The common phrase, “It’s just semantics” means “We both mean the same thing, we’re just using different words.” In my experience, it’s rarely true, and usually it is a vehicle to ignore subtle and important distinctions. Very often, when one person says to the other “It’s just semantics,” they are often the one missing the nuances and eager to dismiss the fact that they approach limits of their understanding and/or responsibility in the name of harmony. This is often evident when someone is caught in a limiting belief:
“I think if we all work hard, the money takes care of itself.”
“The money takes care of itself? How does that work?”
“Well, it’s just an expression, perhaps I misspoke…”
What happened was the individual revealed an important unconscious belief and probable dysfunctional pattern of behavior, and the Appeal to Semantics is employed to cover the tracks. Anyone who says, “The money takes care of itself” likely has a tragic misunderstanding of financial management. Other well-worn phrases associated with this excuse include:
- Falsely humble: “I didn’t mean that; it was a poor word choice.”
- Passive-aggressive: “I’ll be more careful with my words next time.”
- Aggressive: “Don’t take me so literally!”
Perhaps you can tell I’ve heard a lot of this type of excuse. As a coach, it’s my job to hold a mirror up to what people say so they can see where it’s coming from and how they’re showing up. Amazingly, many people don’t want to look. When you hear the Appeal to Semantics in any of its forms, see if you can hear it as one or more of the following. What the excuse-maker is really saying is:
- “Agreeing is more comfortable and/or expedient than disagreeing, so let’s pretend we see this the same way.”
- “I’m not following your more advanced logic/argument/vocabulary, but I don’t want to admit it (see #1), so let’s pretend I’m as smart as you are.”
- “You just noticed a leak of unconscious material that I’d really like to pretend isn’t there.”
Here’s an actual, verbatim example of a text conversation I had with a member of one of my groups that is a common expression of the third item above.
Greg: Josef, I want to apologize for my disengagement from the group these last couple of months. Obviously I’ve been reeling from the situation with [romantic partner], but that should remain separate from my obligations here. I realize this is also the second apology I’m giving for failing to communicate about absences from the call, but I hope that doesn’t make it disingenuous. I plan on making the next call a priority, and the calls going forward.
Did you notice the lack of healthy self-interest and choice? I did! He’d been well-educated on the concepts so I decided to see if he could apply them.
Josef: Okay, Greg, thank you, but it’s not about separation or obligations…so what is it about?
Greg: I’m not sure I have a great answer to that. I’ve let myself become overwhelmed and stressed, and have had difficulty prioritizing lately. I’m training two new managers and start training a third very soon, so my plate has been very full, and I haven’t had anyone to delegate to or been able to cope with it all.
Josef: So how can Clear and Open be something to support you rather than be an obligation? Because obligations don’t work.
Greg: I may have misspoken. I absolutely don’t see it as just a box to check or as a burden, but it is a commitment that I’ve made, which I’ve failed to follow through on.
Boom, there it is. Note the backpedaling use of “absolutely.” When I asserted that his participation ought to be in his own healthy self-interest, rather than taking that on as a challenge, he uses Appeal to Semantics to try to hide his people-pleaser tendencies that are the root of all his problems. Accountability to the rescue!
Josef: What if the words you used actually represented accurately how a part of you relates to it, who is blended up with the part of you that sees it differently?
Assigning behaviors to different parts is a technique that supports people to take responsibility for an aspect of their unconscious, so that they are innocent in one way, but can rise in responsibility. It’s the basis of several forms of therapy.
Greg: Maybe. It could be that despite the value I see in it and the fact that I enjoy participating, it still adds one more thing.
Josef: And it’s supposed to be the one more thing that has the power to make everything better… that’s the thing.
Greg: Right, and I recognize that and want that. I don’t consciously view it as a burden, but you may be right that there’s a part of me that does to some extent. Not a strong part, I think, but a part.
Josef: So that’s the work: to let your actions show which part you’re being, because so far…it’s easy to see who you’ve been being.
Greg: Yeah… I might be misleading myself by saying it’s a small part of me if I’m letting it pull me away from the group. I don’t want it to be that way.
Some beautiful honesty here, made possible not accepting the excuse. When you say “No” to bullshit in the right way, you invite realness, vulnerability, and authentic self-reflection like this.
Josef: Very good… keep going with that. Show, through your actions, what matters to you.
I would have liked more of a hand-in-face embarrassment here, but I’ll take what I got. He’s been going through a difficult time, and this is about as far as one can go in a text conversation with accountability. His actions will show if he really gets it. And moreover, you can bet he’ll be more conscious the next time an Appeal to Semantics comes to mind.