If each person has their private language, then love is about learning each other’s languages
Last summer, my partner and I went on an 80-mile bicycle trip around the southern shore of mountain lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Gasping for air after cresting a murderously steep hill — the third one in a row — I asked him why on earth did he call the route “more or less flat.” “Well, that’s why I said “more or less,” he explained. It was by far not the first time I realized that asking “What do you mean?” was quintessential for building a peaceful and happy relationship.
It all started with the word “interesting.” As we began dating, I quickly discovered we didn’t mean the same thing when using that word. For me, calling something “interesting” was the best compliment in the world, while my partner did it whenever he didn’t like something but wanted to remain polite. I chalked up the misunderstanding to a funny personal quirk. Yet it turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg. When it came to details, we understood the most basic words differently, such as “warm,” “cold,” “smart,” and “kind.” Even “five minutes” were ambiguous, not to mention the vague concept of “soon.” Of course, it wasn’t long before we added “love” to the list.
The ambiguity of those three words attracted a lot of intellectual attention. A French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote a book on the linguistic mechanics of love, dedicating a fair portion of its 280 pages to what the Urban Dictionary calls “the three hardest words.” Academics still argue whether the words “I love you” are overused to the point of becoming a cliché or severely underused with their potential to curb hatred and negativity in the society. A dozen of studies explored the cross-cultural, gender, and semantic differences in the usage of the magical trio.
They found that Americans and the French say it more often than Brits and the Dutch, that it has more emotional weight when people express it in their native language, and that men tend to say it earlier than women.
They also discovered that in different contexts and for different people, the same three words could mean completely different things. During one study, held in southern Texas in 2014, linguists asked a group of 120 college students to elaborate on what they meant when they said, “I love you.” People mentioned 20 options, including “thank you,” “sorry,” “bye,” “no meaning, just out of habit,” “I need something,” and “I want to have sex with you.” Among other things, they used it to express regret, need, and wish. One woman specifically mentioned that her teenage daughter always said, “I love you” whenever she needed a favor.
My partner and I speak to each other in three languages, but that is not what causes our problems in communication. The problem is that we are different people. It took me a while to understand that every person has a private language of their own, and love is also about learning each other’s languages. Each of us ascribes a personal meaning to every word, and the semantic differences are so slight that we aren’t conscious of them.
In sociolinguistics, this translates to a linguistic style: a person’s unique speaking pattern, which embraces every peculiarity of her speech, from word choice and pacing to preferred degree of directness. It is a culturally learned code we use both to express ourselves and interpret others.
The issue is that no two people have an identical linguistic style. In a sense, each communication is cross-cultural, even if we grew up next door.
My friends Savannah and Patrick come from the opposite parts of the globe. Savannah grew up in Johannesburg in South Africa, and Patrick is from Charlottesville in Virginia. He is an exceptionally considerate person, but it didn’t always come across well. “In my family, if somebody looks tired, you check in on them and sympathize: ‘Wow, you really look worn out.’ — “Yeah, I’ve been so tired, I am working so hard…” Patrick says. “We had the biggest fight,” Savannah jumps in to add, “When he told me across the table where there were five people: “Sav, you look so worn out.” I thought it was so rude to say that in front of everyone. He basically said: I am not dressed well for this. I was upset for the whole evening.”
Both are native English speakers, but the phrase rang differently to each of them. To Savannah, it conveyed a judgment on her physical appearance, reminding of the comments on her paleness she used to receive in high school. “Usually, when people say to me, “Oh, you look tired,” that means: You look like shit,” she explains. To Patrick, it was a way to express that he cares about her. “It’s more a term of concern, not “You look bad,” but “How are you? I care about you,” he explains.
With time, every couple creates a language of their own, filled with inside jokes and inside codes. Words become imbued with intimate connotations. For my partner and me, “simple” became one of those words. For a while, I was puzzled why he kept calling himself “a simple person.” He even liked to quote a character from Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem: “I’m a simple man: look down my throat, and you can see out my ass.”
I thought he meant he was simple to understand and did not agree. At that time, he tended to answer my questions about his well-being with enigmatic one-word responses, which didn’t make any sense to me. His regular “okay” sounded so vague that I came up with a 10-point scale to assess his condition. Now, instead of asking him, “How are you?” I say: “How much out of 10?” (He asked to clarify whether we start from 0 or 1 and if either of them signifies death). Gradually, I realized that he understood “simplicity” as a matter of being able to find happiness in simple things. With time, I adopted the meaning and felt I became a simpler person too.
But some words were never the same again. Several years into our relationship, my partner offered to try his favorite childhood dish, a salty porridge made of rice and sour cream. I tried a spoonful, pushed the bowl aside, and said: “It’s interesting.”