What Does THAT Mean? Powerful Words We Barely Understand


When it comes to Hebrew, I have mastered a single phrase, ani lo m’daberet ivrit, which means “I don’t speak Hebrew.” The problem is that, while my command of the Hebrew language is severely limited (read: previous sentence), my Israeli accent is pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. It leads to a significant amount of confusion on the part of the listener – that disconnect between what I am saying and how I am saying it. I see people look at me with confusion, wondering, “Does she really not speak Hebrew? Because she sure sounds like she does.” And then, inevitably, they ask me a follow up question in ivrit, which I answer with a blank stare because, as I may have mentioned in two languages, I don’t speak Hebrew.

The fact that I appear perplexed and that my listener looks confounded is actually a gift. I know that my communication partner and I are having a misunderstanding, which I can easily remedy by reiterating, in English, that I don’t speak Hebrew (other than that one phrase) despite my spot-on accent. What gets more of us into trouble is when we use words or phrases assuming that what we mean is the same as what other people mean when they speak or hear that same terminology. We are often so busy that we fail to define terms because they seem clear enough, but in fact, that assumption can cost us more time in the long run.

According to a Hebrew Proverb (luckily for me, translated into English), “A book gives knowledge, but it is life that gives understanding.” Here are three common words and phrases that we let fly around the home and office that require more than a dictionary definition of what they mean – they need some discussion and agreement on what these terms mean in real, working life:

Teamwork: How many times have you said or heard someone say, “What we need around here is better teamwork!”? People nod and smile and agree that yes, that’s exactly what we need. But what does it mean? Does it mean that everyone contributes equally? That one person recommends and everyone votes? That one person decides and everyone stands behind the decision publically (regardless of how they feel privately)? Taking the time to ask what each member of the team thinks constitutes teamwork – what behaviors, attitudes and perspectives – is probably a better step towards creating a culture of teamwork than simply declaring the need for it.

Communication: Most of us crave more of it or a better version of it: spouses, partners, parents, managers, coworkers, volunteers. But when we aren’t specific about what we really want more of/less of/a different style of, we are failing to do the very thing we want: communicate clearly. Are you seeking more talking or more listening? More sharing of feelings and inner thoughts to build intimacy? More frequent status updates or check-ins? More phone calls or emails? More attention? More smiles? Your ability and willingness to communicate what you actually need in order to feel satisfied is putting an important deposit in your relationship bank account.

Responsive/ASAP/In a timely manner/Early: 15 years ago, when I first started dating my now-husband Michael, my friend Elizabeth invited both of to a party she was hosting. She suggested that we come early so that she could have an opportunity to meet my new beau. For an 8 o’clock party, I knew that “early” meant 7 – except that Liz knew early meant “not late” (i.e. any time before 8:30). Needless to say, when we showed up at 7, Liz mustered as much enthusiasm as she could, considering that she was dressed in just a towel – and a smile. It’s never too early to start defining what you mean by responsive (does that mean call or email? Tomorrow or next week?), ASAP (does that mean let me know when it’s done or let me know what’s going on in an hour regardless of whether or not it’s done?), in a timely manner (according to whom?) and, of course, early (because we all know how that can turn out.)

Hebrew poet Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote, “As the length of a tree's branches depends on its roots, so right words depend on a man's good sense.” Both men and women should take the time to make sure that our words both reflect our good sense and make sense to everyone with whom we communicate.

You know what I mean?