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'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems'


Before speaking, consider the interpretation of your words as well as their

- Andrew Alden

Much of the conflict, discontent and hurt in the world began as a result of
misinterpreted words of others.

Of course Adolf Hitler intended to take over the world when he prepared for war in
the late 1930s. But British Prime Minister Chamberlain believed that he had "peace
in our time" when he returned from Germany in 1938 with an agreement with Hitler
that Germany would not wage war. Chamberlain deceived himself, we now believe.

But Hitler misinterpreted the consoling and compromising words of Chamberlain as

well. He thought the UK would be an easy target, that it would not resist him. He
was very wrong as at one point Britain almost alone stood in opposition to
Hitler's juggernaut.

People tend to misinterpret written words more than spoken ones. Some say it's
because written words do not come with facial expression and body language as
spoken words do. I disagree to a point.

In conversation we tend to lay out our thoughts in a fairly orderly fashion. If

necessary we repeat them so that our listeners will fix our ideas in their minds.
With the written word, the reader is alone. Too alone sometimes to grasp the
intent of the writer even if the writer has expressed himself or herself well.

Each word has a meaning, usually more than one. Its position in a sentence
determines which of its multiple meanings is intended so that a reader can
understand a whole sentence. A paragraph combines several concepts or thoughts
into a flow.

Often written language is more elevated than spoken language. That is, an adult
speaking to another might be understood easily by an eight-year-old but the same
adult might use words that are above the reading level of the child when writing a
message. This often happens without thinking about it as almost everyone has
written essays or papers for high school, college or university.

In addition to complexities of language and sequence of thought, we have a series

of paragraphs in a written work that may lead to conclusions that must stand
independently of each paragraph. Misinterpretation begins the first time a reader
loses track of the overall intent or purpose of the written work and becomes fixed
on one idea expressed in it.

An example of this happened not long ago in Turkey when the Pope quoted a passage
in a document a church official had written over 600 years ago to show how the
Church of Rome at that time hated Muslims. While the entire context of the Pope's
message was about reconciliation between the world's two largest religious belief
sets, some Muslims took the 600 year old quote out of context and repeated it to
others as if today's Pope had written them himself.

There is little doubt that militant Muslims spread the word quickly about how the
Roman Catholic Pope had expressed his hatred of Muslims. But the original
misinterpretation likely happened innocently enough, by someone who latched onto
one thought (a 600 year old one) and neglected the whole concept of what the Pope
was trying to say.

Some people, especially those who are functionally illiterate, may have trouble
grasping the full meaning of written words. Statistics Canada, the agency that
compiles statistics for the Canadian government, in 2002 published a document that
said that two-thirds of retired Canadians were functionally illiterate and about
45 percent of pre-retirement Canadian adults were as well. Those Canadian
statistics likely can be used for other G7 countries as well.

We have people who can't read so well, even though they believe they can. They may
read the newspaper, but never a book. They read the weather report on the Weather
Channel, but they never read online news articles on web sites. If they read
online news reports, they may not grasp the significance of how that item fits
with others on the same topic so recent history has a fuller meaning for htem.

For these people (the Canadian report said that 94 percent of Canadian adults read
fewer than three books in a year, many none at all), the spoken word is best. It
allows for repeats, facial expression, body language and evaluation by the speaker
about whether or not the listener has heard and understood.

Most of the comments made by readers following one of these articles shows that
they have understood what I have intended for them. Some just don't get it. They
believe they are good readers because they have "read" all the words to the end of
the article. When they latch onto one thing mentioned in an article and dwell on
it to the exclusion of the main point of the article or the context in which it
was placed, they are usually functionally illiterate.

It would serve us all well to understand that some people will misinterpret what
we have written, so we should be prepared to back up what we write with spoken
communication. It may be a choice of either explain better or fight.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' a book
about how ordinary people can make a difference in the world to make it a more
peaceful and safe place to live. That plan is there and it's cheap to implement.
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