Adventures In Miscommunication

Miscommunication can happen in a variety of contexts. Since I moved outside my native California, cross-cultural miscommunication has occurred on a pretty regular basis. For example, one of my Aussie friends was terribly amused when I asked what football team I should “root” for (“root” means “have sex with” in Aussie slang). But even within the same culture and language, miscommunication regularly happens in relationships.

When my husband and I moved in together, we, like many newly-cohabitating couples, had a fair bit of conflict about household chores. I’d be annoyed that he wasn’t “cleaning” enough, and he’d be totally confused since I was the one not “cleaning” enough. This went on for months until one of us said, “Wait. What do you mean by ‘cleaning?’” It turned out that we were talking about separate things. I was irritated that he didn’t wipe the counter after doing dishes, and he was irked that I left my books all over the living room. I’ve often thought, in my nerdier moments, how many relationship problems would be solved with a Vulcan mind-meld.

But back to Earth cultures. The French have two common words for “to clean”: “nettoyer” and “ranger.” “Ranger” refers to the my-husband-type of clean – tidying or de-cluttering. “Nettoyer” is my type of clean – sanitizing kitchen surfaces or getting mold off the shower. It’s fascinating to me how the same word can have two different meanings to two people from similar backgrounds, and I think about how much more harmonious we would have been if we had this epiphany sooner. Perhaps French really is the language of love. Or Vulcan. Whatever.

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About Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs, MPH is a NYC-based sex educator + blogger. She's the founder of Sex Geekdom, a global community for sex educators, researchers, and other folks who love having geeky conversations about sex.

  • Debby Herbenick

    My partner and I share the same differences in cleaning – I stack mail and scrub dirt. He’s tidy but rarely notices dust or dirt. Which means we both think that we, ourselves, are the clean ones and the other one is dirty.

  • Laura

    We are similar, but we both have worked it out so we each have our personal “jobs” around the house, some are “cleaning” (scrubbing things), and some are “tidying” (arranging things and de-cluttering). But since we are humans who actually inhabit our space daily, there is always something more to do. Even better than figuring out what each of our roles in housekeeping are was realizing that there is a level of mess that we can live with, because perfection is an unattainable and unrealistic goal.

  • JH

    Great post! Welcome to MSP!

  • Kate McCombs

    I’m glad you liked the post and thank you for the welcome!

  • Kate McCombs

    I love that you said, “a level of mess that we can live with.” I think that’s an important point. Very often, there are things in your life more important than cleaning. I think being comfortable with a certain amount of chaos and uncertainty helps make relationships, and life in general, more wonderful.

  • Kate McCombs

    I’m curious if there is a gender component to this differing definitions thing – I would guess so. Any thoughts about why? Another thought: my husband is far-sighted and I’ve suspected his lack of dirt awareness can be partially attributable to his vision. Conversely, I’m near-sighted. I wonder if there’s anything to that?

    I love hearing that you and your partner also have this issue: I feel a lovely sense of shared reality!

  • Tiffany Neal

    Hi Kate! I’m the one who cares about tidiness, and my husband about cleanliness. Just another counter-example for your gender stats. ;) But anyway, I agree about how important it is to clarify understanding in all aspects of a relationship. Keep up the great blogging!

  • Vanessa

    Thank you for this post…I enjoyed reading it! :)