Reading an article or book or blog post and being able to understand what you read is a pretty basic skill. You read with your eyes, your brain interprets the meaning, and in an instant you understand. It’s truly amazing.
However, more and more I realize that there is a lot to be desired from the ability of the general populace to understand what is actually being said, as opposed to what isn’t. This inability to understand surfaces in general conversation, as well as when reading.
Here’s an example of what I mean: I love Italy. I love to travel in general. I have a deep desire to live abroad for at least a few years, if not permanently. Often, when I speak about my love of Italy or my desire to see places outside the United States, the person with whom I am conversing will say, “Why do you hate America?”
It always shocks me to hear someone interpret my declaration of love for one thing as a declaration of hate of another. It’s similar to if I said, “Man, I just love pizza! I could eat pizza every day!” just to have someone respond with, “Why do you hate falafel?” (By the way, why anyone could hate falafel is beyond me. In reality, falafel is probably the food I could eat every day.)
At any rate, the logic just doesn’t follow yet I see this fairly frequently, especially with what people read. There seems to be an epidemic of readers who attempt to “read between the lines” when they should really just be reading the lines. There is a time and place for interpretation… like in an interpretive literature class or maybe when deciphering the muddled comments of politicians. And there is a lot to be said for symbolism and poetic devices that leave room for interpretation. But when you read an informative article or blog post, or are part of a simple conversation, reading in between the lines might be a bad idea because there might not be anything in between the lines to read. If you are intent on “reading in between the lines” no matter what you might open yourself to the possibility of “defensive reading,” where you read in order to be defensive instead of to enjoy or learn or assess.
Maybe sometimes there is something in between the lines. But if you focus your all your conversational and reader energy on that, you’re going to miss what’s right in front of you. I’m sure I’m not alone as a writer who has faced the reaction to something I’ve written and thought, “You’ve completely missed the point.” But if you are concerned about what is in between the lines, ask questions. Authors love questions!
I see this habit surface especially frequently in conversations dealing with hot topics, such as feminism. One day a few months ago, I expressed on Facebook my frustration at not being able to find pictures of female superheroes for Halloween costume inspiration that were not pornographic or objectifying. Almost immediately multiple people began to comment about how it’s unfair that I expect male superheroes (and by extension human males) to be outrageously muscular and tall. I was flabbergasted.
First, my Facebook status was about female superheroes. While that particular thought might have excluded male superheroes, it does not mean my entire life excludes male superheroes. So why the outrage that I am supposedly ignoring male superheroes, instead of dealing with the presented topic? Can we just focus on the lady superheroes for once? (Wonder Woman, I’m waiting for your movie.)
Second, expressing frustration about one topic does not mean I am ignoring another. As a female feminist, I will likely spend a lot of my time thinking, reading, and writing about women’s issues. However, that does not make me blind to the issues men face. Neither does it mean I ascribe to a belief that all men need to look like a Superman/Incredible Hulk hybrid in order to be attractive.
In short, not everything is black and white. If a girl says she doesn’t like Victoria’s Secret because the advertisements objectify women, that does not mean she thinks all women should wear burqas (actual response that has multiple levels of inappropriateness–assuming all women who wear burqas are powerless or subservient is insulting to Muslim women, in addition to there being many options in between female objectification and religious attire). If a woman is a feminist, it does not mean she hates men. If a person loves French baked goods, it doesn’t mean she hates ice cream. See what I mean?
So how do we solve this problem? It’s good to ask questions when reading anything. But don’t let your questions morph into a non sequiturs that parade as the point of what you just read or heard. These kinds of reactions detract completely from the point of the discussion.
Another good habit is, don’t assume the worst. When these situations arise, it is often the result of the reader/listener assuming the worst about the situation, comment, article, person, etc. Someone who doesn’t assume the worst will see a frustration about the lack of female superheroes depicted as actual people instead of sex objects and might rally behind the dilemma, instead of assuming that because I see this one problem, I must have a secret desire to insult all men. See?
Once upon a time, I heard this quote by Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (haven’t read the book), “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” I have been guilty of this, so I’m not pointing fingers. But how true it is! Especially as one with a quiet voice, it’s a miracle if I finish half a sentence before people busy themselves with replying instead of understanding.
Buddy Holly, that adorable, thick-framed glasses-wearing rock ‘n’ roller who stole my heart sings a song called, “Listen to Me.” One refrain pleads, “Listen to me, hear what I say. Our hearts will be nearer each day. Hold me darling, listen closely to me.” Mmm-mmm. I can hear him singing it now. The line I want to zero in on is, “Our hearts will be nearer each day.” When we listen, when we read carefully and intentionally, our hearts really do grow nearer. Even if we completely dislike or disagree with what we are reading, understanding is the first step to taking action.
After all, can you really do anything about something you don’t understand? In my–albeit relatively short–lifetime, the people whose advice and opinions I value most, even if they aren’t the same as mine, are the people who would rather listen than presume. These are people who, when faced with something that is completely at odds with their current philosophy, will still learn, ask good questions, and ponder, instead of jumping on the train to Argumentative Non Sequitur Land.
We live in a world of instant gratification, a myriad opinions, and an intense clamor to be heard through the mire of Internet and social media, so it isn’t a wonder the temptation to speak instead of listen is so strong. But as the great Einstein once said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”