I was recently reminded of how faulty our perceptions can be, particularly in our relationships and especially in our digital communication.
Perception is affected by so many variables, starting with how strong our senses are. Have you ever smelled something no one else smelled? Or someone saw something you didn’t? Perhaps you heard something that wasn’t heard by everyone? All senses were not created equal. If I didn’t wear my contact lenses, many things you could see clearly would be blurry to me. This difference in senses can explain some of our perceptual differences.
Sometimes, there are instances of illusions. Some people see this image as a young woman looking to the right with a choker necklace and fur scarf or coat; others see an old woman with the choker as her mouth and the young woman’s jawline as the old woman’s nose. Who’s to say which is correct? They are both authentic perceptions. You may remember the blue and black dress that some people perceived as white and gold, or the audio clip of someone saying “Yanni” or “Laurel.” I have played that clip for training purposes and typically 50% hear Yanni and the other 50% hear Laurel. How can that be? It’s because there are variations in our senses that create conflicting perceptions.
Then there’s the fact that we tend to experience what we pay attention to. Have you ever seen the video with the two sets of basketball players, and you are asked to count the number of passes one of the teams makes? You may be proud of yourself for getting the correct answer, and then, the narrator asks, “But did you see the gorilla?” The video is rewound and a person in a gorilla costume clearly walks to center court, beats on its chest and exits in the opposite direction. How did you miss that the first time? It’s because your focus was on the ball. I believe this explains why women and people of color experience microinequities that the dominant group doesn’t see.
Next, perceptions are filtered through all the knowledge we have accumulated in our lives—the sum of our experiences and the information we’ve gathered. What we know affects how we perceive things. If you were ever attacked by a man with red hair, you may find you have an aversion to redheads that other people don’t have.
Our perceptions are also affected by our values. I remember an instance in my marriage when our son had a choice to make between something that would prioritize family loyalty or honesty and he chose honesty. I was proud of him, and my husband was angry. It was the same event, but we both perceived it differently because of our values. This happens a lot in politics.
When you take all these influences into consideration, it’s quite remarkable that any two people share the same perception about anything. Add to a relationship the fact that you are highly invested in your connection and may be sensitive to criticism, and you may misperceive the intent of the other person. Once I casually, spontaneously invited a guy I just started dating over for dinner. I remember saying, “It’s no big deal. I just made some spaghetti and if you want to, I’d be happy to share it with you—whatever.” Unbeknownst to me, “whatever” was a trigger for him. He took it to mean that I was angry over something, which resulted in a huge misunderstanding that required a lengthy conversation to work out.
Add to that the fact that many couples communicate via text and there is so much that can be misunderstood. I remember hearing this story from a military couple: The husband called home while on deployment and asked his wife what she was doing. She said she was taking a shower. He asked playfully if he could join her, and she said, “Sure, but you’ll have to take longer than your usual 10 minutes!” She was referring to the short showers he was used to taking, while he thought she was questioning his stamina. And they were half a world apart, trying to work through this misperception.
Misunderstandings in communication are inevitable; just consider all the possible ways it can go wrong. The important thing is that you become aware of the potential misunderstandings and learn to proactively address the conflict.
It’s easy to get your feelings hurt in an exchange since our brains are hardwired for negativity. We have the propensity to jump to negative conclusions that often have no basis in fact. When you find yourself feeling disrespected, sad, angry or anxious about something your partner communicated, let them know what you thought they meant and check out your perception.
It could sound something like this, “I hope you weren’t just saying, ‘whatever,’ you don’t care if I come over for dinner, because I’d really like to see you.” State what you think you heard in a way that lets your partner know you are open to hearing a different interpretation and then hear them out. Double checking your perceptions might just save an argument, hurt feelings or your entire relationship.