When was the last time that you really thought about the true meaning of what you were saying? If you have ever taken a foreign language, you may have heard from your instructor that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn because of all of the rules and exceptions, in addition to the many situations when there are no rules. Furthermore, depending on where we live in the country or world, two people could say almost the same thing, but mean two different things. I believe that the most critical times that we express ourselves is when we try to communicate our feelings and emotions with others.
There have been many books and lectures provided on how men & women and children & adults communicate differently and misunderstand communication. However, beyond our gender and age differences, there are basic sentences and phrases that we use when discussing feelings and emotions that potentially set up misperceptions that carry through generations of us. In other words, do we really think through the semantics of what we are stating, or do we just speak as we have been spoken to in the past?
Semantics is the field of language that assesses and addresses the accuracy and true meaning of language. Semantics has to do with understanding the difference between statements or questions such as, "Can I go to the bathroom?", and my 4th grade teacher’s sarcastic correction, "I don’t know if you can go to the bathroom or not, but you may go to the bathroom if you feel the need to go."
There are countless situations in our communication with others in which we use inaccurate language to express ourselves to others. In most languages, people use slang and other colloquialisms to simplify communication and/or create a sense of commonness or unity within a group of people. Teenagers, for example, have coined different phrases from generation to generation such as hip, cool, gnarly, bad, dope, da bomb… that separate them from adults and increase their sense of familiarity and group homogeneity.
When simplifying language, it may be quicker to use some forms of language, but it often detracts from the accuracy of the statement and can lead to confusion for those who may not be skilled in the language usage. Children are especially sensitive to misinterpreting slang usage, because developmentally, their brain understands things very literally. Think of the favorite children's joke, "What is black and white and red (or read) all over?" The answers: "A skunk with diaper rash, or a newspaper." This kind of humor is funny to children because they understand it very literally.
If you have ever talked with a foreigner who was school trained in English, you may have experienced situations where they had difficulties understanding what someone was saying until the person thought about what they were saying and communicated more precisely. Furthermore, foreigners, who were taught English in their schools are often more adept at correctly speaking and writing English than most Americans, because they have not learned much of the slang and "lazy usage" that we pick up in our day to day usage.
But Can You Talk the Talk?
If we really started to pay attention to the meaning of what we are saying, we may start to realize that we use the English language very carelessly. I tend to believe that we try to communicate with each other using as few words as possible. But the words we use still have meanings that subtly affect the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. As a psychologist and an astute observer of language usage, I have seen that what we think and say is an indication of what we feel internally. But how often do we really think about the words that we are saying and how it reflects our internal attitudes, emotions and beliefs?
So with this verbose and somewhat circumlocuted introduction, you may be wondering, "What is he getting at?" What I would like to address is the verbiage that we use to communicate emotion. To address the issue of communication of emotion, what does it mean when someone says, "I am angry at you." If we begin to dissect this phrase, the words I would like to consider are "am" and "at you". The word "am" is a form of the verb "to be" which means "to exist". To demonstrate what I am addressing, think of how we introduce ourselves to others, "Hello, I am John Doe." In this statement, I will always be John Doe, all day, every day, from birth to death. To the literal mind, when I say, "I am angry", it literally means all of me is always angry. In other words, I have become Anger embodied. We could spend time refuting the exactness of this, but the issue being addressed is literal semantics, not colloquial usage.
The next piece of the phrase is what it means when I say "I am angry at you." What "at you" means is "all of you," not part of you or your actions. To a child, this phrase can feel very intimidating and overpowering. The child tends to interpret the phrase as them being "bad or wrong", not what they did. The thought to consider is that we are powerless to change who we are, but we do have the power to change our behaviors and choices.
What we are probably meaning to say when we communicate emotion is, "I feel anger (frustration, confusion, irritation) with what you did." This phrase takes a few more words to state, but I hope you can appreciate the accuracy of what is being stated. The most accurate way to communicate emotions is with the verb "to feel," not the verb "to be."
Another issue to address is when we state our emotion with the verb "to feel", we can "feel" more than one emotion at a time, but it is difficult to "be" more than one emotion at a time. The second part of the communication, "at what you did," addresses the issue of the action of the individual, not the individual themselves. When we address the action or behavior of the person, it is very clear what they can change.
In educating children and adults on the "semantics of emotion", I often tell children that their parents will always love them, but they may not like what they do. If we address the action, behaviors and choices of the individual ("at what you did"), it points out what they can change. If we address the individual as the object of our anger ("at you"), it is difficult to know what to change.
Another important aspect to consider with the statement, "I am angry (sad, afraid, stupid,…)," is that we are only communicating the most salient or obvious emotion (anger), while almost always feeling other emotions internally. When we say, "I am angry at you," we are also likely feeling frustrated, hurt, disrespected, threatened, fearful, sad, misunderstood, confused, as well as other combinations of emotions.
The reason why we do not take the time to communicate these other emotions is because many times we do not take the time to be aware of what else we are feeling, and we also may fear that stating the other emotions could communicate weakness or vulnerability. When we consider communicating our emotions to our children, it is in the best interest of all to consider what we are teaching them through our own patterns of communication. They are often learning oversimplifications of emotions, as well as how to manipulate others through our own language usage.
(to be continued…)
About the author:
Erik Fisher, PhD, aka Dr. E…
, is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at
to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict or to check out his blog. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.