How to Avoid Miscommunication
On the need to consider the impact our words have on others
Unless they tell you, you can never know what another human is going through.
When I returned to Europe six years after I last saw my parents, my father was apoplectic with rage for the best part of my first three-month stay.
A mild-mannered, happy, and funny soul by nature, he yelled at me frequently and reduced me to a tearful, hypertensive mess on more than one occasion.
I came back to the continent that grew me at the end of 2018 to help him navigate the harrowing reality of his beloved wife’s Stage IV cancer. At 72, he’s her sole carer and the person who oversees and coordinates her medical schedule, which is impossibly complex and ever-changing.
For context, my father and stepmom are true love made manifest, two perfectly suited humans who have been together since the mid 90s. When they met, they were both divorcees with kids and an atrocious — and that’s a euphemism on both sides — first marriage behind them.
My stepbrother and I were grown by then and we all hit it off immediately, becoming family in a heartbeat. My stepmom is the mother I always wished for, she reads me like a book; by the time I work up the courage to open up to her about something, she already knows.
Shelving my American life and coming back to support my parents was a no-brainer.
My stepmom was relieved but I wasn’t prepared for my father’s reaction.
He was angry.
When life fells the love of your life with a death sentence, anger is actually a healthy reaction.
Anger is what prevented Dad from collapsing. Anger held him together during the grueling first round of chemo, anger is what kept him going, anger was his fuel.
He also felt I had abandoned him when I immigrated to the US in 2013 and then failed to come back to visit.
It wasn’t personal; I couldn’t afford to.
Worse, I didn’t reach out to him for help during the five years I was completely incapacitated by major depressive disorder. Instead, I kept him at arm’s length to shield him from it. My parents both started working at 14, they’ve earned their carefree retirement and I wasn’t about to spoil it for them.
To him, my protracted silence was a form of betrayal instead of an act of love.
So he let me have it, day after day for weeks on end and I took it with nary a whimper because there was no malice in it. Also, to have him embrace self-expression was progress.
Better out than in, I reasoned.
Toward the end of my stay, everything changed the moment I told my parents I’d be coming back and staying in the EU until further notice.
My stepmom’s face lit up with relief, my father went silent.
We’ve been getting on great since they realized I wouldn’t abandon them. As a result, I’ve been living out of a suitcase in transit between the US and several EU countries for the last nine months.
My stay is open-ended and I’ll be based in the Netherlands.
In the age of instant communication, tone often prevails and voice gets drowned out.
We’re so quick to judge and so quick to react we seldom ask ourselves why someone might be acting out.
Had I focused solely on my father’s tone, I would never have lasted three months in Paris, much less come back. But his tone was that of a man whose heart is breaking as death continues to try and claim the love of his life, a man who feels helpless and vulnerable.
Behind the harsh words, I saw a fellow human in the throes of extreme distress.
It took me no time to figure this out because no matter how loud my father yelled, he remained as devoted to me as he is to his wife. The cliché is true, actions do speak louder than words.
For example, he made sure I never wanted for anything even though I’m the token vegan in a proudly omnivorous household. So Dad became an instant tofu expert and even signed up for a loyalty card at the local hippie coop, marveling at all the things that could be made out of plants.
What had always been a fusional relationship got stronger; no matter how mad we might be, we’re here for each other, no question asked.
In my family, not talking about our problems is a form of humility.
We’re stubborn people who only ask for help when we can no longer go it alone, by which time a bad situation has often gotten worse.
Susceptibility is the enemy of effective communication.
What if instead of reacting immediately and giving as good as we get, we stopped and tried to figure out why someone’s words are offensive to us?
Be it online or offline, context is everything and the willingness to go toward the other is key.
While we’re all the center of our own world, solipsism is a major societal problem, especially in the US where greed and individualism rule.
No matter how it is presented, feedback is an affront to many folks who are unable to hear it. Whether it’s humorous, satirical, or factual and blunt, it gets blown out of proportion and shuts the conversation down before it has even started.
Instead, vituperative tirades multiply as people take sides and form cliques without even pausing to take a breath or analyze the situation. This is a grave mistake and one we can all address by suspending judgment until we have all the facts.
And if we don’t have them, we can always make the effort to ask questions. This is how mediation works but to initiate it, you have to set your ego aside for a moment in the name of communication.
Gentleness is always an option but one we don’t choose often enough.
If we did, we’d realize the people around us are almost all fighting private battles, much like we are; empathy is a unifying force.
Unless we ask them, we can never know what another human is going through.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.