Intent vs. Outcome: ‘What I really meant was …’

A simple and clever sign my girlfriend and I saw on Cape Cod over the weekend made us smile. And it capped a recent rash of lessons about language, and how the words we choose can be crucial.

In a driveway on a busy street in a tourist-heavy region (where summer visitors often get lost) the homeowners had posted a neatly painted sign: “Turns 25 cents.” Under it, a small tin can hung on a chain, presumably to hold quarters.


I’ve seen many other signs, in tourist destinations and not, that have the same message but with a much harsher, don’t-you-dare delivery. “No” is usually the first word.

The clever sign in Brewster, Mass. capped several weeks of incidents that illustrate for me the potential volatility of words. A lot of unnecessary conflict can be avoided by using them, written or spoken, carefully.

I don’t mean using proper grammar or being politically correct. I mean choosing and using your words in a way that doesn’t create a rift between you and your audience.

It comes down to a concept I remember from a diversity workshop long ago: “Intent vs. Outcome.” You might say something in a perfectly innocent and well-meaning way, but confusion or conflict ensue because it was misinterpreted.

Often an attempt at humor is the culprit. Sometimes it’s because we fall back on a word or expression that we’ve used for years, but the listener or reader has no context.

One of my favorite sayings, which I often apply to myself, is “lazy man’s load.” I use it when I carry too many groceries or other items into the house all at once, rather than making two trips. My father used the expression when I was a kid, and it stuck with me.

But if I direct the phrase at someone who has never heard it, we might have a problem.

Another is “twiddle my thumbs.” I used this expression (one of my mom’s favorites) recently — and innocently — but it didn’t come across that way to my audience.

My intent was to show I was eager to do some work and make good use of my time. Instead, the listener wondered if I was bored and annoyed at the prospect of just sitting around.

In this case, the misunderstanding was cleared up after I explained the origin of the expression and that it didn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. (Does that count as blaming my mother?)

The potential for trouble only increases, I suppose, when you add in differences between speaker/writer and audience that are based on ethnicity, religion, geography, etc.

The old lessons still apply: Know your audience. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it. Some things are just better left unsaid.

For the record, we didn’t turn around in the polite homeowners’ driveway on Cape Cod. But I should have pulled in and taken a photo of their sign instead of twiddling my thumbs as we drove past.

I would have gladly paid the 25 cents.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in communication, driving, Irish Investigations, language, Travel, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Intent vs. Outcome: ‘What I really meant was …’

  1. A lot to think about. Ever consider being secretary of state?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim McKeever says:

    Steph, I’m afraid I’d fall victim all too often to what is described as “Irish Diplomacy” — telling people to go to hell in such a way that they’ll enjoy the trip.


  3. markbialczak says:

    All too often in this life of mine, the second sentence out of my mouth has had to be, “But I didn’t mean it that way.”

    You are so correct in difference in interpretation’s and the subtlety of sayings, my friend.

    Great lessons learned here. But I likely will blurt my way through with my tried and true hammers.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s