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Perception Deception: Connotation vs Denotation

Updated on April 21, 2011

People suffer from miscommunications all the time. Quite frequently, we miss what the other person is saying either because we can't see things from that person's point of view or we assign a different meaning to the words they are using to express themselves. It's one of the main reasons why word problems are difficult on exams and job applications. There is a dichotomy of meaning between what the sender of a message implies and how the receiver of the message interprets it. This is almost unavoidable because of each person's unique thought patterns and perception of the world. However, understanding why we have these misunderstandings is a step toward resolving the conflicts and consequences that ensue from them.

The basic roots of meaning lie in the vocabulary lessons we get in grade school. We are all taught the definitions of a vast array of words (vast, but not all-inclusive) and their contexts in sentences. Ordinarily this should be enough, but there is a dimension to words that is mostly ignored, and that's what personal meaning we as people assign to them. This is so because it is difficult to explore what words mean to people and how they use them in a social context (one more way the realm of social studies can be expanded) and is not considered necessary by anybody in the field of education by-and-large. While this may require a degree in etymology or access to a certain dictionary that specializes in the history of word usage, anyone can stop to think about what they really mean by what they're saying.

Take, for example, the MythBusters. They've debunked sayings such as "hit the ground running" and "taking candy from a baby" as being physically impossible or implausible. Sometimes there are no empirical data to support these phrases that people seem to use all the time. Consider, also, the ratings scales we use: we can all agree that "great" is better than "good" but that they both mean the same thing along with a slew of other synonyms that some people either pick up or they don't. That's not to discourage a person from expanding his or her vocabulary, but you can't expect someone to use every possible word imaginable to describe something; a few choice ones will suffice.

If we were really to pick words and phrases apart for their meaning, consider a problem I've been having with the film It's A Wonderful Life. In it, the main character is depressed and tries to kill himself by jumping off a bridge, telling his guardian angel that things would be better for everyone else if he had never been born. Here's the problem with that: killing yourself doesn't change the fact that you were born. Killing yourself only adds to the problems everyone else is experiencing whether it's because of your existence or not, so don't do it. If he had said, "Things would be so much better for everyone if I were dead," then it would make a little more sense. I'm not trying to nitpick or say that it's a terrible movie, but I'd just like to point out the discrepancy in what he says and what he tries to do.

Another common misconception is that when a person is trying to explain a problem he or she is having, he or she is trying to get out of taking responsibility for it. Before you jump to judgment, you should hear the person out. If he or she is trying to duck the blame for something, that's one thing, but at least let the person finish speaking before you decide whether or not something is his or her fault and allow him or her say to you point-blank "I'm not trying to make excuses for myself, I'm just telling you what's going on." When two points of view collide, the problem is that both people are right in their own minds. Having an open discussion to get at the truth and express each side is worth the trouble and will save you a lot of it in the long run.


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      R. J. Lefebvre 6 years ago


      An interesting hub to explore the actions and reactions of communication, especially when each party leans on their own perceptions. We all ned to understand each other despite differences.