Yeah, I never said that.
August 14, 2014 2:41 AM   Subscribe

Why do people keep putting words in my mouth? I'm 30, but it's been happening as long as I can remember. It reallllly fucking pisses me off.

This seems to happen to me a lot. When I was 12, and had just moved to a new country with my family, we were with my uncle at a concert in the park. My mom later asked me why I had been sitting there plugging my ears with my fingers. I said that I had absolutely not been doing that (and I hadn't. WTF? Why would I have done that?) She said that my uncle said that I was. (That's not technically putting words in my mouth, but I feel like it's the same idea.)

About a decade ago, when I was working in a retail store, a coworker's brother came in. I said "Oh you guys really look alike." That was the extent of my commentary on his brother's appearance. Later, he wanted to know why I kept making fun his brother's looks, and saying he didn't take care of himself and wanted to know what my problem was. I told him I never said that, and that all I said was that they looked a lot alike. He kept arguing with me and wanted to know why I was making fun of his brother's looks.

Once, I was staying with a family in a tropical climate (i.e., malaria is very common.) I told the mother that I was feeling sick. She suggested I talk to her physician husband about it when he came home and also asked "Have you been getting bitten by mosquitoes a lot?" I said "Yes, I have. Do you think it might be malaria?" When her husband came home, she screeched "She told me she has malaria!!!" He looked at me like I was a moron, and this being a culture where you're not supposed to argue with elders, I tried to disagree while not being disrespectful, but why on earth should I sit there and not say anything while you're not telling the truth about me? (She's a really abusive person that I think suffers some type of mental disorder, if that's at all relevant.)

Most recently, I was out with a (former) friend having dinner at someone's house. He asked for a bottle of Coke. Someone brought a Coke with two glasses and I told her that I didn't want any. My friend said "You told me you wanted a Coke." I said "I absolutely did not say that." He kept arguing and insisting that I had told him that I wanted a Coke, even though I kept saying that I had not fucking said anything about wanting a Coke. He hadn't asked me what I wanted to drink, I had not spoken to him at all about what I wanted to drink (and I don't even drink soda). That was the last straw for me in that friendship (and I think this was just a manifestation of his extreme sexism- "You're a woman! You'll drink Coke if I say you'll drink Coke!").

This is just disrespect, right? I mean, what is the purpose of insisting that I said something I never said? Why do people keep doing this? Is this something that happens to everyone and I just don't notice it because it's more noticeable when it happens to you? How do I make it stop happening?
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper to Human Relations (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Divergences of understanding are a common human experience. We do not all experience the same objective reality, but rather, construct our own realities according to our particular pattern of internalised dispositions ('habitus', the sociologist Bourdieu calls it) which depend on our upbringing, education, experiences, social location, and so on.

In other words, your own internal narrative of how an event played out is not necessarily how it played out in everyone else's head.

The fact that you can cite only four misunderstandings over the course of a lifetime -- that you have to go back to when you were 12, or a decade ago, to find examples -- is, if anything, I would have thought, remarkable chiefly because it is such a small number, rather than a large one.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:54 AM on August 14, 2014 [41 favorites]

Ahaha, no, it's not you, it's totally them. No one listens to what's actually said - we hear what we want to hear.

Why these people are hearing insults and malaria and Coke is another thing. (Well the Coke thing could have been your friend wanting not to be embarrassed by his request, or imagining that everyone should love Coke the way he does. Or something. Anyway, it's totally not you.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:58 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

dontjumplarry- I only cited four examples because I didn't want my question to get unbearably long. It happens much more frequently than that. I went back to nearly 20 years ago to illustrate that it has happened seemingly since... well, ever.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 3:00 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ah, fair enough.

Still, what you describe happens to me too, and I think it happens to many people.

Perhaps some of these people are being disrepectful, but many are likely simply perceiving and remembering the event differently from you. As well as confirmation bias, there are many other psychological biases that lead us to "misperceive" events.

Add to that, the well-known flaws in human memory: studies repeatedly show that we do not record events objectively, like a camera. We fabricate false memories all the time.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:04 AM on August 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

Not to mention people simply mishearing. Spoken communication isn't perfect. So when you said "do you think it might be malaria", maybe your relative heard "think it might be malaria".
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:09 AM on August 14, 2014 [12 favorites]

No, your first interpretation shouldn't be malice. People/we are just very self-involved, at all possible levels, that's all.

That said, there are definitely rhetorical techniques you can use to improve your success in cutting through people's filters and getting your message across. (Repeating things three times is the one I can think of right now; there are more, obviously.) Have a browse through some books on communication and persuasion (I can't think of any, again, sorry!).
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:10 AM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

maybe your relative heard "think it might be malaria".

Yes, and/or as a doctor's spouse in a tropical country, maybe feared malaria. Maybe he'd had a malaria patient very recently. You just never know. And I feel, unless there's a crystal clear reason to take things personally, it's better not to (and usually, more of a correct interpretation).
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:16 AM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes, this is very common. People misinterpret something you say or do, or don't say or fail to to do, as confirmation of some internal narrative they're running with, and pretty soon they've taken tangible actions, like requesting a beverage or claiming that someone has malaria, based on that private narrative. If their little story line is then contradicted, they've got the choice of either insisting they're right and the other person is wrong, or of admitting to having been wrong themselves. If having gotten it wrong would be somehow embarrassing, then many people choose instead to insist that they're in fact right. It's not great, but this has little or nothing to do with you personally.
posted by jon1270 at 3:22 AM on August 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

Most people do not like admitting they were wrong, even to themselves.
posted by pravit at 3:56 AM on August 14, 2014 [22 favorites]

How do I make it stop happening?

One option would be to wear a GoPro (or Google Glass) or carry around a sound recorder.
posted by ropeladder at 4:28 AM on August 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Divergences of understanding are a common human experience. We do not all experience the same objective reality, but rather, construct our own realities according to our particular pattern of internalised dispositions ('habitus', the sociologist Bourdieu calls it) which depend on our upbringing, education, experiences, social location, and so on.

This, a thousand times. You are obviously quite sure that your recollection is 100% accurate, but the truth is that these other people in your anecdotes likely feel just as strongly about their version of the story. Reality, such as it exists, is probably somewhere between your version and theirs.

These divergences of understanding are just part of being human. There is simply no reason to take these things personally and get your panties in a twist over this.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:31 AM on August 14, 2014 [16 favorites]

Ted Chiang's short story, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, is quite nice and relevant here; about the differences between people's memories and the issues it causes.
posted by adrianhon at 4:52 AM on August 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

I used to be extremely soft spoken and more hesitant in general, and probably didn't enunciate clearly either. People used to just make up what they thought I said. All the time. Sometimes they'd make up something that was nonsensical and ridiculous and then make fun of me for it, even, which drove me crazy - I was really sensitive to criticism and being laughed at, and it was so awful to get laughed at for something I didn't even say. I think my mother's tendency to give weight to whatever goes on in her head versus objective reality contributed to my hesitancy to speak up - she would decide for me & my siblings "you must think this," or "you must feel like this," or "you said X" or "you must have done Y" whether or not it was true.

I think working to speak more loudly, directly and clearly helps a lot, because there's no changing other people. And I think sexism is a major part of the problem. I'm sorry, but a lot of men just plain don't pay much attention to anything a woman is saying. I work with a guy like this - I can directly explain to him exactly what caused a technical issue and he'll start talking over me or respond with another question that completely ignores what I just told him. Yes, it's disrespect and it's not fair to have to deal with it all the time, but in my experience you just have to keep fighting to make sure people actually hear what you're saying. There's a manager at my office who is extremely soft-spoken and whenever he opens his mouth everyone listens attentively and no one interrupts to talk over him and no one misunderstands him, because he's one of the bosses and because he's a man.
posted by citron at 4:58 AM on August 14, 2014 [25 favorites]

Maybe your tone is drastically different from your words. Communication is mostly non-verbal so they may be remembering only the feeling they got from what you said.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:17 AM on August 14, 2014 [16 favorites]

A well known saying: There's always 3 sides to a story. Your side, my side, and what actually happened.

Fact: No one has a completely realistic picture of anything that has happened. People do not even experience the same reality the same way.

When this happens, it could be an opportunity for you to, instead of arguing, ask why they thought you had said that. Rather than arguing about what you did or did not do, ask an open ended, even tempered question about what their experience of what you said was. Perhaps you may gain an insight into either their psychosis, or your communication style, or both.
posted by shazzam! at 5:45 AM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Not to doubt you but did you ever stop to think that they could be right? I think you should try out ropeladder's idea to get some real evidence of what is said in these situations. It sounds like it happens way too often to you that it could be everyone else's misunderstandings. At the very least you can analyze what you think you said versus what you really said.

The mind and memory is a weird thing and it isn't quite as solid or accurate for anyone as they might think.
posted by JJ86 at 5:46 AM on August 14, 2014

Seconding St. Peepsburg. The options here are:

1) You are more sensitive than the average person to miscommunications, and remember them/stew over them/fight them

2) The people you surround yourself are more likely than average to put words in your mouth. I would think this is the case if this problem only occurred under one circumstance - for example, if you are only misunderstood by your family members. If the problem repeats itself with co-worker, friends, or other unrelated groups of people, it's probably not the other people that are the problem.

3) You are some how miscommunicating. Either by you misremembering what you said (less likely), or because you are unknowingly communicating other messages non-verbally. For example, when your uncle said you were plugging your ears at a concert, you may not have been literally plugging your ears, but you could have been grimacing and looking uncomfortable. Or you told the brothers they looked alike with a smirking/mocking expression. Or you said you might have Malaria while acting panicked. The fact that you are from 2 different places might mean that your body language is more frequently miscalibrated for your audience.

The part that makes me lean towards miscommunication is the fact that all of these misunderstandings have ended in fights. This suggests that your social understanding (which extends to your awareness of your body language) may not be as finely honed as you think it is. I get that some of them might be a last-straw incident with a lot of other backstory, but I really don't understand why you couldn't just say "Didn't mean it that way/I'm sorry/No thank you" and let the matter drop without insisting on being right.
posted by fermezporte at 6:02 AM on August 14, 2014 [36 favorites]

It even happened in this thread! You provided only four incidents spanning a lifetime to show how far back this goes. Promptly, a commenter thought that this had only happened to you four times, as proven by your own words.

I myself find that if I don't reread the questions before posting my answer, I answer badly: I "remember" facts the person never actually wrote. It's fascinating and scary how faulty my memory actually is. It's about 60-70 percent accurate.

In AskMe you could ask commenters to read the question more carefully. In real life, people can't rewind and listen to the words again. They are "skimming" what you said all the time and "remembering" things you never said. It's a human condition.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:55 AM on August 14, 2014 [14 favorites]

I don't really concentrate when I speak, I often say the wrong word in a half distracted thinking about my next sentence kind of way. If you ask me I will swear I said xyz. It is only done moving away from my immediate family who had a life times practice at figuring out what I meant and racing to what I meant to say not what I said that I realised how bad I was at it.

Add to that a slight accent and a tenancy to use different words in a different manner due to being from a different county and my life is now a sea of miscommunication.

Add to that a noisy background or the person I am talking to is a bit distracted and things get worse. It's annoying, it makes me feel dumb but it's no one's fault. People aren't doing it from malice as much as it feels like it. It also reminds me I am only the star of the show inside my own head, everyone else is filtering my words and actions through their own filters in which they are the star of the show.
posted by wwax at 6:57 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and "jumping to conclusions", i.e. Coming up with theories based on cherry picked data and our own prejudices may be a necessary trait in our species. We'd never get anything done if we worked through All The Data first.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:59 AM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Stop arguingng with people; they just dig in. State your case and move on. Respectful people will move on with you, and you'll learn to ignore people who need to prove they're right. Instead of trying to argue facts, learn some socially acceptable phrases like What an unfortunate misunderstanding or Oh, I experienced it differently.. Have some conversational distractions ready to move to a new topic, and don't get drawn in. You come across here as argumentative abd angry, and calmer people may be spending less time with you. It's my experience that men are more likely to assume an error is not theirs, it's a sexist world, choose your battles.
posted by theora55 at 8:09 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a family member that does this - routinely (at least once a week) has a disagreement with me about something that I absolutely did not say, but rather they heard what they expected me to say.

Some advice that I was given that I have adopted was this: to act as though I really did misspeak. I know that doesn't really fall in line with your examples, that someone said you said something when you didn't even open your mouth, but it works for me in cases where I actually did open my mouth, and the other person is not a person that I can cut out of my life. In those cases, I usually say "oh, I'm sorry if I didn't make myself clear. I didn't mean to indicate that I wanted a coke, what I was trying to say was that I am not thirsty and don't want anything." It fucking sucks to be submissive in that way sometimes, but it avoids escalation of a completely stupid argument. And again, it's only with people that I cannot cut out.

For people who pull that bs on me more than once, and who I can cut out, I do. A lot of people thrive on drama, but I absolutely do not, so I just move on.

In any case, this is almost always entirely about the other person, and has nothing to do with you.
posted by vignettist at 8:41 AM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

It happens pretty regularly to me, I think, but I don't think of it as a big deal and so it ends in everyone laughing and forgetting about it (including me), not arguments. I think you may want to look at what beliefs or behaviors are making your brain get stuck on the idea that this is a big deal to the point where seemingly innocuous misunderstandings are ending friendships. (It could very well be that you're hanging around primarily with abusive controlling assholes and your anger at them is justified, but then you might want to look at why you're hanging around primarily with abusive controlling assholes.)

The coworker thing, for example, sounds like he was teasing you and you took it seriously enough that he either was enjoying winding you up or else got mad himself.
posted by jaguar at 10:13 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the answers. These instances don't always end in fights or ended friendships- I'm not sure where that idea came from. I mean, innocuous misunderstandings happen all the time and most of the time don't make a huge difference (although I don't see someone ordering a drink that he hadn't even spoken to me about and then insisting that I had told him I wanted it when I hadn't even spoken as being a misunderstanding).

(There was a kid in my high school who would put words in my mouth all the time, and even though he was just being a dick and making fun of me it became a joke where I would tell my friends what Kevin had twisted my words into this time and would sometimes end with us crying from laughter because of how bizarre it was). My coworker was definitely not joking around with me, although I never had any problems with him outside of that weird occurrence.

I certainly don't expect everyone to remember everything verbatim- I don't always. I get what folks are saying about misunderstanding/miscommunication/nonverbal communication and human memory not being infallible, and I agree.

But seriously, I don't get the Coke thing.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 11:15 AM on August 14, 2014

The Coke thing sounds like the guy might not have misunderstood to begin with - he might've just wanted to act like he had the right to order for you and when you challenged that he got defensive and lied to save face. Or he thought he was being nice by asking for two glasses but then when it didn't go that way he got defensive and lied. Or the person who owned the Coke wouldn't have given him it but would give it to you (and him) so he leveraged your power for his desire, and then got defensive and lied. Or perhaps he wanted you to have a Coke so he could roofie you. And then got defensive and lied.
posted by vegartanipla at 12:12 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

You've just done it yourself... "These instances don't always end in fights or ended friendships - I'm not sure where that idea came from."

Me either, since I just read through all the replies twice and it didn't seem to me that anyone was suggesting that. It happens on Metafilter all the time (see recent post about a stalker cat!). I think it's often due to people just not paying attention and then making stuff up to fill in the gap, or needing it to be about them for some reason, as well as just different connotations or experience or whatever. This happens to me occasionally too, and it really shits me. Certain people I can't cut out that are prone to this I just talk to less (or get them talking about themselves).

In the case of my sister - who used to "recall" totally crazy things (and insist she was right!) it turned out she was having small seizures and really DID have gaps in her memory she was filling in as best she could. The seizures started young, and she didn't realise her experience of reality was not normal until she had a grand mal at work! So there's that too.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:13 PM on August 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

To answer the initial question, they keep doing it because, as others point out, communication is based on more than words, and remembrance of communication is faulty. This happens to everyone, it's semi-inevitable, and (as with oh-so-many components of social interaction) modifications of your own behavior and outlook will be far more productive than trying to change others.

In your examples, except arguably the malaria one, there is very little at stake in being correct. A shrug and "oop, looks like we had a miscommunication" should have kept the other three from escalating, without implying fault. If the other party in such a situation insists on making a big deal out of something inconsequential, you can point out how inconsequential it is, or just change the subject. If this regularly happens with a certain person or persons, reconsider how you speak with them, make sure you are making eye contact etc. If it's a regular occurrence the other person is undoubtedly aware of the problem too; you can even try turning it into an inside joke. If none of this works--and it might not--don't take it personally, but that's the point at which you may want to consider limiting your interaction with that person.

Otherwise, I disagree with vignettist for the most part. You can avoid this sort of conflict in a variety of ways without being submissive; writing people off is a fairly drastic "nuclear" response you should reserve for serial offenders; and this *does* have at least a little something to do with you, even if only to the extent that you find it so frustrating.

My brother and I used to argue heatedly all the time, about subjects neither of us was really qualified to opine on. At some point or other we just stopped taking things so seriously, and came to realize that being right wasn't nearly as important as getting along.

So the best advice I can give is to pick your battles. Even if you can manage to change the way you communicate substantially, other people aren't going to entirely stop doing the thing you find infuriating, so your best move is to try not to let it rile you up so much.

"Don't take life so serious; it ain't nohow permanent."
posted by aspersioncast at 1:25 PM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mods, please delete if this is threadsitting/argumentative/unnecessary, but @jrobin276, fermezporte said "The part that makes me lean towards miscommunication is the fact that all of these misunderstandings have ended in fights" and jaguar said "I think you may want to look at what beliefs or behaviors are making your brain get stuck on the idea that this is a big deal to the point where seemingly innocuous misunderstandings are ending friendships."
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 3:03 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also got the impression that these conversations ended in conflict. I think it's mainly because you came off as pretty angry about some minor things in your question. I think most people would have responded to the Coke thing with the attitude that it was a funny thing the other person made up in their head by mistake (which is something that often happens to daydreamers), rather than being like "What?! I don't want a fucking Coke!" And assuming it was a something he did to condescend to you and make you feel small.

You also mention in one of the other examples that the physician "looked at you like a moron". I very much doubt that was the case, although that was your perception. My experience has been that in a malaria endemic area, when a person gets ill, the first instinct of most people in the community, including physicians, is to assume that it is malaria. The experience from when you were 12 could have happened for any reason - you heard it through the grapevine, maybe the uncle was talking about a different kid and your mom got confused. But your reaction is still "what the fuck?!" About something that happened almost 20 years ago. I'm just getting the impression you're taking all these episodes extremely seriously, when in fact they are likely nothing personal and were just innocent mistakes or misunderstandings. Is that not just as likely as your interpretation of events?
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:58 PM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

these misunderstandings have ended in fights
I.e. the four you have quoted. Which sounded kind of fighty. (And we could argue about the malaria one, but not arguing because they're old makes it sound you just had to bury it on your side, but the way it's written implied you wanted to fight - and my whole point is going to be that there's no point arguing about hairs that small).
The "an innocuous misunderstanding ended a friendship" quote is technically true, too.

For the former, of course you'd pick out the more serious disagreements, so that comment wasn't saying much, except as an example where both you, and the person you're commenting on, are slightly slanting things, blowing it up into 'incorrect' rather than 'mostly/basically correct'.

Language isn't precise. Assume generously. You have give things that people say a 10 to 20 percent slant either way. Assume positively in manner, if not correctness.
I don't assume people literally mean 'ALWAYS' when they say always, unless they have always* used the word in that way, over a significant time period. Same with the word 'literally'. You just have to live with it.

Once a hint of disagreement is raised, there's two ways to go, one way, make the disagreement clearer, bigger, and more of and issue, the other way, well, you minimise the differences, assume everyone MEANT to slant what they were saying positively and had accidentally misunderstood everyone elses words as slanted the other way.

I'd recommend being a moderator on an online forum for a while, because then it's YOUR problem when people start getting fighty like this, you're observing it from the outside, and therefore you really start noticing the dynamic.

If you honestly want people to go, oh, ok, I must have misheard/misunderstood you, then you can't turn it into a fight. State nothing in absolutes. Once people are in fight mode, they will not back down. There are studies - arguments cement peoples opinion. In annoying concrete. Not literally.
So, for example:
I absolutely did not say that. AKA You are absolutely wrong.

Instead, "Nah, we must have misheard each other (say each other even if only one person spoke - just go with it)".
"Oh well, these things happen."
Divert: Would someone else like the drink?
When someone thinks they've been insulted, don't focus on the words, focus on what is important to them: Do you think their appearance is funny? So, "I promise that is not what I meant." It's an extra skill, but sometimes you can divert with humour, but you have to read the situation well enough to know what you can say.

Worst case, bow out. If the best you can do is a passive-aggressive dropping the conversation with an, 'Ok, whatever'. This is STILL better.

This is a stupid example, but recently, I made a long rambly post while feverish with a bad flu (didn't think this was a bad idea til I was well again).
I kind of wanted to go back and try and explain what I actually meant for every single point where I was rambly, confused, forgot to state premises, and people justifiably misunderstood me, but, that's my ego.
Explain just reads as 'argue' to most people, digs you in deeper, and therefore turns it into argument, with people I didn't actually disagree with.
People thought I was wrong on the internet! And lo, that puts it all into perspective.

Anyway, it's life.
I get really worked up about things like this when I'm really frustrated. Like, usually other things in my life, that I can't do much about, or THINK I can't do much about. Sometimes just asking yourself, "What's REALLY pissing me off right now?" can help put these kind of annoyances into perspective.

*Of course, I mean ALWAYS here, as in 100%, completely truthfully, no exaggeration, no hyperbole. Ha!
Of course, since I have a poor memory, and might have forgotten an incorrect usage here and there, this takes me back to pretty much never assuming anyone means always. You can assume that about me. Logic circuits, frying.
posted by Elysum at 12:22 AM on August 15, 2014

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