One morning on my walk to the subway, a lady stopped me and asked, “Is there a subway around here?” She had a heavy accent, and it took me asking her to repeat her question a few times before I even figured out that she was asking about a subway. Now because I’m still new to subway travel, my first thought was that she was asking if I’d seen a Subway sandwich shop around (it didn’t help that I’d actually seen a Subway sandwich shop the evening before, and it was obviously still fresh on my mind). So I answered, “No, I haven’t seen one around.” And while she seemed a little surprised, she nonetheless carried on walking down the block.
About 90 seconds later, it hit me like a bolt of lightning that she obviously wasn’t asking about *a* subway, she was asking about *the* subway and wanted to know if there was a station nearby. And here I was, walking to the subway station while telling her I couldn’t help her. I felt terribly guilty but also knew that if she kept walking, she’d land at a subway station – so I kept my eye on her for the rest of the trip to make sure she didn’t deviate from the route.
And then, we met again. In the subway station. The same subway station I told her I didn’t know existed not 5 minutes earlier – despite clearly being headed there myself. If I were her, I’d be furious with me. It was simultaneously mortifying and hilarious. I was careful not to get too close to her, so that I wouldn’t have to try to explain what had happened…Because exactly what had happened? Why had my brain completely short-circuited?
French author Anaïs Nin summed it up perfectly – “We don’t see things are they are, we see them as we are.” Most, if not all, of us have left a conversation only to find out later that the other person had a completely different version of what was said. It’s the same phenomenon. We experience everything through the filter of our own individual lives. We can only interpret what we see and hear based on what we know.
The lesson I learned on the streets of NYC that morning is something to keep in mind any time we’re communicating with anyone – you have to know your audience to have the greatest chance of reaching them. What matters isn’t what you say, it’s what the other person hears. The lady may have asked me where the subway was, but I heard Subway because that’s what made the most sense to my brain given my past experiences – and the rest, as they say, is history.