What Does Meaning Mean?

Give me a break! That was my first thought when I read these passages in a scholarly article:

  • “How do students make meaning when they explore their strengths?”
  • “Does their meaning-making influence their daily lives?”
  • “Identify your strengths and give them meaning.”
  • “Enabling a deep analysis of personal meaning-making…”
  • “Depending on individual meaning-making, etc….”
  • “…reflection and other meaning-making processes.”
  • “…which leads to a more meaningful
  • “This can be a complex meaning-making experience.”
labyrinth-by-brainwise-2005-cc-by-nc-nd-2-0
Labyrinth, by brainwise, 2005, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Labyrinth at Columcille Megalith Park, Bangor, PA)

 

What do all these uses of “meaning” mean? For me, they are undefined jargon—terms used by a writer who cannot find a more concrete way to say what is on their mind. But “mean” and “meaning” are perfectly good, simple, and concrete words until they get elevated to the clouds and semantic obscurity. “Mean” comes from the Old English “mænan,” which is defined as to intend, to have in one’s mind. When we ask the meaning of something, we are saying we don’t know the definition of a word someone has used (What does expialidocious mean?), the purpose of a behavior (What is the meaning of that glare?), or what a written or spoken message was supposed to communicate (I heard/read what you said/wrote, but I don’t know what you mean!).

I suppose that the writer of the above bullets was referring to the degree to which an individual derived value from an experience, or how they reacted to it. What were they feeling inside? What do they know now that they didn’t know before? What did it make them think of? I am reminded of “Sentence Completions”–a facilitator’s guide to helping participants report to one another how they reacted to a shared experience. Let us say that you show a film about prejudice to a group. As a way of helping the individuals evaluate that experience and speak about it with the others, the facilitator might ask them to complete one or more of these sentence stems:

  • I learned that I…
  • I realized that I…
  • I was pleased that I…
  • I was displeased that I…
  • I was surprised that I…
  • I rediscovered that I…
  • I noticed that I…
  • I re-learned that I…
  • I was amused that I…
  • I was saddened that I…
  • I regret that I…
  • I look forward to…
  • I wish I had more…
  • I wonder if…
  • I wonder why…
  • I wonder about…
  • I wonder whether…
  • I wonder when…
  • I wonder how…
  • I plan to…
  • I am optimistic that I…
  • I am pessimistic about…
  • I wish I could change…
  • I wish I had…
  • I need to…
  • I want to…
  • I was perplexed about…
  • I’m planning to contact…
  • I need more…
  • I need less…
  • I will never…

values-toolkitIf someone is unable to fill in any of these incomplete sentences, then it is probably safe to conclude that they did not find the film experience “meaningful.” This list, incidentally, is taken from my book The Values Toolkit: Application Manual for The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, 2016). It is an activity called “Sentence Completions” and is based on a similar activity popular in the Values Clarification literature in the 1970s.

values-at-workSo when we think about asking someone whether or not they had a meaningful vacation, date, interview, trip, worship, or some other kind of experience, what we really mean (i.e., intend) is to ask them what they enjoyed, learned, hated, what was the high point/low point, and so forth. Did they have an emotional reaction or a cognitive gain? Or both?

Rather than ask whether something is meaningful to someone, try getting more specific. As in, now that you have read this blog, rather than my asking you whether or not it was meaningful for you, I will ask you: Was it worth your time to read this blog? If so, in what way? If you have trouble answering, refer to the sentence stems above!

3 thoughts on “What Does Meaning Mean?

Add yours

  1. The facts are simple, but the reality is a matter of personal experience and how we feel about it. I like the passing ships metaphor.

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