Text, subtext, and context

I’m posting this blog in my Politics and community category because it’s an example of the kind of offenses that can damage community. But it’s also evidence that intentional community can endure such hurts and grow richer in the process. Diverse communities might find it instructive.

But I’m also posting it in the Personal writing category because I keep thinking about it—and that probably has more to do with my obsession to find just the right word to convey a meaning. But maybe that can be instructive too.

The text

My friend Amelia (not her real name; she likes her privacy) has a deft command of language. It’s something I noticed about her from the first time we sat around a meeting table together, wrestling with big ideas and tiny details. Amelia doesn’t use only the words that everyone else uses; no, she also flavors her sentences with less trite words too. Not necessarily big words, or foreign words, or new words—just fresh words that fit well and make an impression. This resonates with me because I love language.

So to convey all this to my friend Amelia, I once told her, “You are really articulate.”

The subtext

But Amelia is black. So to her ears my compliment carried a tinge of paternalism, or at least surprise. As if I found it so delightfully unusual for a black person to speak proper English that I couldn’t help but comment on it. At the time, Amelia was offended, and she told me so, and I didn’t understand why. I knew my text was correct: “articulate” was an accurate word for the compliment I was trying to pay my friend. But I didn’t know the subtext that made my compliment sound backhanded to her.


Amelia was gracious enough to accept the text of my compliment and forgive my ignorance of the subtext that is normal to her as a black woman. Our friendship survived.


This incident happened years ago, but Amelia and I were talking about it again recently. I began wondering how context might affect the subtext of that same text. For example, is there any hidden meaning when I tell a white woman she’s articulate?


Or what if Amelia had called me articulate?


And what are the subtexts for men who might comment on each other’s command of language?



I don’t know

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they intrigue me. They don’t intrigue Amelia quite as much, probably because for her these are not just word puzzles; they are a cross-cultural minefield that she gets tired of being lured into.

I can understand that.

I do care

But I put these questions into the blogosphere because I believe they are important to think about. I care about words, and I care about people, and I want my words to build bridges, not walls, between us.

Even if there is no perfect text to convey what we mean, I think asking questions about the subtext and the context is a way to let each other know we are trying.

And sometimes that’s enough to keep the conversation going.

6 thoughts on “Text, subtext, and context”

  1. Great to think about. Now you’ve got me wondering about it. I wonder if Amelia would have been offended had you said, “As a wordsmith myself, I enjoy listening to your fresh and inspiring choice of words,” or simply, “I like your style.”
    Thanks for reminding me of subtext and context.

    • Thanks, Jim. So often, we don’t know there’s a subtext until we bumble into it! Moving forward, I will be more likely to use one of the options you mention, because I’m aware of the subtext now.

      Another interesting twist: Another black friend and I discussed how it would have been less offensive to say, “You articulated that well,” using the verb form of the word. I can see the difference that would make to the subtext, but that sentence also has a different meaning. I wanted to convey that Amelia’s entire pattern of speech is elegant and thought-provoking, not just that she developed a particularly cogent argument.

      Ah, language! I love it!

  2. Really Good Melanie! I appreciate you giving language to this challenge in communicating cross culturally. 2 things stirred me: 1) This kind of miscommunication has happened to me many times, and I didn’t even have language for it – so the text, subtext and context really helps. 2) Your story really highlights the value of relationship – where we have a close enough relationship to dialogue about those subtext issues when we inadvertently hurt one another. Well said, thank-you!

    • Thank you, David! I think your point about relationship is really key. It’s so easy to let misunderstandings like this end a relationship. Amelia had every right to be offended, but she gave up that right and believed me when I explained what my intention was. I had every right to use the word “articulate” and not expect to be misunderstood, but I gave up that right and tried to find a different way to express my meaning. Relationships have a better chance of flourishing when we respect others’ rights and don’t demand our own.

  3. That was an interesting conversation. I like hanging with “Amelia” precisely because she’s incredibly intelligent and articulate, two things I love being around. I like to be around people who challenge me to think. “Amelia” also happens to be black and I happen to be white. I’m much more likely to step on her toes than she on mine. Fortunately, she is amazingly tolerant and gracious.

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