Day 12: The interpretation of words

by Tobi Mattingly | Aug 2, 2016

It started with an innocent question from my husband: “What’s the difference between Latino and Hispanic?”

I remembered having seen a video once that investigated the nuance of this question far better than I could ever hope to, so I pulled it up with a quick Google search.

As we watched What’s the difference between Latino and Hispanic? together, I was once again struck by one of my favorite fascinations: the myriad meanings of words. We speak a word and we think it means a thing, and we think the listener thinks it means the same thing.

Not always true.

The Latino vs. Hispanic video gives a clear, concrete example of this, showing the etymology of each word and then examining historical and regional uses of the word. It’s only nine minutes but it’ll make your head spin trying to keep track of who will hear what when you use one of these two words.

Words carry baggage from our personal experiences.

Sometimes differing interpretations of words aren’t quite so widely distributed, but still carry across groups and subgroups. One example is the negativity often found within theatre communities around words traditionally associated with marketing. If a person’s experience with or interpretation of marketing is “twisting or manipulating someone to buy something they don’t want or need,” then that person is understandably going to be uncomfortable with the suggestion of applying “marketing” to their theatre work.

But interestingly enough, that same person will often have no problem with the underlying principles, only the word itself. DirectorsLabChicago held a vision retreat last fall and at one point the conversation shifted toward why people choose to attend certain events and not others, and how the way an event is positioned impacts attendance. It was a marketing conversation, plain and simple. The language being used was about psychology and how to present or position an event so that the right people understand it’s for them.

After about an hour of this really insightful and beneficial dialogue, one of the attendees said, “Oh, and I’m so glad we’ve had this entire conversation without using the word brand.” And he said the word brand the way one might discuss a particularly large festering wound.

And it was so fascinating to me (there’s a reason I wear the marketing hat around here). The conversation we’d been having for the past hour was exactly about brand – how an organization and therefore its events are viewed, how to effectively communicate our intentions and our mission in a way that the right people hear and understand – that is brand.

The person who made the comment was happy to talk about branding, as long as we didn’t call it such. Why? Because for whatever reason, he carried baggage in connection with the word brand, and didn’t want to be associated with it.

So what about on a much more micro level? Now we’re not talking about regional or historical precedent for meaning, or even a shared sense of meaning within a subgroup; rather, we’re talking about baggage that may be completely unique to the individual. This is where our communication can so easily break down, sometimes in an incredibly shocking way.

And I’m not just talking about our interpersonal communication effectiveness, either. This affects our directing.

A few months ago I attended a panel discussion featuring several top-tier directors in Chicago. A question was raised about rehearsal process, and one of the panelists spoke at length about the importance in his process of table work for the express purpose of uncovering language baggage as it relates to the text.

“I can remember listening to an actor talk during table work,” he said, “and suddenly thinking, ‘Ohhhhh, that’s what you think love means!’ How can you and I ever hope to communicate the meaning of a scene if we don’t even agree on the meaning of the language? At the very least I need to understand an actor’s language baggage, even if I can’t shift or reshape it.”

And that understanding, that recognition, is key. As with so many things, a simple awareness that people carry language baggage is a critical and large first step toward minimizing miscommunication. Recognize that you have assumptions, and be prepared to question them at every turn. (Not bad advice in almost any venture, if you ask me.)


Tobi Mattingly is a Chicago-based director, actor, music director, and teaching artist. She is the founder of Artistic Conspiracy, an arts organization dedicated to creating and enabling world-changing theatre. Through this organization, she helps professional theatremakers take control of their theatre careers through learning and balancing artistic craft, bodymind practices, and business/marketing management.