The political strategist and pollster Frank Luntz is fond of the expression, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” His point is that politicians often think they come across to the public one way, but in fact are seen and heard quite differently. The same goes with issues, which might seem straightforward but in fact are interpreted with all sorts of baggage and context.
This is a timeless political reality. Some of the Stoics were more effective at managing it than others, but actually that’s not really the point. This distinction between what is said and heard is worth noting in our personal lives for two reasons. Most simply, we should realize that we can’t always control how people perceive us, even if our intentions are good and our message is clear. But more importantly, we should think about this distinction in relation to Epictetus’s observation about how anytime we are offended, we are at least partly to blame.
Because let’s flip Luntz’s remark around. It’s equally true that “It’s not what someone said, it’s what you’ve heard.” You have the power to interpret a remark as rude or pointed. It’s in your brain that the decision was made to record something as being bad taste or stupid or awkward. The ask is the ask, remember, the remark or the request is objective. Our opinion of what it means or why it was said is subjective.
So while we cannot change the words that come out of other people’s mouths, we can control how we choose to hear them. That’s really the thing for you to start thinking about. What’s a better way to go through the world: Being provoked and outraged, or pissed off or disappointed because you’ve chosen to see the worst in people, or being able to laugh, to let go, to see through the rough exterior, to ignore, because you’ve chosen to hear better? You control which path you choose… and in the process, choose how happy your life is going to be.