01/02/2013 02:02 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

How Learning to Talk to a Cowboy Made Me a Better American

All of the partisan bickering around the "fiscal cliff" of late has reminded me of the moment I realized that American conservatives and liberals actually had more in common than we realized, but were probably suffering from a gigantic language barrier -- even though we were all speaking English.

I was a city progressive who had managed to fall in love with a tall, stoic, smart yet very conservative cattle ranch manager from the rural part of my state. We were talking about maybe having my son meet him, and he was explaining to me his reasons for wanting my then 10-year-old to call him "Mr. Lane" and "sir."

"That's ridiculous," I told him. I had grown up with hippie academic parents on a college campus, calling all adults by their first names. "He's not used to having to do that. He should call you Steve."

"I don't care what he's used to," said Mr. Lane. "It's about respect."

So began our discussion about the meaning of "respect." To me, respect meant tolerance for differences. To Mr. Lane, it meant deference to authority. Same word. Totally different emotional meaning and reaction.

The more I listened, the more I understood that in spite of all the supposed "research" that says conservatives and liberals have brains that are wired differently (they, for "fear," we, for "shades of gray"), we might actually just be speaking different emotional languages with the same exact words.

I shared this idea with Mr. Lane, and watched his eyes light up as he understood.

"Well, I'll be damned," he said. "You might be on to something here."

"My side has a word for what your side thinks of as respect," I told him. "To us, that feeling would maybe be better captured with something like 'homage' or maybe 'compliance.'"

He grinned. "Compliance is awfully close to 'obedience,'" he said, "which I know raises hackles on your side. I think to you, 'obedience' is more like what we feel when we hear 'constrain.' You think it's restrictive. We think it's our duty. It frees us."

It was in this way that we came to realize my liberal emotion attached to "tolerance for differences" was best communicated to a conservative as "personal freedom," which in turn was best communicated to a liberal as "independence." Meanwhile, "independence," to a conservative, meant something that to a liberal was best captured as "self-reliance." To a liberal, meanwhile, "self-reliance" signified something more like "off the grid."

It went on. In perhaps the most fascinating twist of them all, liberal "equality" was more like conservative "oppression." To Mr. Lane, liberal demands for "equality" infringed upon nature's order, as surely as smog interfered with a liberal's ozone layer. This sense of natural injustice is not foreign to liberals, as you might think; rather, it is expressed in our sense of "natural balance." Conservatives had the same emotional sensation that we did when we thought of our version of "equality," but it turns out that they called it something different altogether: "personal responsibility."

When I had heard conservatives speak of "personal responsibility," of course, all I'd heard was "every man for himself," but I was wrong. In truth, the emotion they seemed to tie to that phrase was akin to my liberal emotional reaction to "social obligation." They, meanwhile, thought of social obligation as what we feel with the word "coercion."

It dawned on us both that day that we (and our sides) were much more alike than we were different, but that neither of us had ever taken the time to try to truly understand what the other side was saying in their own language. There weren't two kinds of brains out there, or two "kinds" of people, as our media would love for us all to believe in this most splintered time in American history. There were, rather, just... Americans... people who were all basically wired the same, who want the same basic things for themselves, their families and their communities, but for whom the same words and phrases symbolized something different. We simply could not connect because we were speaking different languages.

As the memoir I wrote about my love affair with this unlikeliest of partners for me hits shelves this week, The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story, I find people asking me how I was able to love a conservative cowboy for two years, given our enormous ideological differences. My answer is simple: Once Mr. Lane and I learned to speak to one another in each other's emotional languages, we got along great.

It's a lesson that I truly believe might be useful to our nation's leaders right now, too. Until we all learn to truly hear what the other is saying, I fear that we are all doomed to continue to misunderstand -- and by default loathe, mock and thwart -- one another.