“While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and sharing motifs… but if they meet when they are older… their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.”
I found this quote in Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” It struck a chord because it seemed to explain the reason for every misunderstanding I’ve had in the last month. Maybe all those misunderstandings weren’t due to clumsiness but to a lack of shared language. A difference in dialects, if you will.
I speak a language that comprises every experience I have ever had. It’s not only the connotations of words that are different from anyone else’s dialect, but the definitions themselves. For the most part I get by just fine. I imagine that I convey my meaning and that people understand me. The illusion is sufficient in almost every scenario. Until you bring in the big words.
Success. This one comes up a lot at Stanford. For one person success is working at a hedge fund and making lots of money; for another it means not having to rely on other people; for a third success is balancing work and mental health. Success gets tied up in your parents’ expectations, your own goals for your future, the value that you put on the results of your work or the process of it. Some of these definitions may overlap, but they certainly don’t convey the exact same meaning. The phrase “I just want to succeed” gets complicated.
Perfect. Perfect is a world in my head where the vertical asymptote can cross the axis. It is a world where things are pure and excitement is unattenuated. To me perfect has to do with an interior state and I go crazy when I try to make the exterior world resemble that interior state. To some of my friends perfect means the mathematical proof that shows that the asymptote can never reach the axis. For them perfect is something that exists in the outside world, a goal that you can work toward. “That was perfect” stops making sense.
Ambition. Ambition is stubbornly not accepting the answer “No.” For me it implies a productive competitiveness in the interest of personal advancement. Ambition is sharp and has a masochistic edge, but it is attractive nonetheless. I have friends for whom ambition means something quite different. For them it means arrogance, self-centeredness and an unwillingness to compromise. Suddenly, “I wish you would show more ambition” gets muddied up as well.
Love. Love is why I cry when I hear certain pieces of music. Love is a deep nostalgic fondness for someone you’ve grown up with. Love is learning how to fight respectfully with someone else. Love is feeling thrilled when you see someone walking up to meet you. All of these are valid. Yet none of them are quite the same. No wonder the difficulty with things like, “I’d love to,” “I love you,” or even, “Hi, love.”
I bring this up because I don’t have clear definitions for these words. I take for granted the experiences that have shaped their definitions for me, and expect those definitions to be transparent to everyone. I treat these words carelessly, as though they were fungible. I see now how absurd this expectation is, how advanced the theme of my musical composition already is and how strange it must sound to everyone except my family and my childhood friends.
At the risk of being overly explicit, give your friends a window into the context that shapes your dialect. You’ll give them a gift by explaining. I’m not saying your musical composition is complete by college. Still, its themes may already be in place, the tonic already set – when you shed light on the opening bars that are already written, you can begin to build more motifs with the people who enter your life in a later variation.
Share your dialect with Renee – email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.