According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2020, nearly 6 out of 10 Americans feel misunderstood. This figure holds across racial and ethnic lines, with 58 percent of black, 55 percent of Hispanic, and 61 percent of white Americans all saying that they are misunderstood.
The Pew survey categorized these misunderstandings under the headings: misperceptions about political views, social and economic class, personal interests, and personal characteristics. The study found that Americans over 50 are most likely to think it is their politics that are misunderstood. People under 50 are most likely to think that others misunderstand their personal interests and characteristics.
What effect does the sense of being misunderstood have on personal contentment and social stability? And it is not as if the misunderstanding is limited to people of other races and ethnicities. Younger Americans feel misunderstood by older Americans and vice-versa. Employees feel misunderstood by management. Men feel misunderstood by women and women by men. Religious people feel misunderstood by the irreligious and vice-versa.
To be misunderstood can cause significant pain. To be misunderstood continually can lead to despair. Many marriages have ended and work relationships crumbled because one (or both) of the partners felt misunderstood.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Heidi Grant states bluntly: “We’re all terrible at understanding each other.” The trouble is that most of us don’t know it. We assume that we understand other people, including those with whom we are in conflict, yet we conclude that they do not understand us.
There are many reasons for this. We always understand people within a context, and that context is frequently framed around what we desire to happen. Because of this, we can approach a person as either an instrument or an obstacle in achieving a goal. When we do this, we only understand as much as we need to understand to accomplish our objective, which is never enough to understand the person.
Grant, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, says that people, when asked to describe themselves, list different traits from those their friends ascribe to them. There is a gap between who we think we are and who others, including those who know us best, think us to be. Because we don’t notice that gap, we can easily stumble in our attempts to communicate.
Misunderstandings are exacerbated by our tendency to enshrine our first impressions of a person, even though they were inexact, incomplete, or plain mistaken. People are far too complex to be correctly understood by a first impression. Everyone we know is bigger on the inside than on the outside.
Our bodies are too limited to express all our thoughts and feelings precisely. Our limited repertoire of words and expressions are obliged to handle the vast score of our feelings and thoughts like a keyboard’s 88 keys are required to handle a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings for piano. The same gestures must express dissatisfaction, displeasure, and deliberation, the way the same keys are needed to represent the violin, viola, and cello. This too can lead to misunderstandings.
We have all been misunderstood. We are in good company. The Bible frequently represents Jesus as misunderstood. The Gospel of John records that his own brothers misjudged him. The religious authorities deemed him a heretic. The political authorities regarded him as an agitator.
Even his friends misunderstood him. After one such misunderstanding, many of his followers left him. In a scene filled with pathos – or am I misunderstanding? – Jesus asked those who remained if they also intended to leave. I suspect that one of the “Man of Sorrows” chief sorrows was being misjudged and misunderstood by those he came to help.
If the greatest communicator of all, the one referred to as “The Word,” was misunderstood, where does that leave the rest of us? It leaves us certain that we will be misunderstood yet praying, as did St. Francis, that we might “seek rather … to understand, than to be understood.”
And, like Jesus, it leaves us comforted by the truth that the heavenly Father understands us. For he, understanding us as he does – the good and the bad – loves us anyway.
(First published by Gannett.)