I recently typed a post onto a friend’s page on Facebook.  It was a message that was attached to a card I sent  wishing him a happy birthday.  He lives in and is from Brazil, so while the card was in English, the message I typed was in Portuguese.  I am certainly no expert or regular speaker of Portuguese, so I went to a great site online and found the translation for what I wanted to say.  I asked him (within the message, and in Portuguese), if the language was correct.  I also told him that I did not have a keyboard that had on it all the diacritical marks important in the Portuguese language.  He very kindly wrote back his thanks, and also told me that the Portuguese was indeed correct!  Hurrah for me!  I was understood.  It’s a good feeling. I love trying to communicate with people in their own language.  It’s a challenge for me to remember certain words or phrases in a lot of different languages, but generally I can get at least one or two out.  Everyone seems to be able to speak English!  How embarrassing for us as Americans.  We seem to hardly try to reach out to others in their own language, and it is certainly not a requirement for us to be fluent in another, as it is for many citizens of foreign nations to be fluent in English.

I took 6 years of French in High School.  I enjoyed studying the language, and for a while, as long as I kept it up, reading or speaking, I remained fairly proficient.  My Freshman year in College, I took one semester of German.  I did quite poorly, as I did in everything else that semester, having had a hard time adjusting to college those first few months. (I did a lot better the next – and even made the Dean’s List, on which I stayed every semester after that.)  The Summer after my Sophomore year in college, our Concert Choir (at the University of Connecticut) was invited to participate in a Symposium on 20th-century choral music that was to take place in Vienna, Austria over a period of 2 weeks.  We accepted the invitation, and before arriving in Vienna, took a tour, primarily of Eastern Europe.  (My favorite city in all the world is still Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic – back then, in 1971, it was still Czechoslovakia.)  Vienna is an amazing city, and just two weeks there was not enough to take in all it has to offer, but we saw quite a lot.  I of course tried to use my German, and even got better at it as we went along, using it in East and West Berlin and Prague as well.  We closed our trip with about a week in Paris.  Because I had been speaking my own form of German for many days, I suddenly found that I was almost completely unable to speak any French!  I was so frustrated, and spent most of the time there using German, and poor German at that (even though improved, I had not become very good at it!)  Slowly, I began to remember a bit more French each day, and soon felt confident to tour the Louvre on my own, and knowing that I could read and understand a lot more French than I spoke, I was certain I would get along OK.  Prior to leaving home for the trip, my Dad (the consummate European traveler), helped me to map out the museum so that I could see the paintings and sculptures first that I wanted especially to see, and then I could see whatever else I could in the fairly short few hours that I had on my own.  At the end of my all-too-brief visit, I went to purchase some postcards in the gift shop before I left.  The shop had a number of nice ones that included prints of some of my favorite paintings.  As I went up to the counter to pay, I had to stand in line.  I used that waiting time to count out how many I was going to purchase, and to put together a correct French phrase that would inform the cashier that I thought that I had 14 cards to purchase.  I had it down!  I knew exactly what to say, and smugly, when I got to the head of the line, I said, “Il y a quatorze, je pense.” (“There are 14, I think.”).  To which she very wryly replied, “Mademoiselle, en France, nous ne pensons pas, nous croyons.”  (Miss, in France, we do not think, we believe.)  My face went red.  I knew of course the difference between thinking and believing, but had not taken into account that while in English we interchange the words quite frequently, it is not so in French.  The two words are quite separate.  The verb penser, to think, means pondering, cogitating, reflecting – as in “I won’t think about that today, I’ll think about that tomorrow.” The verb croyer means to believe, and means to feel, or have faith, or have a reasonable certainty in or of something, as in “I believe in God the Father, the Almighty,”  or I believe that I’ll go for a walk,” or “I believe that the custom in France is to think (penser) before speaking, and then to believe (croyer) you’ll express it correctly!”  The cashier looked at me with a small smile, and I excused my poor French, paid for my postcards, and left – hopefully wiser, if not chastened.  At least I did not misunderstand her meaning – in French or in English! (Some day I’ll have to relate to you the story of how two guards at the Louvre stopped me and asked if I was alone or not…they thought I was “casing the joint!”)Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary,Larousse Student Dictionary: French-English / English-French (Larousse School Dictionary) (French Edition)

Being misunderstood is, to me, one of the most difficult, if not often impossible, things to overcome. Tone of voice can often mean the difference between being understood as you intend, and not being understood at all.  My mother had a similar problem as I have, and that is not to recognize a certain tone in your own voice (we don’t hear ourselves objectively) that can be taken in at least two different ways.  My mother would drive me crazy with this particular quirk.  Little did I know that I suffered from the same thing.  My husband has pointed it out to me on more than one occasion that many times I sound very harsh when speaking to another when that is not at all how I intended to be heard or understood.  My children have said the same thing to me.  When I am told this, I am usually completely taken aback, because the intention of harshness never entered my mind – usually I am just stating what I believe to be correct, or whatever.  Taking these admonishments into consideration, when I took the job as the adult choir director at one of the churches we served, I made a small speech before we began rehearsal for the first time.  I said, “If I ever say anything to you individually or as a group that sounds to you at all mean-spirited, please understand right now that I guarantee that will never be the case.  I have tried my entire life never to hurt anyone’s feelings, or to insult anyone’s intelligence or beliefs.  If you feel that way after listening to me, please tell me so, in order to give me the opportunity to make myself clear, or to apologize, and often I’m just trying to be funny (and often failing at that too).”  I’m pretty sure that I was understood, because except for one occasion over those 7 years, most of my comments were either taken to heart kindly, dismissed completely, or laughed at totally!  That one occasion hurt me very much, and it was so totally unintentional that I was beside myself trying to “undo” what had been said and done.

The problem with being misunderstood is that, once misunderstood, the person to whom you are speaking will shut you out, and be unwilling to hear anything else you have to say – even if it’s a sincere and heartfelt apology.  Suddenly you are cut off from, and out of, someones mind, heart, and – worst of all – someone’s friendship.  My husband served for more than 40 years as a pastor.  In those years, (34+ years as my husband), this wonderful man, with not a mean or judgmental cell in his body, has had to experience several misunderstandings, some of which have cost him dearly. The people to whom he most wanted to minister simply would no longer listen.  He has found, as I have, that this particular situation is very, very difficult to overcome.  If it is overcome, it happens because you patiently and prayerfully bide your time, and seek opportunities in which to interact with that person or group and hope you are given a second chance to make yourself understood.  Sometimes it happens,and alas, sometimes it does not. 

So, the next time you read something I have written or, when with me in person, you hear, overhear, or listen to something I have said that causes you to perhaps change your impression of my sincerity, or question my motives or intentions – before you take offense or allow yourself to feel hurt, please write or speak to me! I guarantee that there will be an explanation, apology, or a change of tone in my voice.  This is important to take into account when interacting with anyone, especially children.  Listen carefully to yourself, and allow yourself time to listen to all the other has to say before making any judgments about his or her intentions.  It can mean the difference between friendship or enmity with another. I want to be understood, and to always, always, as St. Paul said, “speak the truth in love.”

Gentle Reader,
I wish you enough