I had a co-worker at a recent job. Let’s call her June. June and I started out with a fine working relationship. She listened attentively when we talked about our kids, our former jobs, and other co-worker banter. It was almost like she was studying me.
As the months wore on, our conversations ran deeper. June was very curious about me. I started to realize that she had never come across someone like me in her years of working with others. I am direct. I use an economy of language when I talk. I say what I mean and not much else needs to be said. There is no dance; there is no vapid banality. This kind of human interaction really threw June off her game.
June was very concerned about her place in the world and if she was being “normal.” She would often relay stories to me that she had seen on the news to gauge my opinion: did I think that story was weird? Was it normal? Was she normal for thinking that story was weird, or was she weird because I thought the story was normal. It was exhausting.
She also loved to be offended. Like, she couldn’t wait to be offended, and would often require others as back up.
“Can you believe he said that?”
It’s perfect for The Real Housewives of Atlanta or any other large metropolitan region. There was no bigger thrill in June’s life than to come to work and talk about what NeNe said to Mercedes:
“Can you believe she said that?”
Anyway, one day I’m at my desk and June comes up to me. “We need to talk,” she said. “Something you said yesterday really hurt my feelings.” We went for a walk. It turns out, I had been rather dismissive of her at some point during the previous day. This event clearly held no significance for me, as I could barely remember it then and certainly can’t remember it now. But at the time, it cut to her core.
“I couldn’t go to sleep last night I was thinking so much about it,” she said.
“Why didn’t you bring it up at the time,” I asked, forgetting myself for a moment.
“Because I had to make sure I wasn’t being crazy,” she said. “I asked like five people what they thought and they all agreed with me.”
And here is where we come to the theme of today’s post: perception is more important than intent. See, it doesn’t matter what my intentions were when I said whatever I said. It only matters how she perceived it. Original intent be damned.
When you’re me, and you have struggled with verbal communication your whole life, most times you’re happy to just get your point across without stuttering. It creates a different kind of relationship with language. Language is a necessity that other people take for granted, but one I had to fight everyday to master. It’s why I come across the way I do.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter what I mean; it only matters what you hear. June told her five people of how deeply I had wronged her and of course they all said “OMG of course you’re right what a dick.” (I’m paraphrasing.) And all I can do is sit helplessly on the sideline, watching my words get twisted into formations never intended. Kind of a bummer.