What Is Misreading Between the Lines?
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
I’ve noticed how people try to discover the meaning or purpose of what’s being said by reading between the lines in conversations, letters, e-mails, texts, and social media. I’ve also noticed how they often misread between the lines, misinterpreting the communication. Have you noticed that?
A History of Secrecy
“Reading between the lines” is an idiom derived from the practice once used to transmit coded information between written lines of a document in invisible ink. The phrase became a way to describe how a person tries to understand the real or hidden meaning of something written, spoken, or in a person's behavior.
Communication involves a communicator who sends the message, the message being sent, and a receiver of the message. The obvious examples of this process are verbal and written communication. A person’s behavior also sends a message through non-verbal communication.
All three of these ways of communicating fall prey to thinking between the lines to identify the meaning or purpose, what is “really” being expressed or what is “really” happening.
Reading Between the Lines Can Be Problematic
Reading between the lines is natural but problematic. The communication process is never crystal clear because of the “fly in the ointment” called interpretation.
When you speak, write, or do something, you consciously or unconsciously interpret what you mean to say, write or do. The receiver of the spoken, written, or behavioral message also interprets through their mental and emotional filters.
I’m sure you’ve heard the scenario in which a person tells a story, and the story, as it is passed from one person to another, at the end looks nothing like the original story. This is
the work of the “spin” our mental and emotional filters put on what we hear, read, and see happening.
The danger in misreading between the lines, misinterpreting what is being communicated is obvious. Misreading leads to incorrect processing of information and incorrect responses. In a business context, this can be costly.
An employee who misreads between the lines of a boss’ memo could overreact and lose his or her job.
A salesperson could misread between the lines of a customer’s behavior and lose a sale.
In a personal context, a misread could negatively affect relationships. A misread between the lines of a social media post could lead a husband to question his wife’s fidelity. A mother who misreads a child’s comment about finding an apartment could question his love for her.
The way you can avoid misreading between the lines is less obvious.
Being aware that we can naturally misread between the lines is the first step.
Being aware of the mental and emotional filters through which you are processing a message is also important. This will make you aware of hasty conclusions or assumptions you are making.
In Your Christian Walk
As you continue in your Christian walk, it’s important you correctly interpret what is being said, written, or done by others. Your Christian perspective is itself a filter through which you could misread between the lines.
The good news is that you have the Holy Spirit at your disposal to help you. Before you assume or jump to conclusions, prayerfully communicate with him.
Listen to God's Words
Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3)
Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions. (Proverbs 18:2)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, (James 1:19)
Also read: Psalm 19:14, Matthew 15:18-19, Ephesians 4:29
In the Words of Others
“I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are a source of misunderstanding.” Antoine de Saint Exupery
“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.” Henry Winkler
"Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” Fyodor Dostoevsky
Think About It
Recall a time when you misread between the lines of a letter, e-mail, text, or some other type of communication. Describe what happened. How did you discover you misinterpreted the message?
Was there a time a business associate or family member misread a communication from you or an action you took? Describe what occurred? How did it make you feel?
What do you think about turning to the Holy Spirit for guidance when you are unsure about a communication you received?