Sagacious | Speaking and Hearing

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Hanlon’s Razor


Never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance.


Communication is a struggle. There’s a reason why miscommunication is at the heart of almost every pop culture conflict.

Today I’m reflecting on: what you say isn’t what people hear. It’s a simple distinction, but a profound one.

It seems to be innate human behavior to assume others’ intentions, projecting our own disposition onto the world and writing narratives where there may actually be none.

We find faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to everything that hurts or pleases us.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion (1757)

This phenomenon even has a name: the ‘fundamental attribution error’, where we credit positive intentions for ourselves, and disregard or even assume negative motives for others.

The ‘fundamental attribution error’ is a psychological phenomenon in which we tend to view other people’s actions as reflecting on their characters and to overlook the power of situation to influence their actions, whereas with ourselves, we recognize the leaders of circumstance. When other people’s cell phones ring during a movie, it’s because they’re inconsiderate boors; if my phone rings during a movie, it’s because I need to be able to take a call from the babysitter.

Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

As frustrating as it is to be misunderstood, their misunderstanding isn’t a judgement call on you, and what you said, and the effort you put in. It’s just a natural consequence of language being messy and wrought with hidden meaning. Consider the many layers of language, like codes, body language, innuendos, and cultural assumptions. We are constantly reading between the lines.

I leave you with this advice:

In any interaction, there is only one person you can reliably change: yourself. In turn, the only way to improve yourself is to practice.

Practice means interacting with the folks who most need you to communicate well – the ones who misunderstand. Through troubleshooting their struggles, you gain clarity. May that thought give you patience the next time someone misreads your carefully crafted email; every time is another opportunity to learn and do better.

Faces in the Moon
Super Wolf Blood Moon, January 2019

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