“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,
Oh Lord, please don’t let me misunderstood”
Nina Simone – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
There are many things that anger my two year old son. Not being allowed another snack. Not being allowed another of episode of Bing. Thinking someone is going to take his toy, blanket or food (which can be any moment you make a movement in his direction). But, more than anything, he gets angry when we don’t understand what he wants. At each incorrect guess, the rage grows to the point where even finally getting the thing he wants won’t calm him down.
Fortunately, as his vocabulary improves apace, he can more often make his desires known. The phrases “that one” and “one more” were particularly handy for him to begin with, and as his sentences grow longer, the easier it becomes. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for him when he was a baby. No wonder they cry constantly. If I had no way of making myself understood I’d be crying all the time too.
My elder daughter, now five, very rarely struggles to make herself understood. This manifests itself in becoming increasingly demanding, an issue that is only likely to become worse as she gets older. The more articulate she gets, the better she will be able to make herself understood, but she may well not feel understood. Her teenage years, if they’re anything like mine, will be the peak years for feeling misunderstood, especially by her parents. Because, how could ones parents possibly understand, they surely were never teenagers? Indeed, how could anyone understand the unique suffering that is a teenager’s life.
And, to be honest, even as an adult, nothing frustrates me more than being misunderstood. And because I have a tendency to mumble, it happens quite a lot. It was at its worst when I lived in Brighton, and bar staff and waiters always seemed to get my order wrong. A combination of the noisy environment, my northern accent and my poor diction meant that I would ask for, say, two pints of ale, and they’d come back with a large white wine and a jagerbomb. I’m sure my wife also loves it when I murmur something at her, then get annoyed because she didn’t understand what I said.
I most often get frustrated at being misunderstood when speaking to call centres. I know perfectly well that the person on the other end of the phone is just following procedures, and that arguing will be no use. Against my better judgement though, there’s a part of my that, if I can only explain my point well enough, they might understand, agree or even give me what I want. They rarely understand, and if they do they certainly don’t care. Having been on the other end of that phone, I should really know better than to be a difficult customer.
These minor misunderstandings come and go, but at times our whole lives seems like a quest to find someone who understands us. When relationships end “they just don’t understand me” is an often heard refrain. There was a whole sitcom, back in the 90s, called Joking Apart, based around a stand-up comedian whose marriage was falling apart, and in each episode his stand-up set started with “my wife doesn’t understand me”. My own wife understands me only too well, so I guess a career in stand-up is out of the question.
The times I get annoyed at not being understood, I hope at least I recognise that I have been a bit silly to get so worked up. Being misunderstood in these small moments isn’t actually a big deal. It seems though, that this perspective is not widely shared, especially online. Social media seems to be full of people willfully misunderstanding others, or at least pretending to to make a point. People often seem to assume that if someone disagrees with them, it’s because they didn’t understand the point. If they keep making the same point in different ways the other person will eventually agree with, or at least give up, and somehow this is a victory.
There is little acceptance that another person might simply have a different point of view. And this lack of acceptance, combined with that feeling of not being understood, leads to anger, argument and abuse, the idea that those on the other side of whichever particular divide are stupid, incapable of understanding the truth. I can be as guilty as thinking like this as anyone else, but I try at least to think again before opening my mouth.
At the risk of sounding like the stupid hippy that I secretly am, the attempt to understand those with different points of view, might make for a world that is a little better. At the moment it sometimes feels like we are all angry, crying toddlers, raging into the internet void because we can’t make ourselves understood.