You would have often heard or even used the following phrases: “Hey what’s up?” “I’m sorry but…” or even “I’m sorry if you got hurt…” and “I know what you are going through.”
On the surface, they seem like harmless, genuine and sincere expressions. Many people wouldn’t react to it. However, emotionally intelligent people know that these seemingly helpful phrases are somehow jarring. These words are easy to misinterpret and possibly create conflict. When someone tells a person “I know what you are going through”, it can lead to a variety of reactions. For one, they could think “Do you really know what I am going through, or are you saying it just for the sake of it?”
When someone tells you, “I am sorry if you got hurt”, that can be interpreted as a non-apology. That “if” dilutes the apology. That brings us to the Penguin Rule. It’s the practice of being aware about the many subtle meanings that seemingly casual words might imply. “It’s a complex web of interpretations. The Penguin Rule is a behavioural guideline emphasising the awareness of the potential misinterpretations of our words, despite our best intentions,” explains Jean Shahdadpuri, a Dubai-based behavioural specialist. She describes the rule as a framework for recognising and navigating ‘potential icebergs’ in interactions.
The rule also serves as a metaphorical lens, highlighting how personal experiences, perspectives, and knowledge significantly shape our interpretation of language.
The Penguin Rule is a complex web of interpretations. It is a behavioural guideline emphasising the awareness of the potential misinterpretations of our words, despite our best intentions.
Why it is called the Penguin Rule
What image comes to mind when you think of a penguin? A busy, plump bird dressed in a tuxedo and top hat? Or do you see a cute furry creature lost in Antartica? Perhaps you can imagine the noise they make, or see them sliding, waddling on ice. Do you see them as tubby creatures or lean birds walking around?
No this isn’t a delirious stream of consciousness; the truth is that there’s no universal understanding of a penguin. A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a study that was published in the 2022 journal Open Mind: Discoveries in Cognitive Science. The basis of their study: How likely are a group of people to have the exact same understandings of the subtle definitions of even the most common words?
One of the crucial examples was the word penguin. Ironically, people don’t have the same image of a penguin as others. Their research showed "10 to 30 quantifiably different concept variants" that people conceive when they encounter the word "penguin". These variants range from the bird's weight to its noise levels, or even comparisons to a dolphin. Author and Berkeley psychologist Celeste Kidd had told the US-based journal Scientific American, “The probability two people selected at random will share the same concept about penguins is around 12 per cent."
And so, just like the word ‘penguin’, many words and phrases can mean different things to different kinds of people.
Why people with high emotional intelligence resonate with the Penguin Rule
For starters, it’s important to understand who exactly is a person with high intelligence. “These are people who know, identify, manage and recognise emotions. They practice empathy,” explains Dubai-based wellness expert Kai Simmonds.
These kind of people resonate strongly with the Penguin Rule, because they understand the intricacies of communications, says Shahdadpuri. “They have a sense of self-awareness and regulation, and can reason with emotions. So they are more open and receptive to body language. They realise that every word that they speak or write has a ripple effect of interpretations.” adds Shahdadpuri. This awareness fuels empathy. It also helps them anticipate, understand, and adjust to the nuanced interpretation. So, sometimes, they can catch from a friendly ‘Hey, how’s it going’ that the other person isn’t completely invested in a response.
Life coach and wellness expert Natalie Hore calls emotional intelligence an 'intricate and multi-faceted' topic. "While some people may feel that the results of the Penguin Rule study are indicative of people being overly sensitive, the fact that the probability of two people sharing the exact same concept of a term is rare. It may be beneficial to take results into account when wishing to connect to another on a business or personal level," she says.
Overthinking and getting triggered
Howevever, sometimes, emotionally intelligent people can go into a bit of a spiral with overthinking. When someone asks them “how are they doing”, this could lead to the other getting anxious, or worried. “They’ll wonder why is this person asking me, or do I look so tired? As they are so over-receptive and over-perceptive, they keep trying to connect the dots and interpret it differently,” says Shahdadpuri. “Someone who is completely detached, they won’t be bothered if you say hello to them or not,” she adds.
People can also get triggered. “For instance, a person could think they’re being funny by teasing you and calls you an idiot,” explains Bushra Khan, a transformational coach at Dubai-based medical center Wellth. “But maybe, in your childhood you do have some unpleasant memories associated with that word. You tell them off, and the other person engages in justification. It goes on. So, even in the case of emotionally intelligent people, they get upset, because the words could have triggered an unpleasant memory.”
For instance, a person could think they’re being funny by teasing you and calls you an idiot. However, you may have unpleasant memories associated with that word, which causes a trigger. It comes from somewhere deeper...
When it comes to criticism, hidden nuances, playful sarcasm, people tend to take it personally. It has affected them somewhere. “It is coming from somewhere deeper. Like, a memory of something that has gone wrong in their life, before,” adds Khan. A simple “how are you feeling” can be misconstrued as a lack of interest, fueling a person’s sense of loneliness. “Somewhere, owing to your past trauma, you take it in a bad way,” she adds.
Being objective and genuine
The Penguin Rule fits into the broader understanding of healthy communication, for both parties. How does one resolve such tricky situations that have potential for conflict? Well, the onus is on both sides.
“Be more objective, and less subjective,” says Khan. “So if you’re offended by someone’s words whom you know has good intentions, catch the thought, assess it. ‘Do they really mean badly for me’? Think about it, and then change it into a more objective thought,” she says. “Think about why you got upset, and why it made you feel that way. So we start healing that wound, and once we do that, the trigger will reduce.” Communicate when you feel offended, but without being in a confrontational manner.
Meanwhile, the other person must examine the words they use too. Think about the phrases that you are using, and be more aware about them, says Khan. “Look at how people interpret it. When you apologise, say ‘I am sorry I made you feel that way. That was not my intention. Next time I will be more sensitive’. That is more prudent than ‘I’m so sensitive but…’ Don’t use the word ‘but’. You are cancelling how they’re feeling then. The feeling has to be genuine. Telling the person ‘you are over-sensitive’ and ‘you have taken it in the wrong way’ is gaslighting the person, even if you don’t mean it,” explains Khan.
If you are having a conversation with someone and asking them how they are doing, instead of a fleeting “How are you”, maybe try something a little more specific to their lives, and less general.
While it’s great to have the skills of an emotionally intelligent person, there’s a lot more to be done. “Just knowing and recognising emotions is a great start, but to truly avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications, it takes time to go a bit deeper,” adds Simmonds. People often miscommunicate what they mean, because they don’t understand the emotion of what they want. On the other hand, in an argument 9 out of 10 times the person doesn't really need to be agreed with or apologised to, they need to be acknowledged and validated, explains Simmons.
And so, in order to apply the Penguin Rule, we must first learn to acknowledge and validate our emotions. “It’s one thing to be emotionally intelligent and be able to ‘know’ what feeling you are feeling. However, it’s another thing to acknowledge, accept and understand that emotion first before communicating it with others,” says Simmonds.
When applying the Penguin Rule, reconsidering words and phrases that you often use is helpful, but it is also a skill that takes a lot of time. So start practising with yourself. Start with self-inquiry...
When applying the Penguin Rule, reconsidering words and phrases that you often use is helpful, but it is also a skill that takes a lot of time. So how do we know what’s the right thing to say? “Start practising with yourself. Start with self-inquiry, which helps in establishing a stronger sense of self,” says Simmonds.
Knowing your emotions isn't enough; it needs to be understood. The more we can first be honest with ourselves and acknowledge and accept our feelings. the better we are at communicating with others. Ask yourself what you're feeling and what you want, explains Simmonds. In short, less thinking and more feeling is more instructive for better communication.