It depends on what the meaning of the word“is” is— Lessons in Miscommunication

Abhishek Paul
4 min readDec 31, 2022


This quote was made (in)famous by Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky impeachment trial in 1998. To a 16 year old boy still in school, it seemed like an extremely smart way of sticking it to the authorities, but thought that such situations were unlikely to happen in the simple everyday lives that we lead. After all as long as we know the language, we know what we mean when we use the same words right? This assumption was directly challenged in the last year.

I can distinctly remember 3 instances or words to be more specific when I realized that while I might be talking to someone on a certain subject, our understanding/definitions of the word vary so significantly that for all practical purposes we might as well have been discussing completely different ideas. The discussions/debates were ineffective because, to paraphrase Clinton, we weren’t in agreement on what we meant by “it” .

Let me take one from a professional standpoint. Working as part of the People Ops team at Kissflow we have decided to prioritize culture as a means to build and scale our organization. But I’ve realized that the word means very different things for different people and a lot of the lack of involvement/resistance is due to an incorrect understanding of the word more than anything else. Not that I blame them, my own understanding of culture continues to evolve as I work in this space and it is only natural for someone outside this field to have a more limited understanding. I have already shared this quite a bit here, here and here. So my role there is to help increase awareness not judge — something I have to remind myself constantly.

Folks tend to think of culture as something that is apart from work or more accurately (and sadly) as something to distract from or to relieve the stress of working hard and hence the proliferation of “Friday fun activities”, weekend team building outings and many of the posts on social media with the hashtag of the current thing. Culture of course is not just much more than this but something quite different as well. In essence, it is the environment that is created in the organization (intentional or organically) to nurture high performing and happy teams (ideally). This primarily involves the policies, processes, hiring and letting go, the compensation and reward systems, key practices/rituals both formal and informal (all hands, bonding activities, etc), learning to name a few critical items. In a nutshell it is fundamentally how the organization is run and not an add on.

Most discussions are either dealing with the superficial or end up in disagreements because we are not talking about the same thing despite using the same word.

The other word is personal and it doesn’t get more personal than family. In a meeting with a group at church recently, the idea of working together as a family rather than a team was brought up as way to prioritize relationships over results and thus differentiate us from the typical way teams function in the corporate world all of us are accustomed to. When hearing the different ways in which each person in the group interpreted it made me realize that even a word that is so commonly used and lived out by pretty much everyone is understood so differently. Don’t get me wrong, folks spoke about important things like acceptance, love, forgiveness, being there when it matters, etc, but to me family was something much more powerful whose emotion (not necessarily the sentiment) is best described in The Godfather by Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to Fredo — “You’re my older brother and I love you, but don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again.” It talks about multiple things, the deep love that exists simply because of the relationship, a clear statement about what it means to be a part of the family and also a second chance to make amends (others are executed for similar mistakes). Through it all there is a clear subtext that the family is the most important thing, it is what defines them, drives them and gives them their confidence / authority — some live up to it and others are weighed down by it, so by means a boon, but a powerful and invaluable gift nevertheless.

A bit melodramatic most might say, but only if you give primary importance to the context (it is a mafia movie after all), but these “over the top” emotions are normal in a family as far as I am concerned, not just for myself but also for everyone else, or so I assumed. I realized that though most folks loved their family deeply, their definitions varied significantly. Whether this was due to personal experience, the individual’s personality, the circumstances or a combination of these, I don’t know, but I do understand there are enough reasons for all of us attaching different meanings + emotions to this word.

So the next time one gets into a serious discussion or feeling a debate getting out of hand, rather than looking for better arguments/data or labelling the other person, one should pause and check if your definitions are aligned.

As for the third word …… it is a bit more complicated in my own head at the moment, will share when things get more interesting.