Bob and Nancy had been invited to attend an important gathering. Bob was very excited to be able to make new contacts for his newly-opened business, looking forward to doing a little schmoozing and getting his name out there to potential clients. He enjoyed socializing and enjoyed challenges, so this was right up his alley. His wife, Nancy, however, was very shy and hated big parties. She preferred having a few close friends over for a quiet evening. Knowing this about his wife, Bob kept Nancy close to his side, holding her hand, putting his arm around her to reassure and protect her, and telling her that she didn’t have to say anything. He would do all the talking. When they returned home, he was surprised to find out that Nancy was very angry with him. She felt that he didn’t trust her to speak or even be on her own. She considered his actions to be insulting. Which one was right? While Bob thought that his actions showed kindness and consideration, she was feeling hurt by those exact same actions. He was saying “I love you” in a way she didn’t understand.
Symbolic interactionism, in layman’s terms means that we each communicate and interact using words, gestures, and other symbols that have meaning for us. The problem comes when we don’t understand that those things could mean something entirely different to another person. So much arguing and fighting is simply a result of miscommunication. When someone smiles at you, what do you think? “They’re friendly and I will smile back at them.” “They are laughing at me because they think I’m a nerd.” “They think my outfit is stupid.” “They smile because they like me.” That is just one small gesture with so many interpretations.
When I was in high school, one of my teachers gave the class a test. She asked each of us to get a piece of paper and draw a large rectangle. Then we were to draw a smaller rectangle inside the large rectangle. Next, we were to draw a large circle above the large rectangle and a bunch of small circles inside the large circle. We then compared pictures. Although each of us had been given the exact same directions, every picture was quite different from the others. The teacher then asked us to turn over our papers to follow the exact same instructions, but with one more piece of information. We were drawing a gumball machine. This time the pictures were all quite similar and recognizable as gumball machines. The next time you are having an argument, take a moment to ask yourself if you might both be right, if you are really listening and understanding, and if your message is clear.