You know... Fred!
September 12, 2005 10:24 AM   Subscribe

"I was talking to Fred the other day, and he said everyone in his family has a cold."
"Who is Fred?"
"Oh, he's a guy I chat with on the web."
Some people seem to have trouble remembering what the person they are talking to knows and what he doesn't. Is there a name for this "syndrome"? Has anyone researched it?

Everyone does this at times, but with some people it's constant. It's as if, in their minds, everyone they know is all at one big party together. They forget that Fred and Mary are from totally different parts of their life and have never met each other. And I've noticed that when you bring this up, they don't seem phased. I would expect them to say, "Oh, how STUPID of me! Of course you don't know him." But they just casually explain who Fred is and then move on.

I don't know if this is related, but I also know people who send emails like "Can you send it to me?" I respond with "Send what to you?" Then they respond with something like, "The red one." Still confused, I say, "The red what?" They say, "You know, the red one -- not the green one." I say, "Red or green WHAT?!?" and finally they say, "The book with the red cover that I loaned you last year."

Why didn't they say this in the first place? If they loaned it to me last year, how is it reasonable to assume I'd still be holding an image of it in my mind that could easily be attached to a pronoun?

I am NOT saying people like this are stupid. In fact, I know many smart people who do this sort of thing. But since I am the exact opposite, I don't understand it. I'm SO much the opposite, that I tend to go overboard the other way: "Could you please return that Stephen King book to me that I loaned you in April, last year? It's called 'Carrie' and it has a red color with blue lettering. I think I saw it on the third shelf from the left when I was last over at your house. You know, your house in New Jersey. That's in the United States of America on planet Earth -- the third planet that orbits Sol, a star in the Milky Way Galaxy."

Okay, I'm not that bad, but you get my point. Why am I that way? Why are other people extremely the other way?
posted by grumblebee to Science & Nature (50 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Some people seem to have trouble remembering what the person they are talking to knows and what he doesn't.

Why is it their responsibility to keep track of this? Why shouldn't they just assume you'll ask for clarification if you need it?
posted by jjg at 10:38 AM on September 12, 2005

Maybe it's just personality differences.

I took a course (through work) on the subject of people's interpersonal styles, and how they differ. It divided people into four categories based on two dimensions, "people-oriented" vs. "task-oriented", and "ask" vs. "tell". Engineers tend to be "ask" and "task-oriented", for example: very precise. People who are "tell" and "people-oriented" are more expressive, good story-tellers, probably know a lot of people and have more trouble keeping straight who knows whom.

A parody of the course in which the four categories are labelled "Megalomaniac", "Psychotic", "Anal-Retentive", and "Spineless Wimp".
posted by russilwvong at 10:42 AM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: Why is it their responsibility to keep track of this? Why shouldn't they just assume you'll ask for clarification if you need it?

It's not a matter of responsibility. It's not their responsibility. I'm just wondering why it doesn't naturally occur to them. Which begs the question: why DOES it naturally occur to me?
posted by grumblebee at 10:45 AM on September 12, 2005

I have a husband who does this all the time, and yes, it can be annoying. He'll say something like "Remember the time we did that thing?" and look at me expectantly, fully believing that I know exactly what he's talking about. Yeah...the time when we did that thing - who could forget it? Drives me batshitinsane.
posted by iconomy at 10:48 AM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: russilwvong, that's an interesting start. If people fall into these categories, there must be some reason why they do so. Their brains must be different in some key ways. I'm curious about the science behind this.

I know that when I think of a person, it's like they are connected to tags. I think of Bill, and instantly the tags "California" and "junior high school" come into my mind. I don't have to think about it. The tags enter my mind the same time Bill enters my mind. So if I'm talking to Charles, a guy I met in Ohio when I went to college, I will instantly know that he doesn't know Bill.

Clearly, not everyone's mind works this way, which is why I came up with that (wrong? dumb?) idea of some people's minds being like a big party at which everyone they ever met is a guest. That's actually a sort of attractive idea. My mindset my stop thinking from being fluid. It's possible to come up with really interesting ideas if everything in your brain is allowed to jumble together.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on September 12, 2005

I notice people doing something similar here on AksMe from time to time. They'll start questions with pronouns and never give antecedents ("So we're going to CityX next month...") or ask for computer help without bothering to include information like the OS or manufacturer.

My theory is that some people have running dialogues going on in their heads. The other person in the conversation is fungible, interchangeable. So they'll rehearse the conversation in their heads in preparation, then assume the other person already knows what they mean by the time they actually open their mouths.

The rest of us have running monologues, and so we always assume no one else has any knowledge of what we mean.
posted by jbrjake at 10:54 AM on September 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

I always wonder why it's NOT acceptable to just say "I was talking to Fred..." without having to explain who Fred is. I mean, if you ask me, chances are I'm going to say "this guy I know" or "a friend of mine." How does that increase your understanding? It doesn't, right? Can't you just assume that when I say "I talked to Fred" and you're not entirely sure who Fred is, that he's just A GUY I KNOW?

Unless, of course, WHO Fred is is important to the story, in which case I agree with the poster that I should explain w/o being prompted.
posted by tristeza at 10:58 AM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: The rest of us have running monologues, and so we always assume no one else has any knowledge of what we mean.

That's fascinating, jbrjake. I think I have a running monologue. I always assume no one else has any knowledge of what I'm talking about. So I explain.

I'm introverted, so conversations are a bit fraught for me. Before I start talking to someone, I go through a sort of mental wind-up. "Okay, you're about to start a conversation. You're going to be talking to Kelly. You know Kelly from work..." If I viewed life as one big, unending, fluid conversation, I can see how I might confuse who I was talking to.
posted by grumblebee at 10:59 AM on September 12, 2005

I notice people doing something similar here on AksMe from time to time. They'll start questions with pronouns and never give antecedents ("So we're going to CityX next month...")

Good example of what I am trying to say - why should I explain who "we" are if it's not relevant to my question?
posted by tristeza at 11:00 AM on September 12, 2005

This is similar, somehow - in my mind, to the way some people leave off possessive pronouns when speaking of their parents: "Dad is going to come over and fix my stove" - even when you've never met their father, or barely know the person you're speaking with. It always irks me for some reason, perhaps because I'm an only child and I've never had a sibling to say "Dad is this" or "Mom is over there" to, etc.
posted by jikel_morten at 11:07 AM on September 12, 2005

Which begs the question:

No, it doesn't beg that question! (I'm actually wondering if you wrote that just to see if someone would point you to the other thread)

But to answer the question that you asked (and thus didn't beg): There was a girl in one of my classes in high school who always did this. She would put up her hand to give to provider her thoughts on something and embedded in her thoughts would be an anecdote. Now remember, these aren't even her friends listening, but just classmates and the teacher, but her story would always be filled with names. "So Paul went...but Cindy felt like.. and it turned out it was because Joe..". These were not people from the school, but members of her family, extended family, friends of family etc. Eventually the teacher just avoided calling on her and would roll his eyes in open view of the rest of the class when she started talking.

The thing is, the first time she mentioned somebody she actually did explain who they were. So on the first day of the semester we found out that Paul was her brother, for example. But that was it. For the next 5 months we were all supposed to remember who Paul was and she seemed to presume that we did.

I think in her case, she just didn't get that the things she told us were not the highlight of our existence and that thus we would not remember every detail of every story she ever told us. Telling these stories was important to her so she assumed that hearing them was important to us . Therefore, no need to remind us that great aunt Beth has kidney stones, sure it's relavent to understanding her point, but she told us that two months ago, so we must already know.
posted by duck at 11:10 AM on September 12, 2005

I notice people doing something similar here on AksMe from time to time. They'll start questions with pronouns and never give antecedents ("So we're going to CityX next month...")

I think this is just a writing style or quasi-teaser on askme, since the more inside clarifies things (usually). I don't think it's quite the same thing as what grumblebee is talking about, which is people assuming you're familiar with there sphere of peeps during conversation. I could be wrong.
posted by jikel_morten at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2005

I know a variety of people that seem to engage in this type of communication and I have observed, like you, that it doesn't seem connected to overall intelligence. I chalk it up to a form of laziness where people don't want to take the extra time (if only a few moments) to clarify what they are trying to say. It's the conversational equivalent of throwing a crumpled piece of paper at a trash can. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses but either way no harm done. It just takes more time to throw the thing away if it misses. Depending on the individual I also think this technique can be used to gain an upper hand in a conversation. It could be a confusion tactic to keep you off balance and always asking the wrong questions rather than the one that can get you a real answer. It's also possible that some of these folks are egocentric. Their inability to put themselves in your shoes is a product of that egocentrism and the result is they are oblivious to the fact that you may not understand something that is completely relevant to them.

It's amazing. We have all these goddamn technological ways to communicate but it doesn't make any difference if people don't make the effort to communicate well.
posted by quadog at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2005

"Remember the time we did that thing?"
It's not laziness; it's brain wiring. Some very intelligent people do this.
I don't think you can solve this problem, but you can have fun with it.
Just answer likewise: "Oh, yeah--and Whats-his-name broke his doohickey?"
Wait for the penny to drop.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:20 AM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: I'm aware of the objection to "begs the question," but I reject it. I think the conversational use is a colorful, clear and evocative metaphor: one question begs another to be asked.

tristeza and jjg, I'd like to delve a little into your irritation. When you're speaking, so you think "I KNOW I'm expected to go into more detail here, but I don't feel like it" or do you just say what you're thinking of saying, and then AFTERWARDS get irritated because people accuse you of not going into enough detail.

You see, I'm still confused about the mindset. I'm really NOT trying to turn this into a discussion about the right/wrong way to converse. I just want to know what goes on in your head and why it's so different from what goes on in my head.

To answer your question, tristeza, the details are important (to me) because my mind doesn't like mysteries. And mysteries -- even mundane ones -- are get assigned higher priority than other info. So I have trouble following what you're saying, because I'm trying to figure out who Fred is. I'm not 100% sure he's just some guy you know. Because you referred to him as if I knew who he was, I realize he might be a common friend. So I'm going through my mental rolodex, trying to figure out who his is.

My guess is that you do this too -- maybe with less mundane stuff. Supposed I told you, "I had a terrible day at work because my boss made me hounoun for three hours. So I came home, drank some flifftex and watched a couple of hours of Gnant. Then I felt better." Clearly, the gist of what I'm saying is that my boss abused me, I felt bad, so I came home and pampered myself. But can you really pay attention to that? Aren't you wondering what all those weird words mean.

My guess is that different people have different thresholds for mystery. Some people (me) need to know the answer to everything (or they have trouble concentrating); others need some mysteries solved. Some probably don't care about mysteries at all -- as-long-as they aren't immediately important to the topic being discussed.
posted by grumblebee at 11:27 AM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: It's not laziness; it's brain wiring.

I think that's probably true. But what kind of brain wiring. I wish some people with these sorts of brains would post here and explain (as best they can) the views from inside their heads.
posted by grumblebee at 11:29 AM on September 12, 2005

Personally, I've always called it the "coming in on the middle of the conversation in someone else's head" phenomenon. (Yes, it's an unwieldy name for a syndrome, which is why I'm sure we won't be reading about it in medical journals anytime soon.) My former boss used to do this and it drove all of us around the office nuts -- especially as she'd sometimes get highly irritated if we all weren't up to speed immediately on what she was on about. "So I got off the phone with him and it's not broken." Who? What? Broken? I'd think she was talking about one of the IT guys coming to fix the printer, and she'd actually be talking about her brother's ankle or something.
posted by scody at 11:31 AM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: I call it the Jack and Angelica Syndrome. In the film "Annie Hall," this character played by Paul Simon walks up to Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (both of whom he has never met before) and invites them to a party, explaining that he's going to go there too, but first he's going to pick up "Jack and Angelica."

Woody Allen, who doesn't want to go, turns to Diane Keaton and says, "Don't you remember, we had that thing tonight?" She says, "The thing???" He says, "Yes. You know. The thing." She pauses for a minute, figures out that he's trying to get out of going to the party, and then says, "Oh, right. The THING!"

I've always loved that scene.
posted by grumblebee at 11:38 AM on September 12, 2005

I'm ashamed to admit that I sometimes AM the person who finishes a conversation with a friend that we had started a week ago. Without any warning. So they look at me as if to say, "What?" I've caught myself doing it and I still can't explain it. It's as if I never left the conversation...I've been continuing it in my head ever since we let it drop last week. I don't think that I or the conversation is the center of their existence. I just flow from thinking in my head to thinking out loud without clarifying what is happening. If it makes those who are annoyed by this feel any better, I feel terrible about doing it.

I do get very wrapped up in my own head, internal dialogues and so forth. I spend a lot of quiet time thinking through things and sometimes struggle to convey complex, abstract ideas without the help of a flipchart or something. I have no idea why. Maybe it IS how my brain is wired. I've had to work very hard on changing these things in order to make myself better understood in a work environment.

I've also been on the receiving end of a few conversations which started out "remember the time we did that thing?" Although it was confusing, I knew that the other person emphasizes context over specifics (if that makes any sense). Whatever we had been talking about or doing which triggered her own memory seemed so significant in its connection that she assumed I was triggered in the same way.
posted by jeanmari at 11:39 AM on September 12, 2005

I had a friend in high school (that's 20 years ago, long before the net) who talked this way: he'd mention someone I had no way of knowing, from a different social circle, as if I knew exactly who he meant. This was annoying at first, but the funny thing is, eventually I did know all those people. I wonder if it was semi-intentional in his case, as a way of drawing me into his other circles.

Apart from that, though, I consider this lazy habits of thought. I remember writing essays that way back in, oh, fifth grade. My teacher explained that I can't assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader, and the lesson stuck.
posted by adamrice at 11:45 AM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: I really don't think you should feel terrible, jeanmari. It's not that bad. (It's not really "bad" at all). At worst, it's a little confusing. But your post does gell with jbrjake's idea. You are probably a much more friendly and open person than I am. You trust people with whatever is going on in your head. Whereas I have a wall that stops all utterances before they reach my mouth, so that they can be evaluated. I spend time thinking about what I'm going to say to someone before I say it. I probably do this because I'm uncomfortable sharing parts of myself. This is too bad. The upside -- if there is one -- is that I tend to speak clearly because I've edited my thoughts.

But I really admire people who say whatever they are thinking. They may be sloppy sometimes. They may embarrass themselves. But they are fully engaged and willing to be vulnerable.
posted by grumblebee at 11:46 AM on September 12, 2005

I'm actually wondering if you wrote that just to see if someone would point you to the other thread

I also thought maybe he was tweaking everyone with "phased" instead of "fazed" in his post.

On topic: I also know people who send emails like "Can you send it to me?"

I call this and most of the examples described in the comments above "contextual errors." They are related to the baffling web sites where there is an entry about a famous person that draws people who believe that by leaving a personal message in the comments attached to that entry, the famous person will see it and respond.

It happens in other forms, too. As part of my web site, I run an email list. Subscriptions are handled by a web page. It does not require that anyone send me email. Once in a while I get emails from people that say "subscribe" in the subject line and nothing else. Why? There are no instructions saying to do that. It is somewhat of a common way to subscribe to other email lists, but not to mine. It seems like a contextual error.

A bizarre example is the fellow who sent me an email message with "mail list yes" in the body of the message. That's it.

Remember the time we did that thing?

Like jeanmari says, the most interesting thing about this kind of statement is how often you do know what they're thinking. The second most interesting thing about it is how often the Jack and Angelica movie scene described by grumblebee has been done in movies and television, so much so that it's a tiresome, wearying trick now.

As far as finishing conversations started in a previous get-together, that's always been easy for me to do. But that's not always a contextual error: the contextual error is doing that with someone without knowing they're the kind of person who can pick right back up where you left off. Even doing this in a single-session conversation is hard on some people.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:46 AM on September 12, 2005

tristeza and jjg, I'd like to delve a little into your irritation. When you're speaking, so you think "I KNOW I'm expected to go into more detail here, but I don't feel like it" or do you just say what you're thinking of saying, and then AFTERWARDS get irritated because people accuse you of not going into enough detail.

I think I actually do example A - omit the detail because *I* know it doesn't matter, and I assume that the other person should know it doesn't matter, either. It's lame, now that you point it out, and must be irritating, but it didn't occure to me before. I'll try to change - thanks AskMe!

To answer your question, tristeza, the details are important (to me) because my mind doesn't like mysteries. And mysteries -- even mundane ones -- are get assigned higher priority than other info. So I have trouble following what you're saying, because I'm trying to figure out who Fred is.

Thanks for saying this - seriously, it didn't occur to me I might be annoying people.
posted by tristeza at 11:52 AM on September 12, 2005

I gave this some further thought. Since someone asked about what goes on in the heads of people who do this, I'll offer a few more things and leave it up to the MeFi folk to tell me what is wrong with me. :)

I pay attention more to CONCEPTS than specifics. When I read grumblebee's example...

"I had a terrible day at work because my boss made me hounoun for three hours. So I came home, drank some flifftex and watched a couple of hours of Gnant. Then I felt better."

...I'm the person who would register "terrible day at work...then I felt better." I may be curious about flifftex, but it wouldn't stop me cold.

I sometimes need to shut out visual stimuli in order to explain something very complex. I occasionally shut my eyes in order to focus, or I concentrate on a tabletop or blank wall. I've learned to explain this behavior to others and apologize for it if I need to use it.

I've made a career out of being able to "visualize" concepts and link together events/people and diagnose complex problems that others have trouble seeing. I see connections in things that affect future decisions and I struggle to explain how I "see" them. (This is in feedback I get from clients and management.) I'm not psychic or anything, nor do I believe in psychics. I just see complex connections. Or, more accurately, I "intuit" them. But I am hopeless at remembering phone numbers, birthdays or appointments. I have no idea why. It frustrates me a LOT.
posted by jeanmari at 11:55 AM on September 12, 2005

When people do this to me I tend to say, "Should I know Bob (or whatever unknown person they've just referenced)?" People who talk like that tend to be selfish and overly self-invovled. YMMV.
posted by haqspan at 11:59 AM on September 12, 2005

... my mind doesn't like mysteries. And mysteries -- even mundane ones -- are get assigned higher priority than other info.

Interesting. I've heard this referred to as tolerating ambiguity. For engineering and other technical work, you need to be really precise, so low tolerance for ambiguity is probably a good thing.

People who talk like that tend to be selfish and overly self-invovled. YMMV.

Disclaimer noted. My own guess is that for people who are very social and who know a lot of people, it's probably not so easy for them to keep track of who knows who.
posted by russilwvong at 12:32 PM on September 12, 2005

My own guess is that for people who are very social and who know a lot of people, it's probably not so easy for them to keep track of who knows who.

I dunno. I'm really social and know lots of people, but I find it quite easy to keep track of which friends know each other and which have not -- in fact, I find myself frequently contextualizing/explaning "who's who" between my various groups of friends, even when the person I'm speaking with probably knows who many of my other friends are by now because I've told so many stories or anecdotes about them.
posted by scody at 12:51 PM on September 12, 2005

Disclaimer noted. My own guess is that for people who are very social and who know a lot of people, it's probably not so easy for them to keep track of who knows who.

Of course now that I want one, I can't find a cite, but it's the other way around. People who have trouble keeping track of the structure of networks tend to have smaller networks (presumably either because keeping track of a bigger one would be too hard, or because you develop the skill of keeping track by having a larger network to keep track of).
posted by duck at 12:53 PM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: tristeza, thanks for your honesty. I wonder if you are typical of "Jack and Angelica" people in general.

jeanmari, it's interesting that you've been able to turn your "problem" (I don't really think it's a problem) into a career. I've done the same thing. My tendency to be over-precise irritates people in casual conversation (I try to curb it), but it gets me high praise when I teach and write. Students tell me all the time that I'm the first person who has EVER been able to explain some concept to them clearly. And it's funny, because I don't feel like I'm doing anything special. I'm just walking them through something, step-by-step, and not assuming they have any previous knowledge.

One VERY frustrating thing that happens all the time: I sit in on another's teacher's class, and I hear them say something like, "To complete step A, press the red button." I realize instantly that there are actually TWO red buttons, and that the teacher's statement is ambiguous. I also realize -- also instantly -- that this is going to lead to terrible confusion down the line.

But I don't say anything, because I don't want to undermine another teacher's class. (Some teachers get very offended if another teacher corrects their mistakes.) Instead, I sit and watch for twenty minutes as the class completely falls apart. Steps B, C, D and E depend on successful completion of step A, and since the teacher didn't explain that well, the students are completely muddled. Once the teacher realizes they are muddled, HE gets muddled too, because he can't figure out how they got confused.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting there thinking, "If I had only said, 'I think you mean the TOP red button,' this never would have happened.
posted by grumblebee at 12:59 PM on September 12, 2005

I have a very good friend who does this frequently. Sometimes I can't tell if I just happened to get involved in a conversation that's been going on in his head for a bit or that he wants me to ask him who Fred is so he can share more information. Asking is always tricky as it could derail the original story ("Well, Fred is an old monk I met while backpacking through the mountains. He grows his own potatoes and shared some with me in exchange for two double A batteries.") for a longer and sometimes more interesting one. Though if you don't ask, the story may make no sense ("And then it turned out it was Fred that sent the package and the smell was from his potatoes!").

Depending on my mood I'll sometimes call him on it by making up random details about Fred ("Wow, how's he doing after losing his feet to those soldier ants?").
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:03 PM on September 12, 2005

In some instances, I've noticed people suffer from a painful need to "name drop," though this particular thing isn't what your example illustrates, I'd say.

I don't know the social reasons for this phenomenon, but I would guess it comes from a base need to be part of a group; to be a member or participant in something larger than yourself. To summarize, the person is creating a virtual community that is smaller than the real community in which they exist, using language to pull it together.

I've noticed the same thing. I've actually called my girlfriend out on it before and she agreed that this was probably the subconscious reason for it.
posted by danb at 1:07 PM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: Scrody, you and I both find this easy (even though you're extroverted and I'm introverted). If you think about it, though, this sort of thinking is quite remarkable.

We hold in our brains not only Person A and Person B (and all sorts of info about their jobs, families, etc.), but also the meta-information that Person A does-not-know Person B. This fact is not immediately connected to either person. When we think of Person B by himself, we don't think, "He doesn't know Person A." We only have this rather complex thought when we think of A and B at the same time. Yet we are able to generate this thought in a fraction of a second.

It seems very unlikely that we store thousands of does-not-know connections for every person we know. My guess is that we store facts about person A (works-with-me, is-from-Denmark, has-a-cat) and other facts about person B (goes-to-my-gym, is-attractive). When we think of both of them at the same time, out minds must run through all of the facts and see if any of them are the same for both A and B.
posted by grumblebee at 1:09 PM on September 12, 2005

Like grumblebee, I edit what I say before I say it. I also have a really good memory. Couple these two traits with the fact that I need reassurance that you're interested before I go off and tell you about something in detail, and you get a similar behavior to what jeanmari describes, but for entirely different reasons. I'll remember that I told you on Wednesday that I will be making wax sculptures of dogs over the weekend. So on Monday, when you ask me how my weekend was, I'll say, "I got off to a frustrating start, but in the end, I think I came up with something cool." If you respond by saying, "Sorry, I forgot what you were going to be working on this weekend," I'll say, "Wax sculptures," assuming that then you'll remember that they're of dogs. So you might then end up asking "Wax sculptures of what?!"

Ultimately, I dislike people who repeat themselves unnecessarily and don't register the cues that their audience gives off indicating that they've heard the story before MORE than I dislike the half-tellers who require follow-up questions, so this is how I behave myself.

Also, in grumblebee's example, not knowing what hounoun is affects my understanding of the essence of his/her frustration, so I would want to know what that is. But the drink and the show title don't give me pause the same way, and I'd probably gloss over them.
posted by xo at 1:34 PM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, xo. I would be rushing to a computer to google the drink and the show. I probably wouldn't be able to sleep until I knew what they were.
posted by grumblebee at 1:38 PM on September 12, 2005

it's interesting that you've been able to turn your "problem" (I don't really think it's a problem) into a career.

Grumblebee--I should say I HAD a career in that. But a frustrating, stressful one which I've abandoned because I could diagnose problems and propose solutions, but lacked the skills to be able to sell those problems and solutions to enough stakeholders to create change. The strange thing is that I'm really attracted to data, facts and knowledge, can organize it and analyze it quickly. So, why the trouble with names and dates? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe some folks are too self-absorbed to remember these things, maybe I am, but then why do I feel so much shame about it? So I HOPE that it is how my brain is wired because I would feel terrible not being able to guilt myself out of selfishness.

An example: I have a birthday calendar; I send myself email messages about others' birthdays. I received two email messages about my mom's birthday last Wednesday. Made mental notes to call her. Wednesday came and unexpected events cropped at home and one at work...which had me trying hard to remember times, tasks, phone numbers and so on in order to deal with them. I forgot to call her and she was hurt (and let me know it). I felt awful!

It is a problem to me namely because my "ditziness" or whatever it is...inability to manage the present, struggle to manage detailed timelines, and so on...can also be tremendously annoying to the people around me, people who I care about and don't want to annoy. I've tried hard to become more precise because I value it in others. So I envy you. I enjoy hanging out with precise people.

You hit the nail on the head about “talking out loud”. Yes, I open my mouth and what I’m thinking drops out. But that is very often NOT a good thing. It has benefited me in situations where being open and vulnerable has led to productive interactions. But I was also told by a co-worker once (very early in my career) that I had Corporate Tourette’s. In other words, a complete inability to censor my opinion even in the presence of the higher-ups. I had to fix that quickly!

I'm still intrigued by the "how the brain is wired" idea because I would love to understand more about this.
posted by jeanmari at 1:58 PM on September 12, 2005

I don't know. I tend to remember who knows who, but I get yelled at anyway. Like say we're going to watch a movie and one of my friends said something really interesting about that movie, but no one around knows that friend. I want to attribute the comment, especially if I haven't actually seen that movie yet, but some people just positively freak out that I mentioned someone they don't know without explaining that person's life story.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:51 PM on September 12, 2005

I think it is just a symptom of self-centeredness.
posted by Carbolic at 3:01 PM on September 12, 2005

I always wonder why it's NOT acceptable to just say "I was talking to Fred..." without having to explain who Fred is.

Because if you don't, I assume I am supposed to know who you are talking about. Please say "my friend Fred" or "my co-worker Andy" if you have to use their names.

And I third the notion that this is something self-centered people tend to do.
posted by mr.marx at 3:32 PM on September 12, 2005

If anyone's researched this, they might refer to deictic expressions. Deixis is 'verbal pointing.' So, in order to understand the statement "She just got here," the listener needs to know who 'she' is, when 'just' refers to (if live, it would be 'now,' but if recorded, it would be whenever the speaker was talking), and where 'here' is.

"Primary deixis is used to point a situation outside a text (situational deixis) or to the speaker’s and hearer’s (shared) knowledge of the word (knowledge deixis)."

I'm not sure that the Fred example is quite a deictic expression, since 'Fred' is more specific than 'him,' but it certainly does assume shared knowledge of who Fred is, so it's close.

My mother does this constantly. It's irritating, but persistent. She also tends to make up nicknames for people on the spot, which we don't recognise because they've never been used before, and expects us to know who they refer to as if it's shared knowledge. What confuses me most about the habit is how she seems to avoid clarification, like this: "Who?" "You know, your little friend." "WHO?" "[brand new nickname]!" "You mean Dave?" "No... [nickname]."

I don't think it's a symptom of self-centredness though, because it relies on shared information. They're not trying to exclude you from the conversation, like snotty people who purposefully use insider information when a disliked person is around. Instead, they're acting like you are both insiders.
posted by heatherann at 3:42 PM on September 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

I tend to kind kind of offended when people do this and it irks me greatly. I think it shows a lack of concern for the listener. I mean, I don't think it's actively malicious or anything, but more just thoughtless.

When I talk about friends the listener doesn't know, I usually don't even use their name, and I try not to mention any extraneous details that aren't pertinent.

I think this problem may have to do with a lack of sophistication of the speaker's mental model of what the listener knows. They simply don't realize that the other person doesn't know Fred. Their mental model doesn't keep track of these things, or it has serious errors in it.

I encountered an extreme version of this recently, not regarding people, but regarding a certain thing mentioned in a certain sci-fi book. It went something like this:

"Yeah or they could put ice-9 in the water, haha."
"What's that? Does it freeze everything?"
"Have you heard of Famous Author?"
"Ummm, yeah I think so."
"Well it's in one of his books, Pretentious Title. Haven't you read it?"
"Look, are you going to answer my question or not?"
"[wordy explanation]"
"You could have just said "Yes" earlier instead of making me feel stupid for not already knowing."

It's rather presumptuous and simplistic of the speaker to assume I know everything that they do. I take great care when speaking to make sure I'm not assuming knowledge the listener doesn't have, and to offer relevant context when warranted. When someone makes references to people and things I don't know of, I resent it because it feels like they simply don't care or won't bother to consider things from my point of view at all.

Maybe I'm just really neurotic about this, but when someone makes a reference I don't get, I tend to feel stupid for not knowing it. When this happens repeatedly, it really sours me on listening to the person's anecdotes at all.
posted by beth at 4:08 PM on September 12, 2005

It sounds like you're a Picture Thinker (aka visual thinker). I'm the same way. It's really helpful for figuring things out, but I have the same problem in effectively communicating to the people that matter in order to get things done.
posted by Laen at 4:43 PM on September 12, 2005

jeanmari: You sound a lot like me; out of interest, do you know what your Myers-Briggs type is? I'm INTP, which seems quite common among geeky types.
posted by Freaky at 5:35 PM on September 12, 2005

You've put me off on a little "Visual Thinking" kick. In addition to that Wikipedia link, I also found this, which you might find interesting.
posted by Laen at 6:01 PM on September 12, 2005

Laen: Thanks for the link...that does explain quite a lot.

Freaky: I'm an ENFP, however! I am almost in the middle of the spectrum for F/T and P/J. I'm only slightly more E than I. But I'm definitely a strong N. I wonder if it is related to NP? (trots off to find Myers-Briggs clinical manual in home office...)
posted by jeanmari at 6:07 PM on September 12, 2005

The visual thinking style gives insight into why some of us might be attracted to the "visual language" of systems thinking...archetypes, causal loops, and so forth. After I was introduced to it, it really helped me to communicate complex ideas in a concrete way that were easy to explore linearly.
posted by jeanmari at 6:15 PM on September 12, 2005

I'm one of those people (jeanmari, it's amazing to read through your list of behaviors and realize someone could've written it about me).

Yes, it is a big party in my head. And people are always coming in and out, out and in, they're standing over by the bar, did they go to the bathroom? Wait, there he is . . . I have a terrible problem of forgetting whether people have met and often end up overcompensating by introducing friends to each other more than once (I've introduced two friends of mine to each other seven times--five times in one week).

It's difficult to collect my thoughts in a linear manner unless I've got a written "To Do" list or something in front of me, so I'll go off on tangents and follow connections that have no relevance to the current conversation, and have to turn myself around and get back on topic fifteen minutes later. Talking about things that another person doesn't know about is part of that--I'm talking out my thoughts as they happen and that often takes me places that make sense in my head but not to anyone else because they don't have all the other connections to other events that are in my memories.

Yeah, and there's the use of "thing" instead of actual words . . . It's not that my vocabulary is limited, I just can't come up with the proper words to describe what I'm thinking about. Sometimes I end up just doing or attempting to sketch out whatever I'm talking about because I get frustrated with my inability to convey the information in my head.

Taking Adderall helps keep my conversations focused. Not so much with the word recall.
posted by schroedinger at 6:24 PM on September 12, 2005

This is probably not helpful at this point, but I do this all the time. It drives certain of my friends absolutely bonkers, and other don't even notice at all. Generally, I do it because the name of the person is not all that important to the larger point I am making or the story I am telling and I don't feel like saying "my friend from school" instead of "megan." I don't really stop to think about it though. And, for the record, I am an intense internal dialogue, not monologue, person. I can have conversations in my head for hours, and I do get kind of confused when I realize that the rest of the world hasn't had this conversation with me.
posted by ohio at 8:47 PM on September 12, 2005

I've noticed people doing this, and I never ask who Fred is in that case. I just assume it will come up at some point, or perhaps they did tell me, and I forgot. Maybe I even met Fred, and forgot all about that.

But in the case of this example, where Fred is an online friend, there's another possibility: a lot of people from my work don't understand the social aspects of the internet, and can't figure out how I "know people" from there. They're a bit suspicious of it. I usually say "a friend of mine" or "my friend" when I'm talking about internet friends (while I would say "my friend from orchestra" if I was talkign about her). I avoid mentioning the internet. I wouldn't say "Fred", though, but then again, I don't know any Freds.
posted by easternblot at 9:02 PM on September 12, 2005

My partner has a bad habit of using excessive pronouns. Alas, he also makes too many digressions in his opening comments! I have analyzed what happens in my head, in response.

As the pronouns and digressions (which may or may not be relevant context) pile up, I start loosing track. Politely I try to wait for a break to ask clarification. When the break doesn't come, my stack over-writes, data is lost. Then I'm angry. If its the Nth such occurrence within a period of time, I may loose my temper.

Emotionally, I'm like Grumblebee on this. I don't like the "mystery" of waiting for that clarification. And I'm trying to contextualize it all at once, but when the digressions begin before the real core topic is identified, this becomes impossible. ARGH!!
posted by Goofyy at 2:33 AM on September 13, 2005

jeanmari you sound like me, but I am still struggling to be able to explain myself to people at work. It can be very frustrating! Any advice? I have been reading more about complex systems, but not for improving my ability to communicate. It just seems to fit my brain.

beth: I wasn't in your conversation about ice-9, but I can see myself doing that -- without the pretention. It stings to think that someone thinks I'm being pretentious. The reason I wouldn't have answered yes to your question is that "it freezes everything" isn't the salient part of ice-9, it's the lower energy thingee so I wouldn't have thought of yes as the correct answer to the question.

grumblebee: I've never watched Gnant and I would have glossed over it in your conversation without comment because I live under a rock and don't watch TV. This means I'm often stuck in the position of having no clue what the rest of you people are talking about. Might as well be Gnant. Same thing with drinks, music, many pop culture references. But, that aside, I think someone people would look at the overall pattern of the conversation and consider the salience to be the whole, not the parts. The relation of everything with everything else.

I can flip flop my brain -- sometimes I get lost at the top end of things and the whole picture, and then sometimes I flip flop and get wholly engrossed by the parts (Apollo + Dionysias)

My anecodote: I lived in a group house in college and I didn't realize I was annoying one of my roommates with my "in medias res" and picking up dropped conversations apropo nothing. He tried to demonstrate the problem by telling me in the kitchen, out oft he blue, "Boy they really picked a bad name, didn't they?" I said "Yes."

He didnt believe that I actually knew what he was talking about, so I had to tell him -- we were in the Kitchen, he was sitting at the table with a Harper's magazine, and I had already read the portion I thought he was referring to. The context fit, and I didn't realize he was trying to trick me.

I think people like me might not notice a problem because if I had been wrong it wouldn't have completely derailed the conversation -- so the penalty incurred by a false positive isn't big enough to matter, usually.

(I miss my old roommate)

anyway, it can be extremely frustrating not to be able to communicate something when I know that a word must exist for what I'm trying to say, but I don't know the word. It feels like presque vu, but not as bad.
posted by furvyn at 5:25 AM on September 14, 2005

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