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Interpretation of Intention

Today I was thinking again, dangerous as it can be, about how we interpret verbal and non-verbal communications within a variety of settings as well as how we interpret intention for a given person and the morality we assign to that intention. For instance, Hooters is somehow crude, just a step above a strip club, but visiting the gym or any beach in America doesn't trigger any giggling or nods of discontent. The disconnect being that Hooters girls wear more clothes than many of the girls you can see at any shopping mall in the Summer (and sometimes even the Winter), and certainly wear more than any girl found in a gym or on a beach. The disparity is one of intention.

There's an expectation that if you are going to Hooters, you are going to see the girls, while going to the gym or the beach your motivations are toward better health and enjoying the outdoors. Rrrright ;) So it's all about context and expectation. Based on whatever social norms someone is interpreting your action to ferret out your intention and judge you based on that.

There's a similar problem with the so called "teen model" sites. While legally they're not doing anything illegal showing scantily clad minors, it's argued that they should be labeled child pornography because of the intent of the viewers. Unfortunately, labeling something illegal based on the intent of the user would ban a great many things, and so we live with the moral ambiguity of such sites.

Moral ambiguity is everywhere. Victoria's Secrets commercial abound during prime-time TV and yet possessing pictures of your significant other wearing similar clothing is "kinky" or "dirty". Having the Victoria's Secret catalog on your coffee table would be acceptable, but in the bedroom would be eyed with suspicion. It's all about context and interpretation of intention.

Recently my wife and I were in Target after a long day of shopping. We decided to get a snack before continuing. The young lady behind the register took my order and said "That'll be right out babe." I had heard her use a similar endearment with the previous customer. My wife had not, and she became instantly sensitive to the remark. "Did she just call you babe!?" I did my best to keep her relaxed about the matter. Then the young lady asked my wife "can I get you anything else hun?" My wife said no and then to me said "so you get a 'babe' and I'm 'hun'? How old is she?" To my wife some old lady, someone's grandmother or someone resembling Flo from Alice would have been perfectly acceptable saying "babe" or "hun" or "sugar" but this teenager saying those endearments needed "to check herself".

So I asked "what's the switch point. At what age does this young lady earn the right to be sweet. When does she learn to get in the habit of treating people with kindness?" and I got "well not now that's for sure". But my wife's initial interpretation was that the young ladies intention was towards me. Then in receiving the "hun" she reinterpreted the intention as one of demeaning an elder, whereas I interpreted the platitude as a positive habit that would someday turn this young lady into the very picture of grandmotherly sweetness that my wife held in her mind's eye.

We're inconsistent creatures, too concerned with intent and not concerned enough with outcome. We assume that intent is equal to outcome and in some cases that might be true, but too often that correlation keeps us from seeing a larger picture and understanding a situation fully. Like the correlation that a married man flirting with a woman means he's looking to cheat. That's an oversimplification and may or may not be accurate. His flirtations may be a quirk of his personality passed on by another overly friendly family member or more importantly a sign of the man needing more attention. Too often spouses will look to activities and interpret ill intent where none is meant and in doing so they miss the opportunity to really connect with the person they love most. Instead, they can further damage the relationship through anger and blame.

It's a hard cycle to break. One has to understand their own history, be more self aware, and take into account that history as they view a situation through their filters. That's the orient part of an OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). Too often people go from Observe to Act in the span of a breath without any thought to Orienting themselves to ensure a proper Decision. In doing so we are alienated from one another, unable to connect at a basic level, unable to bridge the gap to understand the real intentions. Then one day that husband meets a woman who will show a little cleavage or say his name the right way and BOOM! GONE! The end of another otherwise salvageable relationship. Similarly the woman might be in the same situation, finding a man that says the right words, who acts interested in what she has to say and who she is and she too BOOM! is GONE!

So take that time, that breath, that moment, to orient yourself. Throw out those preconceptions about intent. Try to really understand another perspective, another intention. Find multiple interpretations and don't settle for the easiest. I think doing these things will greatly increase your happiness.