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What do you mean?

“What do you mean?”

I ask this question often, in therapy and elsewhere. And, I encourage you to ask it too. Why? Because we routinely assume that we understand (know) what we, and others are saying – people we know well and people we don’t – and equally often, we don’t understand at all.

We know only a little bit about the topic, or person we are engaging with, and assume that what we think or know is sufficient to understand what they are saying, or where they are coming from. We miss all of the nuance and detail that a person attaches to what they say – we miss who they are.

How many times have you been in the midst of a conversation with a loved one, or a colleague, or friend, in which one or many of you said, with great intensity and frustration,”That’s not what I mean!!”, exasperated that this person, who supposedly knows you, doesn’t know what you mean, OR, because you couldn’t have been more clear with your words, and you are sure therefore, that there is something wrong with your romantic or professional or social conversation partner, since they clearly do not understand you?

How does that happen? In our culture, we are taught to believe that everyone is different, but really, the same, which, in practice, tends to mean, like “us”. Rarely do we think it means we are like others. In fact, or in practice, we do not consider, or even see that there are “others” – people who think, and live and understand differently than we do. We think (assume) we are all speaking the same language.

We translate the language we hear, referring to our own meaning and understandings, experiences and assumptions, and take those translations to be the truth about what we, and others mean; about what is.

This essentially chauvinistic perspective and practice is so entrenched in our way of speaking and listening, that many of us think everything we are saying is fairly straightforward – while all along, we are making host of assumptions about ourselves and others, that make for failed, and often very painful interactions.

What if everything is not translatable?

We interpret, or translate as a matter of course when we listen and talk. If we do not do that, how, then you may ask, could we understand each other? Here is a way to look at it:

One area in which we take translation as a given, is in speaking or hearing languages that are “officially” foreign to us. We learn and understand them by translating them into our own. Having a closer look at some languages or some words in languages other than our native language, might help us to learn that there are in fact, many ways the see and live life – and speak and understand – and that others have created them!

It turns out, that there are words –  in many languages  – that are not so easily translatable. Maptia has beautifully illustrated 11 words from languages and cultures around the world, that are untranslatable in the English language. That’s right, they have no direct translation in English. 

1. Waldeinsamkeit: This German word describes a feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature.
1 waldeinsamkeit
2. Culaccino: Simply the mark left by a cold glass, in Italian.

2 culaccino

3. Iktsuarpok: This Inuit word describes the feeling of anticipation that leads you to go outside and check if anyone is coming. Could it also imply impatience?
3 iktsuarpok

4. Komorebi: This Japanese word describes the visual interplay between the sunlight and the trees. Beautiful.
4 komorebi

5. Pochemuchka: In Russian, this word describes someone who asks a lot of questions. Are you a Pochemuchka yet?
5 pochemuchka

6. Sobremesa: This Spanish word is for that lovely time post-meal when you and the friends or foes you shared the meal with have food-induced conversations.
6 sobremesa

7. Jayus: This is Indonesian for the person who tells such a horribly unfunny joke that you just have to laugh.
7 Jayus

8. Pana Poʻo: This word is Hawaiian. Let’s say you walk into the kitchen to grab something and then immediately forget what you were looking for in the first place. Then, you scratch your head as if that will help you remember. Scratching your head in this instance is called Pana Poʻo.

8 panapoo

9. Dépaysement: The French use this word to describe the experience of being a foreigner, an immigrant, or feeling displaced. It is a feeling particular to not being in one’s own country.
9 depaysement

10. Goya: In Urdu this word “conveys a contemplative ‘as-if’, that nonetheless feels like reality, and describes the suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling.”

10 goya

11. Mångata: When the moon casts down a glittering road-like reflection on water, the Swedish use this word to describe it.

11 mangata

What a beautiful illustration of the variety of words, concepts and understandings are not translatable.

At The Possibility Practice, we teach you to take a look at how you see; to unravel the web of assumptions you have – about yourself, about others, about your problems, and about the world – that prevents you from living life in creative and gratifying ways. The question – What do you mean?- is an important tool in that practice.

If you want to see if you can create a new, assumption and translation-free conversation – with people you “know” and people you don’t – here is an exercise, or practice to try: Ask the question: “What do you mean?” each and every time you think you understand what the person is saying, no matter how small or obvious you think it is. Listen to what the person says – was it what you thought? Did it match your assumption? Did it change the character of your conversation? Did you learn anything about the person, and about how you talk and listen? We’d love to know.

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Karen Steinberg