How To Interpret Anything

Lots of us overthink conversations we’ve had, but did you know that there is a fancy word to help us along the way? The word is “hermeneutics,” the studying of interpretation, and religious scholars apply this towards their work, decoding ancient texts like the Bible. Hermeneutics can also be used for interpreting conversations, text messages, understanding jokes, and writing a great book report.

Often when we have a sentence somewhere that we don’t understand, hermeneutics comes naturally. We read it a second time. We read it again slowly. We read it again for any reading errors on our part, or errors on the other person’s part, if we feel it doesn’t make sense. We read it again, yet another time, making sure we understand the definition of all of the words. We look up any words we don’t know if we can’t figure them out from context. Do we still not understand what’s going on? This is when we start to wonder if we really understand each individual word. Is one of these words slang for something else? We are on our way to a path to clarification. This is one thing that hermeneutics can be used for. 

Besides clarification, hermeneutics can also be used for reaching a greater depth of understanding. In English class, English teachers are always “making a big deal” out of the littlest things. This is also hermeneutics. They ask questions like, “Is this narrator a reliable narrator?” You have to look through the entire book at the main character’s actions, words, and sometimes thoughts, facial expressions delineated, and more to see, when they narrate something, if it’s possible that they are lying. This greater depth of understanding is also hermeneutics.

Religious scholars love to use hermeneutics to work through ancient texts for a greater depth of understanding, and also apply hermeneutics towards learning what to take away from the text. Jewish practice is often taking text and deciding how they should act it out in real life. We know that Jews have a concept of not working on the Jewish sabbath, but what designates “work?” That is up to hermeneutics, and there are different ways to act out not working in real life. It is never said explicitly in any ancient text that you should not use electricity from Friday night to Saturday night.

Once we understand some of the basic applications of hermeneutics, clarification, finding a greater depth of understanding, and making takeaways, we can use these principles for interpreting anything from an interview question to a text message.

My potential new boss during an interview is saying to me, “Tell me about yourself.” A literal interpretation might feel like starting with your birthdate and following with your life story. Once you study hermeneutics, you know, however, that there is no such thing as a literal interpretation. For clarification, I personally would focus on the definition of the word “tell.” Tell is usually an aggressive sounding word, like “to tell a lie,” or “to tell on somebody,” or “Tell me!” In this situation, we don’t want any drama.

For a greater understanding of “Tell me about yourself,” I would take into account what I know about my potential boss so far. You don’t want to pigeonhole them into a demographic, you want to try to read what they want from you, which you would be doing throughout the course of the job. Does it seem like they want a 20 second, 40 second, or 60 second answer? You can sometimes tell this by how long they have been taking a turn to talk thus far, or how long their emails have been, or how long the job posting is.

In order to take the question “Tell me about yourself” into action, you cannot make it a visceral involuntary action. Hermeneutics teaches you to think, to interpret. Just as some less religious Jews often do things in the spirit of Shabbat, like using electricity but using electricity to listen to relaxing music, think about the spirit of the question. Is the potential boss asking for something lighthearted? A joke? Something serious?

Hermeneutics teaches you to ask questions like, “What is the tone?” “What do we know about the author?” “When was this written?” and more. In an interview, it’s very much, “What do they want from me and how can I achieve pleasing them without being able to ask them what they want from me and how I can achieve pleasing them?” Honestly, I feel even if you asked them, the potential boss would answer in a riddle.

When it comes to hermeneutics, the hardest interpretation of all can be ghosting, when somebody stops texting you without giving a reason. You might start asking yourself questions like, “Was it something I said?” or “Did I say too much?” This is a great application of hermeneutics that will start having you on your way.