I read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman long before it became widely known that the author was an outspoken homophobe, but I did learn a lot from the book. That said, my personal philosophy is that there are as many love languages as there are people on the planet.

One of the things I learned about communicating in written form is that it is far easier to misunderstand something without feeling the need to ask clarifying questions. We tend to apply more intent and motivation into things we read than those we see and hear, and for more than one reason. If I think you are mad at me, I might be inclined to interpret a text message by attributing feelings that weren’t there. Because I think you’re mad at me, I may not ask for clarification (because I am so sure I’m right), or I might say something accusatory and trigger an argument.

It’s because of this that I try to be more mindful of my words when I am communicating through social media, email, or text, to the point of regularly including such phrases as “I hope this doesn’t come across in anger, that’s not my intent.” By doing so, I hope to remove ambiguity and make my intentions as clear as possible. And yet it is still possible (and likely in some cases) to be misread even when we’re being mindful and choosing our words with are. It’s because without seeing a person’s expressions and body language, without hearing their tone and inflection, we are left to complete that part of the conversation in our mind and filling in those blanks is happening while we are dealing with whatever our current mood and life experience brings to the table.

Speaking Your Language

While Chapman’s book did give us a basic framework that can go a long way toward better understanding how to effectively communicate with others, it also falls woefully short. I might understand that you respond best to physical touch for example, but until I really get to know you I might not realize that hugs make you uncomfortable, or that public displays of physical affection are a negative emotional trigger. Without key information that is specific to you, I can still easily fail to truly communicate my love to and for you.

When I meet someone new, I begin to consciously and subconsciously work to learn their language. I don’t mean that I’m learning Spanish or Dutch. Instead, I am doing something I call visiting your library. I need to read your dictionary to understand what certain words and phrases mean to you, and how using them in certain contexts or situations might change their meaning for you entirely. Studying your dictionary allows me to make better word choices and to better communicate my feelings and thoughts in ways that you will most readily receive.

Your History Section

At your library I might visit the history section to learn more about your life experiences. These experiences have the potential to greatly impact the way we view the world and everyone in it, so understanding your experiences might help me to make more informed use of tone and inflection. Someone who grew up in a loud and abusive household may emotionally shut down when someone yells, for example. And when that happens, the brain begins to read the situation to mean that someone is talking at you instead of communicating with you.

Your Science Section

In your science section, I might learn more about things that are going on – or have happened – to your body and brain. Being cognizant of your physical strengths and limitations helps me to make better decisions by enabling me to be more aware of how some things might make you feel.

Example: as I write this, I am in the middle of a long and difficult dental procedure that greatly limits what I can and cannot eat. For that reason I have to be extra conscious when eating out, to make sure the restaurant will have something I can eat. That has made me far less likely to accept an invitation to talk to someone over dinner.

Anxiety, depression, cognitive or developmental conditions can all have a direct impact on how communication is received by our brains, so being aware of their existence can help me translate in ways that will work best for you. At this point I want to make very clear that this can become a slippery slope as well. If I know you live with depression, I need to be conscious of my own biases and ideas about depression so I don’t inadvertently come across as demeaning or condescending.

You are the Subject Matter Expert

No matter how much I read in your library, I always have to remember that you are the ultimate (and only) subject matter expert on you. If I act or speak in a way that assumes I know better than you do, I’m not strengthening the relationship, I am elevating myself above you and making you feel inferior. That means I need to check in with you, to ask questions in ways that adequately express my desire to know you better instead of feeling like an interrogation.