July 14, 2020  |  David R. Novak

"What do you mean?": The Innerworkings of Intentionality

What Do You Mean?

People put a great deal of belief into “intent” when it comes to messages and communication. We like to think that our intended meaning matters.

It’s comforting, right?

But what if there is no there, there? What if our intended meaning doesn’t actually matter much at all? How revolting.

What if, instead of thinking about what a message’s intention was, we looked at the meaning that was produced?

The meaning of a message is up for grabs once its out there in the world and the products of communication — the outcomes — are co-produced far more than any belief in the sanctity of original intent would have you believe.

We cannot conceive of intentionality in any way tied to the idea that the meaning I have in my head can be attached to messages, encoded, delivered to you in some way, and interpreted and decoded — facsimile-like — in a way that exactly reproduces the original intent. This is not a useful way to think about communication.

Meaning is created in the middle. In between people.

Sometimes, communication is mostly information and intention is very purposeful. In these situations, interpretation is quite narrow. Think naval flags, NFL play-calls, military battle commands, and the like. All are designed for maximum efficiency, maximum information, and interpretation that is rigid and directed. For example, if you’re the running back and Near Nasty R-134 Crunch Stalk is the play called, you know your job. Somehow. If you can read naval flags, you know what information is being communicated with particular flag combinations. Military commands: highly structured, regimented, and specific. The same for firefighters, in certain factories, and among all sorts of teams.

But these examples don’t translate to everyday life. When we talk about regular, every day conversations, we have to think about communication as much more than just information. Meaning is what results from information. It is interpreted and co-created and manifests as all sorts of things: transfer of knowledge, justification for behaviors, expressions of emotion, feelings of commonality, and more.

Communication goes well beyond just information. So can meaning be intended? I have my doubts.

Thinking about Meaning

Meaning…we could go on forever. I won’t, I promise.

Meaning is created from information and can be wild and crazy or benign and mundane. Meaning can be anything. It can last a lifetime or dissipate quickly and vanish.

How can both of these be true? I don’t know, but they are.

How do we account, for example, for when the outcome of a message far surpasses whatever minuscule intended meaning was attached originally? Small messages can have giant consequences.

Something seems out of whack.

It’s nearly impossible for the meaning you intend to be that which is received. Meaning is co-produced and it doesn’t move from A to B as we like to think it does. We like to think that the intention of our messages matter, but if they aren’t received as intended anyways, is the whole question of intent moot?

Interpretation is always part of the communication game.

Meaning can be directed, it can be guided, it can be cautiously ushered in a general direction but it’s essentially never received exactly as intended. Intention is little more than a hope, a hope that some part of whatever you’re sharing might find arable communicative ground.

Meaning Redux Part 2

Ok, so I actually think that what you intend when you communicate matters a little bit, just not quite how most people think.

Messages can and do have intended meanings. If they didn’t, what’s the point? Nothing means anything? Obviously, that’s not true.

The catch is that intention and attaching it to messages that you send is only part of the communication equation. This is what a lot of people miss. They don’t think about the interpretation part. People can, and will, interpret how they like. Because interpretation can’t be removed from communication, the sanctity of original intent falls away.

I’ll only note about interpretation at this juncture how sometimes there is rhyme and reason to interpretation, and sometimes there is not. Sometimes there is anything in between. Interpretation, and thus meaning, can be wild. Meaning isn’t singular. A message doesn’t have just one meaning. Multiple interpretations are always possible.

That’s not a bug of communicating, that’s a feature.

Certainly, the things we say out into the world are there, often, to make certain things happen…to accomplish certain goals. But saying anything is only the beginning of communication, not the end of it.

Intention mostly doesn’t matter because the cat’s already out of the bag. The barn door is open and horse is gone. Meaning has spun your head around before intention has even left the starting line. It’s pants are down around it’s ankles, too and it’s wondering when the race starts. Once you’ve said what you’ve said, you’ve said it. It’s already out there. The intent doesn’t much matter.


It’s for this exact reason — intention — that apologies can often ring hollow. Bad apologies hang their hat on intent where there is no hook. Hundreds of high-profile celebrity apologies has some version of: “Well, that wasn’t my intention.”: Neil Degrasse Tyson, Mark Wahlberg, Tony Robbins, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, DeSean Jackson, Jimmy Kimmel, Papa John, Natalie Portman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Hank Azaria are just a scant few of the celebrities who’ve invoked their “intended meaning” in a public apology for something. Some of these apologies are better than others, you can judge. However, the best takeaway is from Hank Azaria who stated: “My message is, things can be done with really good intentions and have negative consequences.”

I’d point out that it’s only after the consequences of some statement are known that anyone would even feel compelled to say: “Oh, that wasn’t my intention.” The horse has left the barn.

The larger flaw is the assumption that the person doing the interpreting lacks the right or ability to interpret a message as they see fit. As if it is only the speaker who gets a say about what was meant. Or as if the intended meaning is the only correct or righteous interpretation.

Meaning is in people, not in words.

Point of Clarification

You’ll often hear people say “What I mean is….”. It’s a phrase to help the other person supposedly find your meaning. This can work. It leaves open that meaning is still being worked out. “What I meant" was...” or “My intent was…”is a dead giveaway that some potentially detrimental meaning that you might not like exists. There is a world of difference between being open to working meaning out and attempting to disavow interpretation that has already occurred.

A cue such as “What I mean is…” can certainly serve to direct the listener, if communication struggles are being had. This is “clarifying” behavior. The irony of course, is that we only drill down in this way when we already perceive there to be some sort of confusion, anticipate or recognize blow back, or need to improve poor phrasing, and the like.

Getting Past Intent, A Giant Can Of Worms

So does intent matter? Maybe. Sometimes. Kind of. In a different way.

There’s no one true meaning to any message. That meaning never arrives perfectly intact. Interpretation is always part of the game.

I do believe in good intentions and the road to hell may be indeed paved with them, but it would be silly to believe that the place from which your messages originate doesn’t matter.

It’s the idea the intended meaning is what was received that I find preposterous and unrealistic, at best. We have to nudge ourselves past our reverence for intention. It matters, but it’s not the end all be all.

Intent is only a starting place.

Intent is actually worth being cautious about rather than something we just take for granted. Intention isn’t always pure. People are not always forthcoming, honest, and representative of their true motives. Humans can be shady and sneaky and try to trick you. Misdirection, slight of hand, and equivocation can be par for the course.

Letting go of “what you intended” frees up space to appreciate communication’s co-creation which is actually how meaning is made. Letting go of “what you intended” does not, however, absolve you from consequences. Our messages always have origins — and hopefully those origins are productive, positive places. But when you say something, you own it.

Because interpretation is inescapable, wild interpretations far beyond whatever it was you actually meant can happen. There can be wild interpretations which can, but don’t necessarily, cause problems. Wild interpretation is sometimes exactly what communication is for.

But sometimes not. People can wildly misinterpret, take you out of context, or react adversely because of some unrelated matter, or maybe they’re just an asshole. What to do in these instances? You can try a different approach. You can ask them questions. You can extract or remove yourself and choose not interact with that person if they are avoidable. Maybe you just need to take break for an hour or two. Situations all differ, but when communication feels like two ships passing in the night the best advice I can give is to stop, pause, and reframe if you can. Sometimes you have to approach from a new angle.

Sometimes we just have to slog along.

Communication’s outcomes just happen, intention be damned.

Parting Thoughts

Any discussion of intention is likely to be controversial. It’s not an easy topic. I once got into a vigorous discussion with an old boss about communication and intent. Both communication professors, vastly different views. Intention isn’t just for academics and philosophers though. It’s everywhere. It’s out there in the world. It’s in apologies. It’s behind messages of all sorts, and it factors into communication in boundless ways.

People like to think that what they say matters — and it does. Words matter. Communication matters.

But intentionality doesn’t work exactly how you might think it does or how you might hope it would. It’s not the end all, be all. There’s little purity to intent. We make meaning together.

The arrival of intended meaning isn’t the only means by which we can measure and judge communication’s success. Knowing someone’s intent often isn’t possible, nor does it matter all that much. Better to look at the meaning produced instead.

Concept of Com | Ontology