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April 1985

The writer, in goodwill and intent, sets downs words with the purpose of conveying a message, an idea, a thought, an opinion, a whatever.

The reader reads the words, and puts an interpretation on them. Depending upon the mood of the moment, or attitude towards the writer, or subject matter, the reader can catch the writer’s meaning and accept it as offered, or read into it what he/she doesn’t want to know, or search between the lines for a hidden meaning. Also, the reader’s reaction to the words can run the whole scale of emotions from anger to laughter to yawn of boredom.

Upon whom should fall the blame for a misunderstanding?

Ironically, while the interpretation of a writer is done by the reader, upon the writer falls the burden of proof-of-innocent for conveying the intent of the wording.

But, could it be, O Lord, we inadvertently reveal in our words what we cannot recognize in ourselves and are therefore reluctant to face? In that case, are writers not innocent victims of their own writings?

When I first read this invocation, written by my grandmother 30 years ago, I quickly concluded most people face this dilemma in that their emails and instant messages can easily be misinterpreted. After all, it’s challenging to convey emotion in written communication unless you state how you’re feeling, such as I’m upset at the way you handled ___________ situation or I’m delighted at the outcome of the ______________.

The other options for communicating mood and subtle inflection is by using UPPER CASE LETTERS, exclamation points, and emoticons 8=) _ :-*!!

Indeed, the blame for the misunderstanding is almost always targeted to the writer, and not the reader, who depending their mood, could deduce a fervently written email is good news, sarcasm or worse.

What my grandmother wrote, however, is much deeper. It infers we sometimes write what we’re subconsciously thinking. While we might believe our wording is clear and effectively communicating our present thoughts and opinions, it may be conveying something entirely different.

This brings to mind a campaign slogan I once wrote, “When accuracy isn’t an option.” In my mind, I was inferring accuracy is imperative, not an option. However, others concluded I was saying accuracy isn’t important, and therefore not an option. Needless to say, the slogan was discarded.

A slogan, however, is just a couple of words. What happens when you write a lengthier piece? Before the Internet, the number of people who might read and misinterpret a personal or business letter, magazine or newspaper story, professional paper or newsletter was confined to recipients subscribers, and members of organizations.

Today, 140 characters or a couple of sentences can be heard or read by millions, turning an off-hand remark into a firestorm. Case in point, Donald Trump’s derogatory statements about Mexican immigrants during his presidential announcement speech, followed by his backpedaling, “I’m not just saying Mexicans, I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country.” In spite of this marginal explanation, it quickly became clear he truly said what he meant, issued the statement, “Mr. Trump stands by his statements on illegal immigration, which are accurate.”


For most of us, we do occasionally write content, which can be misinterpreted or reveal thoughts we probably wouldn’t have expressed if our fingers weren’t typing lickety-split. It’s the hazards of technology that make it easy to dash off a comment, Tweet, email or blog with scarcely any effort.