Bypassing can be
a bad word

Language usage contributes toward misunderstandings when we assume that a word has only one meaning -- our meaning. We fall victim to this misevaluation because most of us have been brought up in only one language and we think that there is an inherent connection between a word and what it represents. Those who speak several languages know that there are several words to stand for the same object and the relationship between words and things is purely arbitrary. This leads to a further false assumption that meanings are "in" words. But words don't mean anything, people mean. Meanings are in people and their responses, not in words.

Our English teachers must teach this important semantic difference. If you are taught that "words have meaning" you more easily fall victim to projection and misunderstanding -- you wrongly project your meaning into others and assume that they mean what you mean. Wrongly projecting meaning into someone else's words is a common phenomenon, it is the easiest thing in the world to have misunderstandings. Projection and misunderstanding are common occurrences in everyday business.

A woman ordered some writing paper at a department store and asked to have her initials engraved thereon. The salesgirl suggested placing them in the upper right-hand corner or the upper left-hand corner, but the customer said, "No, put them in the center." The stationery arrived, every sheet marked with her initials equidistant from right and left and from top and bottom.

The speaker means one thing, the listener means something else. This is what we mean by the misevaluation of projection or bypassing, where we wrongly project our meaning into someone else's words and assume that they mean what we mean. Bypassing, as the name implies, means that we are bypassing each other.

There are two important unconscious assumptions that underlie projection or bypassing (misunderstandings). There is an unconscious assumption that others use words as we do. We unconsciously assume that other people mean what we mean. The following example illustrates this kind of misunderstanding.

A motorist swears this story is true. He was driving toward New York when his car stalled. The battery was dead. He flagged a woman driver and she agreed to push his ear to get it started. Because his car has an automatic transmission the driver explained,"You'll have to get up to 30 to 35 miles an hour to get me started."

The woman nodded wisely. The driver climbed into his car and waited -- and waited. Then he turned around to see where the woman was. She was there all right -- coming at him at 30 to 35 miles an hour!

The second unconscious assumption that leads to misunderstandings is the assumption that words have meaning -- that meanings are in words. My professor at Northwestern University, Dr. Irving J. Lee, has described this false assumption as the "container myth," the mythical assumption that words contain meaning. William Shakespeare was conscious of this when he said, "A jest's prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it, never in the tongue of him that makes it."

One of the the best examples that I know, to illustrate that meanings are not in words but in our responses, is the following:

"I don't like Bill," confided a coed to her roommate. "He knows too many naughty songs."
"Does he sing them to you?" asked her friend.
"Well, no -- but he whistles them!"

If we assume that others use words as we do and that meanings are in words, then it is also easy to assume that others mean what we mean -- there is no necessity of asking questions such as "What do you mean?" And people who don't ask questions, whether speakers or listeners, are normally those who have misunderstandings.

Therefore, for effective communication and the lessening of misunderstandings, we must substitute two important conscious assumptions in place of the above two unconscious assumptions that lead toward misunderstandings. We must be conscious of the fact that others do not necessarily mean what we mean, and meanings are in people, not in words. If we are conscious of the above two assumptions, we will adopt a different mode of communication. Our attention will be on the speaker, not his words. We will want to know what the speaker means, not what words mean. We will not be too quick in assuming that others mean what we mean. We will check our assumptions, if necessary, to get on the other person's channel of communication.

Many scholars have long recognized this semantic problem. One of the earliest and greatest semanticists was A. B. Johnson. He said, "Much of what is esteemed as profound philosophy is nothing but a disputatious criticism on the meaning of words." Professor A. Schuster said, "Scientific controversies constantly resolve themselves into differences about the meaning of words." And John Locke observed, "Men content themselves with the same words as other people use, as if the sound necessarily carried the same meaning."

Before you disagree with or misunderstand others, ask them, "What do you mean?" or, "Is this what you wanted to do?" If you are a speaker, invite the listener to get on channel of communication. The burden for effective communication is upon both the speaker and the listener. Each has an important job to do if we are to lessen misunderstandings. (p. 11-13)