“Much—even most—meaning in conversation does not reside in the words spoken at all, but is filled in by the person listening. … [How] individuals will tend to interpret someone else’s words … depends more on the hearer’s own focus, concerns, and habits than on the spirit in which the words were intended.” –Deborah Tannen

An Essay in Captions (Tentative title: “ADHD: in CAPTIONS”):

“Now that I’m getting some cooperation, I should be able to see if this is going to help.” (Eight months into weekly OT appointments.)

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“They said that? They actually used the words ‘oppositional’ and ‘defiant?’ That’s great! That qualifies for special services!”

“How do you do it?”

“That little one’s a full-time job!”

“Bad genes?” (This was a reigning favorite for at least a year.)

“Now that right there is ADHD!” (I wasn’t supposed to hear this.)

“He’s a little Chihuahua, isn’t he?”

“I saw a kid put his arm through a window during residency, and his parents just… had to… put up with it. So if it’s ADHD, then that’s what it’s like.”

“Don’t worry: kids on meds don’t have to be zombies anymore!”

“I’d vote for that kid for president!”

“God bless you!”

All of these words–my life in captions during the past three years–hit a nerve at one point. They must have because they’re still knocking around my brain after, in some cases, years. What I especially like about this collection of words is the way contextualization is largely superfluous. (In a few cases, I couldn’t resist adding two cents.) Some still strike me as downright funny (in what my friend Elizabeth would call a “hilarious” way, which is not quite funny ha-ha) and others made me cry. Most are harmless and innocuous in themselves, and many were offered by friends and family who love us and were genuinely trying to be supportive. On some microscopic but real level, every one radically affected relationships.

As linguist Deborah Tannen articulates, the intention behind words and the way they are received are two completely different things. Meaning–found even in the psychiatrist’s speechless silence this morning–takes on a free-wheeling life of its own.

And, lastly, my current ultimate Favorite of Favorites:

“The good news is Prozac has been approved down to age 4.”

I don’t think you need to share my focus, concerns, or habits to understand why it’s going to take a lot to top that.


One thought on “Intention

  1. Do I use the word “hilarious” too often? If so, then my defense is that so many things are so downright funny–i.e. odd, boundary-crossing, tragic and amusing at the same time. You’ll have to explain the chihuahua reference–that is truly mystifying. I’m guessing that person was referring to the sometimes frenetic sometimes untrainable aspects of the breed. You should have said, “Oh, we’re not from Mexico.” Let them mull that over.

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