About “Reading” and Righting

by Kathie Johnston Brough

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    Brad plays nervously with his key ring. He will go to his new ward for the first time tonight, and he feels less sure of himself than usual. He has been thinking about how he will get acquainted and has decided the best plan is to just keep as quiet as possible for awhile. That way he will see what others are like before they form opinions of him. Brad smiles as he turns the key in the ignition. He isn’t sure just why, but somehow getting Dad to let him take the car tonight was very important to him.

    Brad doesn’t realize that his keeping quiet does not prevent people from forming opinions of him. He also doesn’t recognize that the car makes him feel more confident in a new situation.

    Everyone “speaks” another language—one that sends distinct messages through symbols and objects. With this language you relate to dozens of people each day, including family and friends and many others you will never even meet. Your message comes from the objects you do or do not wear, carry, drive, or live in. Do you wear a watch or ring? On which finger do you wear your ring? How much do you smile? What kind of car do you drive? When do you wear jeans?

    Although you may stop talking, you cannot stop communicating. Such non-stop communication has benefits, drawbacks, and responsibilities, which we must learn to recognize in order to “say what we mean” and better understand what others mean.


    Jim wore his ski parka to Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women activity night. Before the evening was over he had talked about his favorite sport with six different people. That common interest was the beginning of forming some new friendships.

    Carolyn sat next to a boy on a plane for an hour without saying anything but “Hello.” Then he took out his Book of Mormon. He didn’t read very far because they spent the rest of the time getting acquainted.

    Besides indicating people’s interests, objects and clothing often indicate occupations. Cello cases, tennis racquets, and chaps all serve useful purposes and send messages about people’s interests at the same time.

    You may not be aware of how you use objects to tell others about yourself. A few years ago some researchers, as they examined briefcases of men boarding airplanes, discovered that many of them were empty. These men were anxious to send a message to others about their occupation, status, or reasons for traveling.

    The importance of clothing and objects in telling others about ourselves is illustrated well by the need for costumes and props in theater. The things a character wears and uses in a play often tell the audience more about him than the lines he says. Likewise, you are constantly telling others about your character with the objects you wear and use.


    With so many benefits, then, what are the drawbacks? Because it is subtle, you may be unaware of the influence others have upon you as you listen to their second language. For example, experiments have shown that pedestrians are much more likely to follow a well-dressed person as he violates a crosswalk signal than a poorly dressed individual. Thus you may be influenced in many situations without even realizing the source of the influence. Becoming aware of this characteristic of communication can help you make decisions more consciously and put you in better control of your life.

    You may also transmit a message different from the one you mean to send, or you may receive a message from others that does not accurately represent their feelings or interests. Jim, for instance, might not have been a skier at all and may have borrowed his brother’s parka to wear to activity night. In that case, wearing the ski parka would not have helped him in meeting people with interests similar to his and might actually have acted as a barrier for him.

    Because messages sent by particular objects change with time, you may also send or receive a wrong message. Brigham Young was very much concerned about the second language the people of his time were using. He counseled the women that “the daughters of Israel should understand what fashions they should have, without borrowing from the impure and unrighteous.” Consistent with attitudes such as these, President Young’s beard and hairstyle, in his day, sent the message that he was respectable, moderate, and dignified. Yet many of those who wear the same beard and hairstyle today may unintentionally send quite a different message.

    The meaning of objects also varies according to cultures and situations. Worn in Scotland, a kilt may signify unity or pride in belonging to a particular clan or family. In America a man in the same kilt may be viewed with suspicion for “wearing a skirt.”

    Understanding what objects and clothing may be appropriate for particular situations may sometimes be as difficult for you as it was for the well-to-do easterner visiting the West of the 1800s. After receiving an invitation to a local dance, he hurried out to purchase a cowboy hat, boots, and complete western apparel. Arriving at the dance, he found he was the only guest not in tie and tails.

    Even after we know what objects send messages, we face other drawbacks of our silent language when we do not count the cost of sending a particular message:

    Kent is interested in telling others that he is mature and masculine; he decides to spend his mission savings on a sportscar.

    Christy feels she must dress in the latest styles, so rather than working with the wardrobe she has and saving money for the secretarial school she wants to attend, she spends all her earnings on new clothes.

    Janelle wears faded denims everywhere. She doesn’t know that Alan considered asking her to the stake dance but didn’t think she would consider dressing up for the occasion.

    Most messages can be sent in a variety of ways, so we must always ask ourselves if the objects we use to send a message are really worth the costs.


    Once you have recognized the benefits and drawbacks of our second language, you then have a responsibility for the way you “speak” it.

    As with all communication, you must take the responsibility for sending and receiving messages. If you are speaking, you should find the best possible way to communicate; and if you a listening, you must try to get the right message, no matter how it is sent to you. In reading others’ second languages, you have the responsibility to withhold judgment—to look beyond appearances to find out more; and you have the responsibility to send messages that help others get to know you rather than messages that may be misleading.

    You also have a responsibility to follow the counsel of the prophets:

    “Create your own fashions and make your clothing to please yourselves, independent of outside influences.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 12:202.)

    “Do not accept the world’s standards, being tossed to and fro by the winds of fashion. … [Our] style should not be neglectful, but should represent the fruits of gospel principles such as cleanliness, simplicity and modesty.” (Harold B. Lee, Church Personnel Department leaflet.)

    We are warned, “And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.” (2 Ne. 28:21.) And we know also that “no man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt. 6:24.)

    So ask yourself what messages others might receive from the tie you do or do not wear, the makeup you apply, the hairstyle you select, or the kinds of clothes you wear for church, school, and work? Through small decisions like these you may choose which messages you send with your second language, but you cannot send the messages of God and the messages of mammon at the same time. What is your message? How are you sending it?

    Photography by Jed Clark

    I am nearsighted; I am a good student and study French; I ski; I play the violin; I don’t ski very well

    I enjoy music; I play football for my high school; I have a very hearty appetite and I ride a motorcycle; I have a great taste in reading and am a Mormon; I am more interested in comfort than in style; I listen to a country-western music station