getting to know you, getting to know all about you

Getting to know, or thinking that you know, anyone is not easy, particularly so in a different culture where it can be a mysterious and often frustrating experience. A philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein knew it was normal for most people to go around believing that they understood what other people were saying simply because of the words they used, but he also knew that really understanding what anyone says is a difficult task that requires work and thought. Especially so in dealing with people whose background or culture is vastly different, truly foreign. At one place he says:

One human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying themselves.) We can not find our feet with them. 

The word in German that was translated as “feet” actually employs an idiom that literally says: We can not find ourselves in them. Of course, we can’t find ourselves in anyone period, but his point underscored the dangers of assuming you understand correctly or were understood correctly, or that everyone is feeling, seeing, agreeing or disagreeing based on the same perceptions or assumptions and even if they were, words and language have to be used with as much simplicity, precision, patience and humility as we can muster.

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