Coming to terms

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 18: Coming to terms

Define your Terms

Mary and Kathi’s Example: A Few Sandwiches

Mary: “I’m hungry. What is there to eat?”

Kathi: “There were a few sandwiches left over from dinner last night. I put them in the fridge.”

Mary: “I can’t find them. I only ate three this afternoon. Where are the rest?”

Kathi: “Oh, I think that’s about all there were, three or so.”

Mary: “I thought you said there were a few!”

Kathi: “Yeah, you know, a few, three or so.”

Mary: “What?! Everyone knows ‘a few’ means at least five or six. Now what am I supposed to eat?”

People have different definitions of words. In fact, everyone speaks their own unique dialect of their language. Linguists call this idiosyncratic dialect an idiolect and everyone’s is different. What this boils down to is that everyone is speaking a different language, all the time. We don’t usually notice we’re speaking different languages. The differences are so subtle that we think we have communicated successfully. However, if two people have different definitions for a word in their two separate idiolects, they may misunderstand each other without even realizing that a misunderstanding has occurred.

Mary and Kathi’s story illustrates a simple case of two people having different definitions for the same phrase. They quickly notice the difference. They each made the usual error in assuming that the other person’s definition was the same as theirs. Now what do they do about it?

As we’ve learned, it might be best to delay talking about it until they’ve eaten. After that, it’s time for Mary and Kathi to come to terms. There are three ways that they can come to terms:

  1. Mary can choose to adopt Kathi’s definition.
  2. Kathi can choose to adopt Mary’s definition.
  3. Each person can choose to acknowledge the other person’s definition and attempt to keep it in mind during future conversations.

Which of these three options is best? If your definition is entirely idiosyncratic, and it seems like everyone else you communicate with uses the other definition, then you may wish to come to terms by adopting the more widely used definition. Doing this will help others understand you better. Consulting a dictionary can be helpful, but is not always representative of how a term is actually used. It’s a good source for the literal definition of a word, but it doesn’t convey the feel or tone of a word very well. Furthermore, the people with whom you frequently communicate may use the word differently than the dictionary definition. Choose your words based on what you feel will help you communicate most effectively. The dictionary is your tool, not your boss.

The dictionary does not contain the one right way to use a word. There is no one right way to use a word. Languages evolve and specialize, regardless of what is written in dictionaries. If one person’s definition happens to match the dictionary definition, that does not make that person right and the other person wrong. In the above example, Mary said, “Everyone knows ‘a few’ means at least five or six.” The phrase “everyone knows” is an attacking phrase, implying that not only are Mary and Kathi on opposite teams, but that “everyone” else is on Mary’s team. She was attempting to make herself feel right and Kathi feel wrong and outnumbered. Mary could have phrased that more positively and cooperatively by saying, “Hmm, I define ‘a few’ to mean at least five or six. I guess you and I have different definitions of ‘a few’. Let’s talk about that after we’ve eaten, okay?”

Here are some terms that many people define in vastly differing ways. We’ve found that it’s well worth the time spent having conversations about our different definitions of these, before they cause problems.

  • love
  • sex
  • friend
  • boyfriend / girlfriend
  • date / dating
  • relationship
  • degree words, like “very”, “quite”, “a little”, “a lot”, especially when pertaining to feelings
  • sure
  • okay
  • time degree words, like “soon” and “ASAP”
  • high priority
  • support
  • assume
  • God and other religious terms

Kyeli’s Story: Define Your Date

The issue of differing definitions came up for us most dramatically around the word “date.”

Pace was romantically interested in a friend of ours, and this friend was also romantically interested in Pace. The two of them wanted to go to dinner alone every couple of weeks or so. This sparked many conversations between Pace and me. I had strong emotional reactions to Pace’s desire to go out with this friend, because she and I had agreed that we would not date other people and I felt Pace was violating that agreement. I insisted that it felt like Pace and our friend were “dating.” Pace insisted that the romantic interest was irrelevant, she did not intend to act on it, and that they were “just two friends occasionally going out to dinner.”

I pointed out that they were “just two friends” with mutual romantic interest, going out to dinner alone, and that if I wanted to go along, I would not be welcome. Pace agreed that this was true and I argued that that made it a date.

I continued to insist they were dating, Pace continued to insist they were not. We butted heads until we realized that at the foundation of all of these problems lay a difference in our definitions of the word “date.” According to my definition, Pace was dating her friend, but according to her definition, she wasn’t.

All this conflict had been due to a misunderstanding of what the word “date” meant to each of us.

Once we understood that we were defining “date” differently, we were able to stop arguing about definitions and start working together to resolve the underlying issues about the boundaries of our relationship. We reworked our agreement to be more precise about what “date” meant, and in the process we came a little closer to speaking each other’s language and a lot closer to understanding each other better.

Degree terms (as listed above) can be especially tricky. Our brains sometimes take liberties with degree words and interpret them as larger or smaller than they were actually intended. For example, let’s say that Pace feels insecure about her cooking. Pace asks what Kyeli thought of dinner and she replies, “It was yummy, it was just a little overdone.” What Pace hears is “It was overdone,” completely missing the “just a little.” As a result, her insecurity reinforces itself and she gets upset.

It’s possible to come to terms with degree words like any other words, but we’ve found it useful to treat them specially, because of their tendency to be misconstrued. We use a scale from -10 to +10, with -10 being incredibly horrible, 0 being neutral, and +10 being incredibly wonderful. Simply having a scale doesn’t solve anything, because numbers are still words and can have vastly different meanings to each of us. So we came to terms on several of the numbers, talking about how good or bad different experiences were for us and agreeing on a shared scale. Now we can accurately compare our preferences. We talk about what we want to do, and when we want different things, we ask, “How much do you want that?” “Oh, about a +4. How would you feel if we did this instead?” “Actually, that would be about a -6 for me.” Of course, it doesn’t work unless you’re honest, but that’s true for everything we talk about in this book.

Probability and certainty words are also degree words:

  • necessarily
  • probably
  • possibly
  • maybe
  • absolutely
  • certainly

Watch out for sneaky brain tricks and the tendency to be misconstrued again! We’ve come across many examples: “I’ll probably be there” can be heard as “I’ll be there,” “That isn’t necessarily what I would have done” can be heard as “That isn’t what I would have done,” and so on. We like to use numbers for probability and certainty words too, but we use a percentage scale instead of a -10 to +10 scale, for example, “I’m 80% sure I’ll be able to make it that night,” or “I’m 99% certain that what I told you was correct.”

For those of our readers who are polyamorous1, here are some poly-specific words and phrases that are often defined differently by different people:

  • polyamory
  • primary
  • secondary
  • tertiary
  • polyfidelity
  • long-distance relationship

Assuming that other people’s definitions (or connotations) of words are the same as yours is a common case of the usual error. Many arguments and debates, especially on the internet, end up boiling down to a difference in definitions. We’ve listed some trouble words that have come up in our experience, but we’ve probably made the usual error too; your trouble words may be different. In any case, when you notice a miscommunication, keep in mind that it might be due to a difference in definitions, and see if you can come to terms.


1. Polyamory is the practice of having multiple romantic relationships at the same time, openly and honestly. Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits by Deborah Anapol is a good introduction to polyamory, as is the website www.lovemore.com.

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