I actually did go to my mom’s house. And when I texted to remind her, I didn’t just tell her I’d see her when I get there. This time, I said, “I’ll probably be at your house around 9 tomorrow morning.” And she said, “I’ll be looking for you.”

And this time, we both knew exactly what the other meant.

What’s YOUR word of the week? Drop it into the comments section, or share it on this week’s Facebook post. If you post about your word on your blog, please slip the link into a comment below so I can stop by and join you.

Photo by Sam via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.