Just Nod if You Can Hear Me

I have always heard it said that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. When the grocery clerk sarcastically tells you to “have a nice day,” you probably understand it to mean just the opposite, and that the person couldn’t care less about you or your day. Conversely, when your fellow employee jokingly tells you to “go to hell,” you probably take the comment in stride and assume that it was intended to be a friendly and perhaps humorous exchange based on mutual camaraderie.

But think about it for a moment. Your responses to these two comments should be reversed. After all, “have a nice day” is a kind, or at least benign sort of statement, whereas “go to hell” is quite mean-spirited and malevolent. Yet your perception of these two exemplary phrases is determined largely by the way in which they were delivered. Your mind, aware of the context and characters involved in each situation, quickly analyzes the speaker’s tone and body language as the words are spoken. The grocery clerk’s sarcasm leads you to the conclusion that he really doesn’t give a flying flip, but when your co-worker is joking and smiling at you, just about anything will be perceived in a positive light.

I present these two examples to make a simple point: you must listen carefully to what you hear. And not just what people are saying to you, but also to the things you hear and read on television, radio, and the Internet. Instead of taking so much for granted and at face-value, spend a few moments to think about the actual words that are being presented to you. What is the literal meaning of the content you are reading? Comedians often spew some of the most vile, wicked things that you will ever hear, but the laid-back nightclub context and the riotous laughter of the crowd alter your perception such that “it’s all good.” If it is, you’re not listening.

I really love what you did — I just can’t say it enough.

To see this from the opposite side of the spectrum, consider your rebellious teenage years, when your parents forbid you to stay out all night and then lecture you for an hour before grounding you to your room. Yes, it sucks at the time, but now that you’re older and (presumably) more mature, you can see the wisdom of your parents’ words and now understand their diatribe to be some of the most pertinent and relevant information you will ever receive. It’s all in perspective, and how you interpret the words you read and hear, moment-by-moment, every day of your life.

Unfortunately, not everyone “gets it.” People tend to assume that they know what they are talking about, and then become arrogant about their thoughts and ideas once they have decided to stop listening to others. In our ignorance, we hear what we want to hear, completely disregarding the literal meaning of words that are communicated to us. This is unfortunate, as there are people who take advantage of human arrogance every second of the day. The life-insurance salesman who targets the elderly; the drug dealer who appeals to at-risk youth; the politician who says anything to get elected — all preying on your ignorance and inability to hear what is actually being said.

Just leave it unfinished — I want a reason to contact you later.

But perception is much more subtle than that. Human perception is powerful stuff, enabling people to turn down eternal salvation while elevating the mundane to rock-star status. The cleverness of marketers, lawyers, and other linguistically savvy individuals never ceases to amaze me. You may be fooling the vast, unwashed masses with your subtle doublespeak, but there are many of us who can hear everything you are saying, and then some. When you hear someone trying to convince you with a thinly veiled insult or some well-spoken back-handed compliment, you not only perceive their pathetic, slithering tongue, but you also gain clear insight into the nature of their very being — deceptive, dishonest and utterly presumptuous. Those of you who aren’t listening to what is actually being said are deceived easily, and completely missing out on the real story.