What’s in a Word?

Moist. Most readers see that word and think nothing of it. One out of every five people, though — according to a recent report by Scientific American — equate it with fingernails scraping on chalkboard.

Now, what could be the cause of such a phenomenon? Association. For some reason — researchers posit — 20 percent of the population has an ingrained, decidedly negative association with the word moist. Maybe it conjures up thoughts of mold and mildew, which thrive on moisture. Personally, I think of fluffy, moist cake. Ummm … delicious! I mean, isn’t there almost nothing more disappointing than sinking your teeth into a decadent-looking pastry, only to discover that the inside is unforgivably dry? And hard! Maybe those 1-out-of-5-ers’ mothers didn’t let them eat enough cake as children?

All is not lost, though. Researchers are toying with another possibility — perhaps the muscles used to utter the word moist are the same as those used to express revulsion. They’re planning on checking that one out. A similar thought is that one’s facial expression when saying moist is similar to that of expressing revulsion. (By the way, my apologies to those who abhor the word moist for repeating it so many times.)

I tested this one out on myself — albeit without a mirror — and it doesn’t quite feel the same. So, for the time being, we’re going to have to leave this as a tzarich iyun. Hopefully the researchers will soon come up with some theories that are not quite as dry.

Now, other than providing some bored Ph.D.-holders with something to do, does this line of scientific inquiry bear any relevance to us? Actually, I think it does. Quite a lot. You see, human interaction and communication occupy a huge chunk of life. A gigantic amount of the joys and challenges we face therein. Successful communication can be a source of sweet satisfaction. Failed communication usually leaves us feeling fallen-flat. And that’s in the better scenarios.

It’s not so easy, this communication thing. But Chazal provided us with an extremely useful tool to help us achieve masterful communication: K’sheim she’ein partzufeihen shavin kach ein dei’oseihen shavin (Just as no two faces are alike, so too are no two minds alike). “Yeah, yeah, tell me something I don’t know,” you may be justifiably muttering to yourself. After all, that’s one of the more famous Chazals out there, isn’t it?

Stop a moment, though, to ask yourself if you truly buy into that maxim. I’ll be the Nachshon over here and admit that, the overwhelming majority of the time, I am patently guilty of (in)conveniently forgetting those wise words. It feels convenient in the moment, because it spares me the effort of considering the other person’s point of view. Ultimately, though, it’s awfully inconvenient, because I wind up spending so much more time than necessary to understand and be understood. I guess it’s like that other Chazal that talks about the long-short way versus the short-long way. Or, as the passuk puts it: “Those who sow with tears will reap with joyous song.”

So, let’s think about this for a moment using our guinea-pig, moist: You’re talking to your husband about the upcoming kiddush for your new niece. After the requisite discussion about whose side the baby most resembles, you launch into a description of the delicious creations you plan on baking for the occasion. But wait! Something is amiss. Your husband seems distant. Even displeased. “Oh my goodness,” you wonder to yourself, “does he think it’s a bad idea for me to bake for the kiddush? Is he upset that I am not spending the time on house chores?” And then you begin feeling just a tad upset. “How could he be so selfish and insensitive? Doesn’t he realize how important my sister’s kiddush for her first baby — that she waited so long for — is to me?! What, so the crystal hasn’t been polished in a while…” You get the idea. And with that, the whole conversation takes a sour turn and disintegrates. And really it’s just all one terrible misunderstanding! You see, in your vivid descriptions of delectable delights, you kept repeating the word moist. And it just so happens that your husband is a 1-out-of-5-er who inexplicably detests that word. He’s hearing nails scraping!

We 4-out-of-5-ers can have an awfully hard time digesting the realistic possibility of such a tragicomic miscommunication; but, remember: just as no two faces are alike, so too no two minds are alike. That’s why miscommunications — of all types and sorts — happen all the time. All the time! So the take-home lesson is: Don’t ever use the word moist. Just kidding. In all seriousness, before jumping to conclusions in our own minds, let’s try to find out what might be going on in the other person’s mind. In the long run, it’s far more convenient.