Learning Experience: Define Your Terms

RT, SL, and I returned from our whirlwind trip to Michigan yesterday. We followed up our arrival with brunch with my father (primarily arranged so that they could retrieve their pup from him).

Brunch saw SL and my father argue (in a friendly way) about global warming for the better part the meal.

Why were they arguing? Not because their views were terribly different, but because when SL said “global warming” she meant it as a generic term of an environmental occurrence as defined by research in the field, and when my father said it, he meant “Global Warming™” with all of the implications of fear-inducing propaganda and Al Gore’s growing pocketbook.

The result? They weren’t having a discussion about global warming. They were having two [very different] discussions about global warming.

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So, what have we learned?

Define your terms, people!

It is folly to assume that just because you’re using the same word(s) as someone else that you both mean the same thing.

Language is a fluid, changeable, cultural, interpretive adventure.

Words change meaning based on placement, context, pronunciation, and the person who uses them.

And defining your terms isn’t just important when discussing academic topics, it’s just as important when communicating with, well, everyone.

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Have you ever had an argument with a significant other or a friend that stemmed out of a simple miscommunication? Say, over conflicting definitions of personal or relationship boundaries?

Let’s take a look at a problematic term that comes up often in romantic relationships: cheating.

In most relationships (even open relationships), “cheating” is unacceptable, often to the point of being grounds for instant termination of relationship.

But, what is cheating, exactly?

Is it sex? Kissing? Flirting? Falling in love?

… maybe all actions that could be considered romantic or sexual in nature are completely off-limits.

… maybe flirting is cool, kissing is ok, but everyone better keep their pants on.

… maybe everything, including sex, is ok, as long as it’s disclosed and agreed upon beforehand.

Well, it could be any of these things, or none of them, or some other variation (and that’s what makes the term problematic – people tend to agree that it’s bad, but they don’t agree on what it actually is).

Here’s the thing: in your head, you probably have a pretty solid definition of what cheating means to you (and this applies to definitions of all kinds of things, not cheating exclusively) – and whatever that definition is, it’s the right definition for you. But does your definition match your partner’s?

More importantly, have you and your partner discussed your [potentially very different] perspectives of what actually defines this term in your respective heads?

If you haven’t, well, there’s no time like the present.

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Transparency is important in relationships. All relationships (friends, family, lovers, colleagues). I’m not saying you should share your deepest darkest secrets with everyone you know, but transparency builds trust, and trust builds stronger connections.

So, if you’re having a conversation, especially if it involves a high-risk topic, put forth a little extra effort to make sure that everyone is on the same page and talking about the same thing. It goes a long way.