I Misunderstand Commitments

Sometimes, when you’re walking on a hot day and trying to ignore the pain in your legs from climbing hills (you can tell I was in Austin), you get a sudden insight into how communication works and doesn’t work, and your life suddenly becomes better. Well, it happened at least once, and that was yesterday.

I was just enjoying myself not thinking about work during my one-hour break between meetings, and I started to think about how some of the people in my life announce their plans/intentions/commitments. They state them very firmly. “Things will be this way from now on.” “I will act on this plan going forward.” Things like that.

The post is about language, and I think this is cute. Photo by @NAO via Twenty20

In my little head, I interpret such statements as firm commitments. I then adjust my own expectations to go with these plans. If someone says, “I’m going to do this twice a week,” I expect that to happen twice a week. If someone says, “This is the next project I plan to do,” I get my inner expectations set that way.

This is not the other person’s problem; it’s mine. This leads to much disappointment and confusion when life happens, plans change, or the dreaded “spontaning” occurs (that’s what Lee and I call being spontaneous). I get worked up about people not keeping their commitments, or confused when I hear the twice a week thing didn’t happen starting the next week.

Javascript is inside my head. No wonder I get confused. Image by @Mehaniq via Twenty20,

My insight was that when people around me make these declarations, they are not stating a commitment, they are stating an intention. They’re not stating a definite plan, but more of a tentative plan for the moment. And that’s perfectly fine, because that’s how stating plans or intentions work for them. And besides, even people like me, who state things with all expectations that the plan will be stuck to, sometimes have to change things when circumstances change. Huh, I’d been being rather rigid in my expectations of others!

They sure do. Image by @MPstockart via Twenty20

So, now that I’ve reset my expectations, I’ve a word of advice for those of you who didn’t get this concept hammered into their heads while studying linguistics (almost everyone!).

Your internal set of meanings for words and phrases may actually NOT coincide (probably don’t coincide) exactly with other people’s.


Language is really, really ambiguous. That’s why we rely so hard on tone of voice, facial expression, past knowledge of the person we’re talking to, and sincere hope to communicate anything at all. We all have our own internal grammar, semantics (meanings for words), and pragmatic style.

Now you know why I only communicate with snuggles. They are universal.

So, when there are misunderstandings, which there inevitably will be, let’s not be so hard on each other. It’s a miracle that we manage to communicate at all!

What Are You Trying to Say?

Sometimes I’m really grateful for blog comments, because they can get me thinking about things that are important to me. Recently, a comment was shared by Edith on my May 6 Toxic Negativity post. In addition to some lovely personal sharing, she made this point:

 I’d be interested to hear more about what you get out of communication as well, because I believe most people do it to exchange and amplify emotions they wish to experience whereas while I do enjoy exchanging wanted emotions I mostly want to exchange ideas so sometimes I bring up something negative because I want to solve it, without realizing that not all problems are solvable and that not chewing on it might be better. 

Blog comment, July 30, 2020

This is the kind of topic a person with my background in linguistics and pragmatics lives for. What Edith’s wanting to know about is not what the things I say mean (semantics) but what I’m trying to do with my words (pragmatics). Guess what leads to confusion and mis-communication? When you say something with one intent, and your communication partner interprets it another way.

Here’s an example:

Me: There’s Alfred hair all over the floor.
Lee: Hey, I’ve been doing the books all day – I don’t have time to sweep.

So, maybe I was just noticing that the hair is there, not judging Lee’s housekeeping skills. Or, maybe I was thinking I should be doing some sweeping. Or maybe I was actually judging Lee. How to tell?

Alfred DOES shed a lot.

Well, if we were talking in person, Lee could tell by my tone of voice (stern, teasing, surprised), or he could see by my actions that I was heading to get a broom or crossing my arms in irritation. Those are among the many ways we can infer motivation to other people’s speech.

One method of communication we aren’t using so much these days. Photo by @Nodar via Twenty20

But these days, a lot of our communication comes via text, Twitter, Facebook comments, messenger app, or email. We lack a lot of those tone of voice and mannerisms tools for conveying additional meaning. We do have ALL CAPS and emojis, of course. But you can easily see how it can be a lot harder to figure out what someone is actually trying to convey outside the literal words they’ve typed.

I’m pretty sure Edith has been reading a lot of emotion-charged content lately, especially on Facebook/Twitter, etc. I see a LOT of content that repeats time-worn phrases or buzzwords that do seem to me that they aren’t intent on conveying information, but rather to vent, convey frustration, state which “team” they are on or show their disapproval of others. I even see them getting irritated when folks want to talk about what they actually SAY.

Yep, sometimes technology obscures intended meaning. Image by @Mehaniq via Twenty20

In fact, I often see that when people are genuinely wanting information, they specifically say so. They’ll say, “I really want to know,” or something like it. So, it seems to me that a lot of us are interpreting things we read and even hear as just folks blowing off steam.

That’s great unless you’re someone like Edith, who doesn’t work that way, and really just wants to respond to what the words are saying, not underlying implications.

What to Do?

Well, one thing that helps is to ignore people who just seem to be blowing off steam. They don’t really want to exchange ideas, information, or heaven forbid, facts/evidence.

If you think someone may actually want to be conveying information or getting your input, though, you can always try my favorite from back when I helped mothers breastfeed, “active listening.” It includes the technique where you paraphrase what you think the other person is trying to say, and get confirmation or clarification. You say something like, “What I hear you saying is X; is that right?” and the person either confirms or explains. (Summarizing, below)

Thanks to Education Corner for the graphic.

While this can get annoying REAL fast if you repeat it throughout a conversation, used sparingly it can head off those occasions where you get ten minutes into a heated discussion only to realize you were talking about different things.

You can always try the reflecting part of active listening, “When you say X, it makes me feel Y,” which is supposed to be better than blaming, name-calling, or labeling (for example, “That was stupid”). The idea is that you’re pointing out that the words are the problem, not the person saying them. This is another technique that can easily backfire (So, don’t say, “When you say those Confederate statues are your beloved heritage, it makes me feel like you don’t think black lives matter,” because that conversation will turn ugly very quickly.)

This takes me back to the first option, which is ignoring stuff you know isn’t really about exchanging information. Occasionally, with people I know or am related to, I will ask if they really want to start a conversation about Topic X, because I actually do know something about it and can share information. There have been times where one of us learns something that affects our feelings one way or another or gets us to re-evaluate and think about the topic based on new evidence, which is the goal of a good discussion, isn’t it? (That is opposed to a good venting session, the goal of which is to get hearty agreement that our way is RIGHT, and those other people are doofuses. Sometimes we need these, but we need to know when we are in a venting or information exchange interaction!)

Fill in the blank, venting, chatting, lecturing…

I guess my conclusion is there’s lots of reasons to communicate, and lots of WAYS to communicate in addition to the face value of the words in sentences. To succeed, whether you want to share information, educate, insult, or vent, you need to first agree on the mutual goal. Otherwise, we’re just talking (or typing) at each other rather than with each other.

I don’t know if any of this has helped at all. There is more I could say, but no time to say it, since lunch is over, and I need to go to some more work meetings and nod my head and smile a lot or help someone solve a problem (I like the latter kind best).

The Next Day

Someone said they couldn’t follow this well, because it’s written, not spoken. Then I couldn’t tell if they were joking or serious, because there were no emoticons. I rest my case.

Zoom Zoom

Are you tired of people going on and on about their online meetings? Me, too, but I still have things to say about it. In the past few days I’ve had a number of talks with friends and colleagues (mostly on Zoom) about how the pandemic and issues around it have changed their interactions with others. I’ve found it pretty interesting.

I pretend this is what I look like on Zoom with my headphones all jaunty and wearing lipstick that would stain the heck out of my mask if it were real.

This week I spent at least half of every day with my headphones on smiling at little square images of people who are smiling back at me. At least on Zoom, people can tell you are smiling, which is good, since my mask only accentuates my resting grumpy face. And I smile a lot, hoping it helps the moods of my friends and coworkers.

Since I work (and volunteer work) Zoom so often, I limit my personal Zooming pretty strongly. I have the world’s comfiest headphones (by Jabra), but they still get to me after many hours. Most of my personal conversations, like with my son and sister, are by text and Facebook Messenger, because that lets me multi-task, and frankly, I type more coherently than I talk. I can fix typos, but not speak-os.

Un-retouched Zoom me. Note wrinkles and frown lines.

Phone calls I just do with a couple of folks (hi Mike). I don’t mind them as much as some younger people do, but I don’t like yelling at the speaker phone where people can hear my whole conversation as well as what the other person says, but my ears need a rest from those headphones, so I don’t want to hold up the phone. And of course my fancy iPhone earpieces make me sound like I am talking from inside a well. Thanks, technology.

The COVID Effect

I’m pretty sure, though, that I communicate more often, and also communicate more deeply with others since the pandemic started. The threat over each of us that an invisible thing can come get us any time, anywhere, really makes me, at least, treasure my connections more.

What happens when I am on Zoom all day then open SnapChat. This is scary.

Many of my recent work meetings have turned into personal conversations, as well, since we agree that we need someone to safely talk about our concerns who doesn’t live in the same house with us. I’ve heard a lot about the difficulty of negotiating the current list of hot topics with relatives, talking to children about illnesses, and how important our pets are to us (see, it’s not just me!).

In some ways, I’m getting to know people better than I did before, when you tried so hard to just stick to the topic at hand. We all realize we NEED a little down time and that building relationships is important. Now, that’s a great bonus from all this isolation, for me.

Being able to see each other’s homes, our personal work spaces, our pets, or our back yards, reminds us that coworkers are way more than the spreadsheet maker, the project manager, the programmer, or the writer. That’s a key for greater understanding among all of us, which I’ve repeatedly stated: we all have more in common than we often realize. When you see that people in Israel or South Africa have the same collection of kitchen stuff on their counters as you do, the world gets smaller.

This meme hits way too close to home, doesn’t it?

2020 really has been a challenging year so far. Maybe these new connections will help us as we figure out what to do in the brave new, potentially even scarier, world of next year. Until then, I’ll keep on Zooming, texting, chatting, and writing.

How about you?

Book Report: Talking to Strangers

Another book finished, and I’m impressed that I got this one done in less than a week, since I’m also trying to knit some every day now. I bought Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell, because I really wanted some insight into how to communicate with people from different communities, cultures, social groups, etc.

Hey look, you can buy it, too. Trying a new embed format.

It turns out that the famous Mr. Gladwell (he wrote Blink, a book I didn’t like much at the time it came out) wasn’t exactly writing about what I thought he would, but I found the direction he took pretty interesting, anyway.

The question he really seemed to be asking was more like why do we let assumptions about other people, based on appearance, blind us to their real motives or intentions? He talks about cases we are all familiar with, like Bernie Madoff, who fooled all kinds of rich people into believing his really ridiculous Ponzi schemes and the pedophilia scandal at Penn State University, where Jerry Sandusky’s purported actions were dismissed until everything blew up and all sorts of people lost their jobs.

Don’t talk to strangers, said so many mothers. Photo by @tonyturretto via Twenty20

Spoiler alert: Gladwell says all of the misinterpretations of others’ motivations boils down to two main things: one is that we all assume that people we don’t know are telling us the truth. It takes lots and lots of evidence that something’s amiss to change that assumption. So, good ole Bernie M. was such a nice guy and friends of so many smart people, of course he was telling the truth! Gladwell points out that the assumption of truth is actually a good thing almost all the time. It certainly would slow down social interactions if you questioned everything anyone said to you, right? That lets skilled liars, or even unskilled liars, as he shares with a story about a Cuban spy in the CIA, keep doing what they’re doing.

Here’s one way to not read people’s motivations from their faces, right? Photo by  @pprevost via Twenty20

The second thing that makes knowing what a stranger is really up to hard is the assumption of transparency. This means how we expect that we can read people’s motivations from their appearance. As long as people act like our cultural norms predict they should in a situation, it goes well. This refers to looking afraid when you are scared or acting solemn when someone dies (Amanda Knox in an Italian murder case didn’t act sad enough when her roommate died, but really she was just socially awkward, not a killer). People who, like Knox, don’t telegraph their internal states can get away with lying or not be believed when they are telling the truth. In the end, that is one thing that caused that poor Sandra Bland woman to end up dead in a jail cell: she acted nervous when a police officer pulled her over and didn’t grovel properly, in his mind.

The other part of Talking to Strangers that I enjoyed a lot was a discussion of the concept of “coupling,” where Gladwell makes a strong case that inexplicable things you do are tied strongly to location and opportunity. Sylvia Plath’s suicide happened because gas ovens in England still had carbon monoxide in them. If she had tried to do it a year or two later, they’d have switched to natural gas, and she would have just gotten a headache. Another poet, Anne Sexton, killed herself by locking herself in the garage and turning her car on. This was just a short time before catalytic converters showed up in American cars, so this method wouldn’t work. Um, did you know that the profession most likely to commit suicide is poets?

That’s right. Don’t do it.

The point is, though, people think that if your chosen method won’t work, you go try another method, but the research on coupling has shown that isn’t true. When nets were put on the Golden Gate Bridge, people didn’t march off to another bridge to jump off. The motivation is tied to the place.

I haven’t explained that well. The section on coupling is the main reason I encourage people to read Talking to Strangers. I kept reading sentences aloud to Anita, because I was learning so much. The section about “pockets of crime” blew me away.

Photo by @yournameonstones via Twenty20

Now that I write this all down, it’s clear that Gladwell made a big impression on me with his viewpoints and the research that backs them up. It’s fun that he weaves recent events (and Hitler) into the analysis, because you always want to know how the heck these implausible events actually go down the way they do (why did Neville Chamberlain like and believe the words of Hitler?). I have a new perspective on why people just don’t “get” each other so often. Learning is good!

Sadly, I still don’t think I’m any better about talking to strangers. I think I’m even more cautious about it than I was before. Maybe that’s a good thing. Assumptions about other people tend to bite you in the…butt.

something poetic

(formerly The Lost Kerryman)

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