I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately. Language is described in the dictionary as a system of communication used by a particular country or community. Usually it is easy to distinguish between particular languages because they are so different that you have no clue what a person is saying when they speak their native tongue; unless you have mastered their language.
When I was a kid, I used to watch professional wrestling on the Spanish speaking channel even though I did not speak Spanish. I loved the rhythm and the passion that comes through when this language is spoken. But I had no idea what they were saying unless I could somehow match up the actions of the wrestlers with their names. The commercials were somewhat helpful because you would hear familiar English names paired with words such as “Campbell’s Sopa” or “Budweizer Cerveza.” Now you know how to say soup and beer in Spanish!
But what do you do when you are speaking the same language because you live in the same neck of the woods, but you can’t seem understand words or phrases that you are familiar with because they have different meanings to the speaker. The fact is that language changes over time, and this is happening at an accelerated rate in American culture. Things are moving and evolving at warp speed, and it is no longer a generational gap but a cross-cultural issue.
Now sometimes this leads to some funny or awkward moments of misunderstanding. Consider this example (completely contrived by this author) to demonstrate how different things can be heard and how funny the misunderstanding can be…
A fifteen year old asked his great grandfather (age 95) to tell him about how he met his great grandmother. The elder, who had been a plumber all his life, sets out describing the night they met…
“It looked like the weather that night was going to be bad, so I threw my rubbers in the truck. But before I could have a gay time at the party, I had a hook-up at the house of the widow down the street. When I arrived, I saw two pretty young girls standing in the corner wearing thongs because the rain soaked their shoes and pants. One of those girls was your great-grandmother; I knew she was the girl for me!”
What the great grandson thinks he heard:
“It looked like the weather that night was going to be good, so I threw my condoms in the truck. But before I could have a same sex encounter at the party, I had to have sex at the house of the widow down the street. When I arrived, I saw two pretty young girls standing in the corner wearing sexy underwear because the rain soaked their shoes and pants. One of those girls was your great-grandmother; I knew she was the girl for me!”
Now this example is very tongue and cheek (I hope you know what that means), but it shows how the word bad can mean good, hook-ups have nothing to do with cable or plumbing, gay no longer means happy, and flip-flops were once called thongs.
Unfortunately, our present culture provides opportunities for some not so comical misunderstandings. Sensitivities are really high right now and it seems to have become very easy to have your words blow-up in your face. It is almost like we need an interpreter to keep us from stepping on what I call Language Landmines.
Here’s a real example of a Language Landmine:
Not long ago, I failed at being an interpreter. I was speaking with a middle aged woman who was very upset because somebody, another white woman, told her that she suffered from “white privilege.” Therefore, she was participating in racism simply because she was white. This wounded woman had been poor and struggled pretty much her entire life, and her understanding of the word “privilege” pertained to people who were wealthy. She was also taught to respect everyone regardless of the color of their skin, ethnic background, or religion. Yet, no matter how hard I tried to explain what the term “white privilege” meant, I could not break through. Why? Because her programming as a child and young woman taught her different definitions for privilege and racism. I think the other woman had a wonderful opportunity for a teaching moment, and blew it; now there is a person more sensitive and angry at the culture and less apt to see that there are systems in our culture that do hinder people of color. This is but one example of many I have dealt with.
I think we all need to take a breath. I think we need to teach cross-culturally rather than lecturing or name calling or insulting or screaming. I think we need to stop, listen, and process before we speak to help people understand how to navigate this world that our Lord calls us to live and love in.
We actually get good advice from the Lord’s brother, James
Know this, my beloved… let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…James 1:19 esv
P.S. Don’t get me started on texting shorthand or emojis. And to my kids who had a good laugh at my expense, sometimes and eggplant is simply an eggplant!!!!
Just ask Sigmund F!