Mon. 21st Feb. 2022 – Intention and Perception

This was supposed to be a brief entry…

I had in mind to begin this entry by saying “lately I have been thinking a lot about…” However, I know that that would be partial-truth. It would be more accurate to say “while this is nearly always on my mind, it seems to be more at the forefront as of late.”

The “it” in question is this idea that communication, and perhaps that could be broadened to encompass all existence (within a society), is a balance, or perhaps more cynically, a theatrical performance wherein the concepts of intention and perception clash.

Despite the countless hours I have spent thinking about this, I haven’t gotten much further than that initial idea. Sure, I’ve held many debates within my head that gave some measure of explanation, but it all boils down to the same core argument. That being, that between any two people (or more) there exists the constant dynamic of what one person intends to communicate–be that with words, gesture, or action–and what the other person(s) perceive them to mean.

Communication is something of a miracle. If we stick to the realm of spoken communication, every word has a general meaning, that being the definition one can look up in a dictionary. And while there are many dictionaries and each has their own unique wording for such a definition, they generally suggest the same thing. The key word here being generally.

But communication is a system, or a codified system if you like. It is not a system like, say, machines used, with incredibly narrow or precise thresholds and measurements. Language is shapeless. It is constantly evolving, and because of this it cannot be contained well, and certainly not for a long period of time.

Consider that, on a daily basis, many of the words and phrases we use are colloquialisms, idioms, or slang. These can be broad reaching, sometimes globally recognized phrases, or they can be regional, or even distinct to very small areas. (One I particularly enjoy is the word “jawn” which, though it has expanded beyond the limits of Philadelphia, still remains something you can only hear near the city.)

Colloquialisms and idioms are complex. But what about simple, individual words. I’m thinking of the word love. I’m always thinking of the word love. And this post is not a place to talk about its vast complexity as we use it in the West. I’m thinking of words such as alright, fine, happy, okay, etc… Each of these could be further expanded upon to the measure of paragraphs, or even chapter length explanations consisting of what first happened, and how or why, now that it has finished, it has made the person feel the way they are feeling. When considered this way, one can go down quite a deep rabbit hole .

While that is a rabbit hole that can be enjoyable, or not, to explore, I’m more interested in gestural communication. Not so much body language, but in the type of communication people refer to as “a kind gesture.” It often involves words, yes, but almost always paired with an action, even if it is something simple as announcing that you are available to a friend if they need to talk. Something mundane such as that. The gesture could be positive or negative…and that’s the interesting point. Because everything about it is a form of unfixed, generally defined communication.

There is always what the actor intended to communicate, and what the receiver perceived they communicated.

Sometimes I think of the world this way: On any given day we are circles wandering through the world. The circle of us is all that we are. It is what we look like, what we sound like, the language(s) we use, our accrued knowledge and wisdom, etc… So, we are all just circles drifting about. When we meet, when we interact, that is when the two (or more) circles combine, if only briefly. This combining of circles forms an overlap, a Venn diagram.


In successful communication, within the overlapping portion is where comprehension takes place. Comprehension being a level beyond mere understanding and a general sense of two (or more) individuals being able to relate to one another. The more words that the two individuals share a specific definition of, the greater the overlap, the greater the comprehension. Surely that is a simplified and flawed example, but it illustrates the idea that we are constantly circles floating around, presumably looking for connection, for relation, and when there is little mutual understanding or shared definitions there is a smaller overlap.

Also, with this image in mind, you can begin to consider, visually (and perhaps in real-time) how much or how little of an overlap is there between you and someone else. Are you both working with the same definitions?

This, the explaining and giving of examples and hypotheticals could go on and on…

So then, the fulcrum of my thought, the so-called crux of the matter and the main and current debate that I have been considering lately is which of these two phenomena (intention and perception) should be our directional heading, what we stress before committing to an action?

Quite possibly, this is a pointless debate, for how could we claim to understand or presume how another person might perceive anything? The very nature of the fact that we are the one considering possible perceptions of an action or a communication means that it is still only within ourselves and not the other person. We can never know.

So then clearly we should only act on intention. This is all well and good, except that many an argument has been caused because we rarely stop to consider the intention of someone who we feel has (possibly) done us harm. And to propose that both the doer first consider the possible perceptions (or receptions) of the receiver, and the receiver then take pause to consider the possible intentions of the doer…well now that might make the socially anxious among us paralytic with fear.

(Welcome to my world on a bad day.)

So then, what is to be done if one wishes that more time was taken to fully explain, to fully listen to the point of mutual comprehension with the goal that over time we all bear witness to our similarities and our differences, the causes which bring about distress, etc… in hopes that there is a growth of compassion?

Compassion, as constructed by languages that derive from Latin, combines the prefix com, meaning “with,” and the root passio, meaning “suffering.”
Other languages, such as Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish (to list a few), use a construction that more accurately would translate as “co-feeling.”* Perhaps this is more similar to how we use the relatively modern word empathy (which we have the German philosopher Rudolf Lotze to thank for).

Language lesson aside, I seem to have gotten nowhere, made no progress, beyond my understanding that in silence there is perfection. Furthermore, I have at least walked my own path–albeit it one that I begrudgingly and restlessly accept there is no good answer to–and come to my own understanding of one of my favorite quotes:

I know what I have given you…

I know not what you have received.

– Antonio Porchia (Translated by W. S. Merwin)

And perhaps this is the same wisdom that can be found in don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements.

For fuck’s sake. I wish I didn’t always write as though I was giving some sort of lecture or dissertation.

*I don’t know these languages. I wish I did. For this knowledge, I have Milan Kundera to thank as it appears in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.