I pay attention to words more than ever. Not because I know them well. On the contrary. But because little words trip us up in big ways.
Take the word “fence” for example. I once used this word in a story, only to confuse a fellow writer. She, having grown up in New York City, didn’t understand my fence. From the perspective of my rural upbringing, I had assumed my readers would visualize barbed wire corralling livestock. I was quickly reminded of the many facets of fences: white picket, wrought iron, wood, and chain link to name just a few.
The word “respect” is another example, and one that gets thrown around a lot. We all want it. We award it sparingly. But how do we define respect? It wasn’t until midlife that I realized the ambiguity of this word, a word that supposedly anchors marriage vows and corporate values.
And how about the word “problem?” In mathematics, formulaic solutions solve problems. They’re expected and meant to be answered. They’re not necessarily viewed as negative like with life’s subjective, angst-ridden tribulations, as in “Houston, we have a problem.” In one arena, problems are welcomed. In another, we prefer they go away,
Multiple factors, such as experiences, education, gender, ethnicity, culture, and age, play into our preconceived ideas about words and ultimately how well we communicate. Sometimes better communication simply begins with better words.