The Words We Use

Words are used as though they are the most simple thing ever. We assume that the things that we say mean the same things for everybody. But words are far more complex than that. Two people can grow up in the same city, go to the same school, take the same courses in University, and belong to the same religion but they will interpret the same words differently. This week has been filled with examples of this for me. Today I was discussing “faith” with a group of people in an interfaith environment. We are all apart of the same group, we were discussing the same book, but we didn’t all agree on what “faith” means or its value as a word. As an atheist, “faith” has a vastly different meaning for me then it did for those that I was with. This has lead me to question what the phrase “I have faith” actually means to the person who says it. What are they trying to convey? What message do they want to send me? How does that differ from the message that I receive?

Earlier this week I was dealing with even more problematic words. On Tuesday I was discussing “sex” and “gender”. What do we mean when we say “I am a woman” as opposed to “I am female,” or “I am male” as opposed to “I am a man”? What message are we trying to convey? How do those phrases have different meanings. For me, they are vastly different. When I am discussing my sex, I simply mean the label that I was given by the doctor when I was born. There is no deeper meaning and it holds no significance. When I am discussing my gender I am discussing how I feel about myself. How I label myself, and how I want others to label me. But many people use sex and gender interchangeably.

So what problems are caused as a result of different people interpreting the same word differently? What does this say about how we communicate? What should we do to eliminate miscommunication? All these questions keep rushing through my mind and I am curious to know how others feel about these issues.

7 responses to “The Words We Use

  • johnspenn

    One way to enhance communication is to ask questions of the person you are talking to, especially if you know they fundamentally disagree with your worldview. “What do you mean when you say ____?”

    For instance, don’t assume that because someone identifies as an atheist, they believe that “there are no gods.” Some atheists simply lack a belief in any god. The difference is subtle but distinct.

    Also, don’t force your definitions on others. Let them define what they mean themselves, for instance let the Christian define what she means by “faith.” Then construct your dialogue with them based on their definition and don’t force yours on them.



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  • sarahmjohn

    I can remember having this exact conversation dozens of times, but most revolved around “love”.


  • R. L. Culpeper

    There is nothing we really can do beyond elaborating further. That is, if you use the word ‘faith,” ask if everyone is in agreement with the definition that you associate with it. If they are not, explain why you think your definition warrants merit over others, and if you still cannot come to an agreement, move forward with the central point of your discussion. Using different definitions does not preclude another person’s ability to understand what you’re trying to communicate. Words are not subject to rigid definitions; they evolve; they are used according to context. There is no way around this.


    • hessianwithteeth

      I completely agree. However, I find that a lot of people use these words as if they are completely static. I recently had a conversation about what “faith” means to different people because we were discussing what faith means in each of our lives. One person said that everybody has faith. My partner and I both disagreed. We discovered that everybody at the table had a different definition of “faith.” It proved to me that, while we shouldn’t get caught up in semantics, we do need to step back and realize that not everybody interprets what we say the way that we intend them to.


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