We, like, literally don’t understand each other

This has been the daydream title of my future TED talk for some time, written both as a working title, and as a mantra like reminder for me personally (a reminder that I need to fully research and publish on the idea in order to one day qualify to being invited to speak at TED!).

The point of the title is twofold. Firstly, the generally clear and basic idea that we have trouble understanding each other. Secondly, in the deliberately oxymoronic nature of saying something is ‘like literally’, only that now, officially, it’s both oxymoronic and not, since the 2013 dictionary definition addition of literally to include ‘emphasis while not being literally true’.

In these senses, the following Anglo-EU Translation Guide struck a big chord with me recently:

And when trying to find the original source, I found a great 2004 piece from The Economist which is thought to have been the impetus of the guide.

…when a Briton says “I hear what you say”, the foreign listener may understand: “He accepts my point of view.” In fact, the British speaker means: “I disagree and I do not want to discuss it any further.” Similarly the phrase “with the greatest respect” when used by an Englishman is recognisable to a compatriot as an icy put-down, correctly translated by the guide as meaning “I think you are wrong, or a fool.”

The realisation that communication is difficult isn’t exactly new, but I still marvel at times with quite how deep and frequent our misunderstandings go, and not just across languages, but within them, down to quite casual and local levels.

I’m reminded of a recent confusion with a friend when I said, on a Monday afternoon, to meet them on Tuesday. They turned up the very next day, a Tuesday. But when I said Tuesday, on Monday I meant the next Tuesday, as on a Monday, the next day is called tomorrow, not Tuesday… in my mind at least. I digress. Or perhaps not. Maybe you just don’t understand wha tI mean and where my mind is going.