‘You don’t understand’ is the worst-ever way to begin a sentence

You don't understand

I got drunk with one of my friends a few months ago; I was in his town on a business trip, and we just met up and grabbed some beers/burgers. Very basic American male-bonding type stuff. One element of note is that we’ve both gotten married in the past 30 months or so, so one topic that came up was father-in-laws. Both of us love our father-in-laws, but admittedly, the relationship is always a little odd. Let’s be straight and put it right out there: you’ve probably had sex with that guy’s daughter. It’s never going to be a 100 percent amazing dynamic, even when it seems great. My friend was telling me that he thinks his father-in-law tosses some side comments at gatherings that are designed to put down his choices (my friend’s), and I was telling him, as I got drunker, that all father-in-laws do this. (I’ve seen it more times than I can count.) My friend asks me, “What’s the thing your father-in-law does that annoys you, then?” I thought for a while. He’s a good guy, for sure. But he does start a lot of sentences with “You don’t understand…,” and that can get annoying. Here’s why. 

It’s pretty simple, really: life is obviously complicated. There are relationships and decisions to focus on everywhere, and those relationships and decisions change and intensify over time. Responsibilities become more paramount, etc. I’m speaking very generically right now, and I admit that, but the broader idea is: life is complicated.

In life, which is complicated, there are many things you don’t understand. For example, I don’t understand high finance. I don’t understand how ALS works. I don’t understand why a person would kill another person. There are many things I don’t honestly understand, yes.

But when you have a dynamic with a person — when there’s some form of relationship there, person-to-person — starting a sentence with “You don’t understand…” is pretty bad.


First of all, it makes a base assumption about your ability to process a new, or existing, piece of information. When you say “You don’t understand” to someone else, you’re basically saying, “I don’t believe you can put this information into a contextual whole, or see it from my perspective.” That removes your agency and worthwhileness in the conversation.

Second of all, it’s a signal that you want to end the conversation, not listen to new ideas or approaches or thoughts. Again, agency has been removed.

Third, it essentially puts the speaker (the one saying “You don’t understand…”) on a higher level than the listener (the one receiving the line). It’s akin to saying, “I get this, but you won’t.”

I’ve heard this from my father-in-law a bunch of times — mostly in regard to family issues — as well as my own father, my own mother, and a dozen or so people I’ve worked with. I never really understand it, at all.

See, to me, the point of life and relationships is learning new things — from experience, from people, from context. When that ability is stopped dead in its tracks by three simple words — “You don’t understand” — that hurts. It feels like growth becomes impossible in that moment. Because I’m perceived to be someone that can’t understand, I feel like someone that can’t grow or learn. That’s odd to me, especially within a professional or personal context.

Always have found this idea curious: from 0 to 22, a singular purpose of your life is learning and growing and assimilating new information with old. You focus on those areas. Then, as you get a job and move into the “real world,” the focus shifts to what you already know that’s how hiring is set up, right? — and almost presumes that you can’t access new information or won’t be able to understand it. (That’s how many bosses manage, which is why micromanaging is so widespread.)

At a certain point, it feels like we stop valuing curiosity and the gaining of new knowledge. Doesn’t that feel weird?

Ted Bauer


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