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Different words, same meaning and same words, different meanings: a communication challenge

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

St Patrick’s Day this week got me thinking as an Irish person who has lived in England for more than 20 years about differences in communication. We speak the same language, but not always in the same way. For example, as an Irish person I might “put the messages away in the press”. An English person may recognise those individual words and not have a clue what I mean – I would be putting the shopping / groceries away in the cupboard. I have a collection of words that have different meanings that I’d be happy to share; e-mail me at coaching@fionagillies.co.uk with the subject “Messages” to find out more, or tell me your own favourite.


Aside from the peculiar turns of phrase, in either country there are often different ways to say the same thing. “Happy St Patrick’s Day”, “Happy St Paddy’s Day”, “Happy Paddy’s Day” all work either side of the Irish Sea, but which you use might depend on your own preferences and who you’re talking to (and as an aside it’s never, ever, to be “St Patty’s Day”). If I went around wishing my English friends “Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!” they might give me a funny look at best, whereas an Irish person would understand and reply accordingly. That’s actually using a different language, but it can be the same with jargon and slang – will the person you’re talking to know what you mean?


How do you “celebrate”?

There are also many possible meanings for the same word. The word “set” has 430 different definitions, in part because of the many ways that it can be used – “the jelly has set”, “a cutlery set”, “to set an alarm”. How about celebrating St Patrick’s Day? This will invariably conjure up a particular idea – for some it will involve attending Mass, for others it will involve a day in the pub (or both!). As a child it meant watching the parade, seeing grandparents and having a day’s grace from Lent and being allowed chocolate (I’m not sure this was sanctioned by Rome, but it was the rule of thumb for almost everyone in Ireland).


If the question associated most with psychologists is “and how does that make you feel?” then I think the standard question for coaches is “and what does XX mean to you?” Because people will talk about wanting “success”, “happiness” or not wanting “boredom” or “frustration”, and each person’s definition will be individual to them. What do those things mean to you? Chances are they aren’t quite the same as what they mean to me, or the next person, or the one after that. And the danger is that if two or more people are agreed they want “to celebrate” or “success”, they actually don’t mean or expect the same thing. I know people who would be very disappointed if I invited them to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with me and then brought them to Mass rather than to the pub as they’d expected – and vice versa.


The challenge with talking about mental health

For some people it can already be difficult to talk about mental health and when they do, these two challenges – which words to use, and how the words are understood – become even more problematic to navigate. Do professional definitions of words like “depression” and “anxiety” mean the same to everyone? I remember hearing person A describe someone as “depressed” to person B and later recognising how the message had become lost in translation when person B relayed this information using the expression “a bit blue”. Other potential misinterpretations include the difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder, or being stressed and suffering from stress.


The problem comes when people attach their own definition or perception to words, and this leads to a misunderstanding of a situation or an over or under estimation of its severity. So it’s important to go deeper, to explain or find out what’s meant. Depending on your role in the conversation, describe things more thoroughly or ask questions to grasp the full context of what the person you’re talking to is describing.


The same language

Earlier I wrote “We speak the same language, but not always in the same way”. In that context I meant people from different countries using the English language slightly differently, but it applies more deeply to any exchange. In whatever conversation we’re having, let’s speak the same language in the same way so that we fully understand and are understood.

How communication is important for someone who is supporting a partner with mental health challenges

There are many ways communication is especially important when you are supporting a partner with mental health challenges. In addition to the potential differences between clinical definitions and perceived meanings of words there is a broad selection of people you might be communicating with – your partner, their mental health professionals, their work, your work, friends, family. And each of those might need / provide information differently, and that might be different from how you usually communicate.


Think about how best to communicate with each in order to get what you need and save you time. Does an employer need a full weekly update, or will an occasional synopsis do? Does your partner prefer to get basic instructions or do they need more details? Are there ways to "shorthand" with friends and family? I introduced a codeword with a friend that was an indicator that some moral support was needed. I've known people to use traffic lights and emojis for a quick reference for how a day has gone.


When my other half was signed off work with stress, my life was turned upside down too. These blog posts are based on the things that helped me, the lessons I learnt the hard way and what I realise with the benefit of hindsight would have helped. I’ve collected some of the other key learning points and tips and made these available to download at https://www.fionagillies.co.uk/pivot-pointers.


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