On Context and Miscommunication

This is a throwback post, originally published almost two years ago!

The other day I was at my parents’ house, sitting just down the hall from my parents’ bedroom when I heard my mother’s voice.

“Can I trust you? I would like to, but I just don’t think I can.”

I know the tones of my mother’s voice well, but this confused me.

A few minutes later I went into my parents’ room to ask a question. Everything became clear. She had two dresses (freshly dry cleaned) hanging from the bed frame and over on the windowsill was my black cat Max. (And no, he should not be trusted alone in a room with two dresses exposed. To him they might as well be the stairway to heaven.)

If I were the sort of person to jump to conclusions, that whole situation could have played out very differently. Here’s the truth about people though: a lot of them do tend to jump to conclusions. I tend to come from a rare breed–the ones who want to gather all the information they can before making a conclusion. I know it must be rare because people comment on it all the time.

I don’t think I need to explain to you how you can use context in your story. Some of the most infamous pieces of literature are centered around characters taking things out of context, or miscommunication.

Now, to be honest, stories about miscommunication can be infuriating. But as a writer, I have to recognize that people take things out of context all the time. It’s human nature. (Yes, even I do it.) One of the coolest things about human beings is that we can take information, process it, find patterns, and come to conclusions. Our brains are pretty neat. But no one is omnipotent. And we like for things to be wrapped up neatly. So, even if we don’t have all the information, we try to wrap up what we do know and that’s where we get into trouble.

Misunderstanding is part of life and it can be really fun to play with as an author (as long as you don’t torment your reader. Please don’t do that). In fact, I think there is nothing that can so powerfully show the different backgrounds of two people than how they may understand the same statement in two completely different ways.┬áThat’s the kind of misunderstanding I want to play with: the kind that reveals more about my characters.

What famous story do you know that hinges on miscommunication? There are a lot of them! List them below!

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