Communication is too hard. I almost want to stop speaking altogether.
April 23, 2016 11:31 PM   Subscribe

Why is it that when I'm among people who presumably share my political perspective or experience, that my comments are always understood completely opposite to my intended meaning? Is this a thing?

Say I am at a party with fellow lobbyists, and we are talking about the value of charity to ease economic inequality. I say, "Charity is often more about the giver than the receiver. "Givers" feel good that they are able to do something, but the benefits for the receiver (while not zero) are temporary, because charity doesn't challenge or change the root of the inequality. As such, charity isn't a sustainable model. We need to reconsider the way that we assess the value of certain labors above others."

Because I'm in a room of like-mindeds, I usually don't elaborate on my comment anymore than saying the above, nor do I frame my comment anymore than I do above, because my comment is usually a part of a conversation.

Why would my interlocuters respond to the worst interpretation of my comment by saying, for example, "Nobody is saying that we should keep exploiting wealth inequality! Of course that's something we are against."

This happens quite often, and usually in contexts where I am at least familiar with everyone's work/perspective. It shocks me how often (and to what degree) my comments are misunderstood; and it can often end in patronizing explanation.

I'm wondering whether people are not listening to my word and have instead already judged what they think I am going to say before I say it (as a result of some identity markers they've used to box me in, perhaps). It's frustrating, so I'm here to ask: is this a common thing in communication between people? I don't mean during an argument where emotions can interfere with interpretation. I mean at a work retreat where there is some understanding that a common baseline perspective is shared by all. How can I fix this without always having to elaborately frame my comments or interpret its meaning for the next five minutes? I assume my audience is smart and can figure it out--but it doesn't seem they've given me the same courtesy.

It frustrates me to no end that I'm misunderstood and then judged by the misunderstanding. I've taken to not speaking much because of it. This leaves me stuck and being talked at, since the person hasn't asked for clarification but has assumed that I need education, which I do not.

tl;dr... Is miscommunication of this magnitude a thing in regular communication and if yes, what can I do to decrease the occurrence? I'm open to hearing that I need to be more clear about my point of view, but the response isn't of confusion but often ire or indignation.
posted by RaRa-SpaceRobot to Human Relations (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think with this specific example, your phrasing might trigger a certain hypersensitivity and defensiveness, because arguments like that are often used to argue for dismantling of social support altogether. It's a classic "the perfect is the enemy of the good" rationale; if the underlying circumstances are unaddressed by charity/aid/welfare, we ought to stop together.

I'm sure that's not what you're saying, but I think that's what people might hear.
posted by lumensimus at 12:16 AM on April 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


Have you seen the grey? :/

is this a common thing in communication between people?

Yeah, more or less, depending.

But in the example you gave, this happened. You stated a principle that is more or less foundational to most people who believe in progressive ideals (i.e. that there is a common weal, and its members should take care of each other using transparent and democratic political methods, vs via private, unaccountable bodies, etc). No one at that party would like for charities to exist. It's seen as a necessary but lesser evil than say recipients of food from a food bank starving. And, your fellow party-goers are lobbyists, they are firmly planted on the "work within the system" side, they've decided to work with the reality in front of them. I bet most of them have pro experience in the charity sector, present or past (or anticipate that they will).

So your comment highlighted a discrepancy between their deep-down beliefs and their life choices. From their point of view, it might have felt like a confrontation, and maybe they felt compelled to defend themselves.

Did you mean it to be a challenge? Or were you talking in a more abstracted way?

If it's the latter, like you were just saying what you thought, the issue is pragmatics. You didn't account for the context of the exchange. The way to address problems with this is to think deeply about the context, and the situation and character and motivations of the people you're talking to, the social rules at play. Or, if the social rules aren't obvious, to wait and listen until you're more sure of what they are.

Or if people are reading your body language and vocal tone as more assertive than the conversation merits, i.e. as aggressive, you might want to pull things back a bit.

(If you meant it to be a challenge, the issue is that... it's a challenge, people are going to react.)

jinx
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:21 AM on April 24, 2016 [16 favorites]


This is pretty common in my experience. It's annoying. It just makes me think people are often way more stupider than I initially assume. You can't expect to have a decent intellectual conversation with someone you don't know that well and who doesn't know you either. Until you know a person you have to assume the worst. Which is probably why they're misinterpreting you too. They have also learned to assume the worst.
posted by bleep at 12:28 AM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


At the beginning of your askme, you say "presumably share my political perspective or experience"-- that's a really BIG presumption. And almost certainly untrue no matter who is in the room. All you know any given group is that they will have some points of intersection with your perspective, but almost certainly other points which they do not share. To my mind, you are not speaking with much empathy for your listeners and are making assumptions about their beliefs based on your own point of view.

In the example you cited, you've essentially judged and labelled givers as selfish. Politically motivated listeners might well agree with your overall point, but feel you are missing nuance in the sense that you are not acknowledging that acute need exists and must also be met. If they are someone focused on the acute needs, they would feel hurt or needled by you labelling them selfish for doing so, and I'm not sure they would be wrong to do so. I wasn't there, and I read your statement as bombastic.
posted by frumiousb at 1:55 AM on April 24, 2016 [18 favorites]


I've spent a lot of time in language classes lately, and something a lot of my teachers say is: the words you say are actually only a small part of how you communicate with someone. So if you're saying things that are fairly reasonable and getting really angry or aggressive responses back, it might be a good idea to think about how you're saying those things and not just what you're saying.
posted by colfax at 2:00 AM on April 24, 2016 [12 favorites]


Economic inequality is closer to the receiver, so I could imagine (more sensitive than I) people chafing at making the argument oppositional, since the concepts are so close together you can do a little substitution to get "it's more about the giver than the economic inequality." What kind of response would you think reasonable? "Yeah? Well I think it's more about the receiver!"

I sympathize, though. It sounds like something I would do.
posted by rhizome at 2:18 AM on April 24, 2016


Your example reads to me like you are criticizing or educating your audience and don't expect them to understand your main point (so they assume you don't understand them.) You actually provide too much context if you're speaking to people on the same page. In your situation, I might say: "How can we more effectively reduce the need for charity without reducing the effectiveness of our existing charity work?" Use of "our" and "more," recognition the current work is valuable, open-ended question, a question that any sort of person politically can appreciate, all help.

As far as why this happens sometimes: before you spoke, people assumed certain things about you and those assumptions create a narrative. Everything you say is interpreted to fit into that narrative, and often, you need to say some un-misinterpretable things so that people begin trying to interpret you the way you prefer (and then you will find that people agree with you too readily and you'll be asking how to get your followers to have more moderate opinions.)
posted by michaelh at 2:55 AM on April 24, 2016 [9 favorites]


Just working from what you've written here, I'm struck by how much you're asking your (mefi) audience to infer about the exchanges you're describing. As a reader I have no idea of the extent to which you and I are "like mindeds" and we weren't already engaged in a contextualizing conversation when I found your question, yet you left your statement about the value and meaning of charity to stand on its own, which means I have to do a lot of guessing about the situation you're describing.

Reading through the rest of your question, I notice several places where you use assumptions about agreement and understanding to justify not providing additional context for what you say. Also, you're not merely frustrated but also *offended* at others' interpretations of what you've said, and you are hyperbolically worried that you might have to provide "5 minutes" worth of additional detail and explanation to avoid such a misunderstanding. These things lead me to wonder whether you might have more emotional and identity issues tied up in your attachment to brevity than you realize. I'm wondering whether the experience of being understood without having to explain yourself provides some comfort or reassurance -- some emotional fix that you're seeking and not getting.

Why would my interlocuters respond to the worst interpretation of my comment by saying, for example, "Nobody is saying that we should keep exploiting wealth inequality! Of course that's something we are against."

To me this response doesn't suggest disagreement or misunderstanding; it basically means 'What you're saying is true, but facile.' Is that the 'worst interpretation' you're alluding to? I have to guess and ask, because you didn't say.
posted by jon1270 at 3:35 AM on April 24, 2016 [34 favorites]


As soon as you talk to people, one half of the interaction is out of your hands. Some of the words you use, some of the concepts you employ, may end up as triggers for the other person, no matter your intent. Yes, it's frustrating, but that's how communication works. It is a negotiation of standpoints where everyone's previous experiences are on the table. It's often not enough to say "I didn't mean to say this and that, even though I employed these terms." It may instead be necessary to analyze the dynamics of a given exchange and say--to yourself--for example, "it will be counterproductive to use this term/concept to get person x to understand what I mean because it looks like person x understands the term in some other way."

To assume that you share a subtext with your interlocutors that frees you from the task of explaining what you mean is not so good in the best of circumstances. Even if it's true and everybody at the table was in fact having the same outlook: your example above is too complex to quickly think through. It's most of all a proclamation that needs to be explained further; it is abstract; and its ethical implications aren't fully spelled out. So even the most like-minded audience would need a pause to assess whether they still agree with you. And, sure enough, a less patient listener will likely jump to conclusions about the ideas that lie behind your proclamation.

My recommendation: listen and watch, state little, explain things instead, or frame your statements as questions, options, possibilities, not hard facts. Scan in your audience and adjust to them, focus less on yourself when talking.
posted by Namlit at 4:18 AM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


When two people have a conversation, there are three dialogues happening- the first person's interpretation of what's being said; the second person's interpretation; and what was actually said.
The striking thing to me about your example is that you primed the listener to interpret your remarks negatively. By starting with that comment about 'charity making the giver feel good... Etc' you've probably put them on the defensive as it sounds like an attack. Are you subconsciously setting this up as some kind of a test, to see if they understand your real meaning and therefore are a like-minded thinker?
posted by KateViolet at 4:30 AM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


If you grew up like I did, where you got a lot of praise for knowing things or being right, you may have internalized the idea that conversation is about making statements that are then appreciated by the listener.

But for a lot of people in a lot of conversations, it's a lot more about connecting and building consensus as equals. Your statement didn't give other people's thoughts any room. You didn't say something like "I find charity is a lot more about the giver...so really it's about valuing work...what do you think?"

I suspect a lot of the pushback you're getting highlights that the sense is you're pontificating, not conversing. This is highly cultural; in some cultures the most senior-ranked person talks & everyone listens and agrees.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:41 AM on April 24, 2016 [37 favorites]


To paraphrase Caleb Gattegno: language is for self expression, communication is a miracle.
posted by STFUDonnie at 4:45 AM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think it's interesting that you say This leaves me stuck and being talked at, since the person hasn't asked for clarification but has assumed that I need education, which I do not. but in your example, it's you that is "talking at" other people and assuming that they need education; and it's them getting indignant that you make this assumption!

I feel like this kind of intellectual conversation tends to come in two flavours; debate-mode, and conversation mode. In debate mode, everyone is trying to defend their position while convincing the others to change theirs. In conversation mode, people are sharing their thoughts and building on what other people say.

In your example, you're giving off several cues that you want to engage in debate mode. It doesn't sound like you're building on what anyone has previously said - instead you're arguing with it. You start with a non-nuanced criticism of people who engage in charity, by claiming that they are selfish. You're probably also changing the subject dramatically, from concrete charitable activity to what are realistically more theoretical academic issues. I suspect that your listeners are responding to your aggressive debate-mode stance more than they are to your actual words.

I bet you could have a more fruitful discussion on the same topic, by having a conversation instead of a debate or a lecture. "XYZ policy area is one I'm fascinated by too! I'm particularly interested in sustainable alternatives to the charitable model, like [specific thing]. Are you folks 100% working on charitable projects? Or is anyone else out there looking at economic alternatives?"
posted by emilyw at 5:04 AM on April 24, 2016 [34 favorites]


My experience is that it's hard to find people who can think in the realm of paradox, contradiction, nuance, and this is especially true, in my experience, among political partisans. So you may just be working the wrong crowd. If you don't adhere to the party line, more or less -- and especially if you have a complex argument about major tenets -- you're going to likely be seen as provocative.
posted by mmw at 5:39 AM on April 24, 2016 [6 favorites]


Even if it happens that I'm misunderstood in conversation, I try not to let it become a thing because I just listen to what the other person has to say when they start disagreeing with me and don't get hung up on or stuck on whatever they're saying and then the moment passes.
posted by MoonOrb at 6:08 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Emilyw has it - your statement is being delivered as part of a debate, expecting to be met with similar debate, but you're in a relatively informal social setting with a mixed group of people, rather than a meeting to debate an issue or coffee with a friend who enjoys debating issues with you. So you've got a whole group of people who are expecting various types of conversation from casual catch-ups, networking, flirting, serious discussion to intellectual debate - and you need to identify and introduce your style of conversation, which seems to be a conceptual discussion.

Two people I know both enjoy that kind of discussion, and one of them would do it regardless of the context, turning every discussion into an ideas debate. It was exhausting and a small part of why they are an ex-friend. The other says things like "There's an interesting argument about charity that XYZ, what do you think?", making it a conversation and not a clash of opinions. And being willing to switch up conversation styles.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:24 AM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


we are talking about the value of charity to ease economic inequality... "We need to reconsider the way that we assess the value of certain labors above others."

Maybe this example isn't representative, but maybe it is. You basically shut down the stated topic of discussion and were attempting to reroute it to addressing a huge, systemic problem. Answering "ultimately, none" and changing the topic to what you see as a more relevant focus is a conversationally aggressive move you should at least be prepared to back up. If it's something you do often and/or involves a specific ideology, it probably wears on your peers, and they may be trying to redirect you in turn. (Or, if you're my friend I see this happening to, those of us who know your pattern are ducking out as soon as we see the lecture coming because we already broadly agree but have decided to work with what's at hand rather than overthrowing the system, leaving you with a continual stream of new people to attempt to reach.)
posted by teremala at 6:42 AM on April 24, 2016 [6 favorites]


The problem is that most people don't want to have an intelligent conversation. They only want to have conversations that make them feel intelligent. So you get a lot of barely listening and people waiting to say what they want to say. It is best to engage one smart person who will challenge your ideas than to spout out to an entire room of morons. Look for the smart people.
posted by myselfasme at 7:04 AM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


I find that this is a very common thing in certain crowds (e.g. read the contentious threads on the Metafilter blue or gray -- this happens all the damn time, to the extent that deep, nuanced discussion is often impossible). People tend to bring a lot of baggage to conversations, particularly if the conversation involves politics or other emotionally-triggering topics. They're trying to gauge whether you're on their "team" or not, and pick up on shibboleths and other clues that you might not even be aware of to decide whether you're part of their in-crowd or not. And if they decide you're not, they'll interpret almost everything you say in the worst possible way.

Those of us (myself included) who tend to take words at face value and don't bring a lot of baggage to conversations will generally be more forgiving and not try to pigeon-hole people so much. It makes for far better communication. I've found that people who are a bit more thoughtful, mature, and logic-based are much better conversationalists. As the comment by myselfasme suggests, look for the right kind of people.
posted by phoenix_rising at 8:15 AM on April 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


Thanks for your insight, everyone. I wanted to add that I've seen others make similar declarations (in terms of style, brevity, and content) in similar circumstances and their comments are treated as insightful, intriguingly astute, or at the very least, "totally true." I'm less interested in "why can't I also be brilliant?" and more interested in "why are people reacting/interpreting me this way, when the same comment from others would reap curiosity or more?" I'm finding the answers about tone and context really useful (this is not to discourage other answers) and also Jon1270's question about my personal investment/comfort in being understood to be really interesting.

On preview: what phoenix-rising said above is close to what I'm working through.
posted by RaRa-SpaceRobot at 8:27 AM on April 24, 2016


On preview: what phoenix-rising said above is close to what I'm working through.

Lots of truth in it. But you said

This happens quite often, and usually in contexts where I am at least familiar with everyone's work/perspective. It shocks me how often (and to what degree) my comments are misunderstood;

This experience doesn't happen to everyone on a routine basis.

I wanted to add that I've seen others make similar declarations (in terms of style, brevity, and content) in similar circumstances and their comments are treated as insightful, intriguingly astute, or at the very least, "totally true."

If you think the content you're offering and what these other people are giving up is roughly equivalent, it might help to think through any differences between all these events. Maybe it's timing, maybe it's some of the other stuff.

(I'm not saying the conflict or misunderstanding is all on you, but some of it might be.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:43 AM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


"why are people reacting/interpreting me this way, when the same comment from others would reap curiosity or more?"

It's because they've decided you're part of the out-group rather than the in-group. I'm just as baffled by this behavior as you are, but it seems to be very, very common. I've learned a lot about human nature by reading the more combative threads on the blue and gray here. It might help you, too.
posted by phoenix_rising at 8:45 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


I should add that amongst my colleagues (who tend to be hyper-rational STEM types), this doesn't tend to happen nearly so much. So it does depend on who you're hanging out with. People that are very involved in politics and social issues tend to have more of the in-group vs out-group mentality, I've noticed.
posted by phoenix_rising at 8:48 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


From your example, if you actually ARE in a room of people who agree 100% with what you're saying, what would you expect as a response? Because if they do already absolutely agree, they've probably already realized the things you are saying and the way you're framing things is coming across as telling people what they already know - I'm not sure what someone would have to say beyond "yep, correct."

On the other hand, if your interlocutors don't already agree 100% with what you're saying (which I suspect is more likely), you're stating opinions as if they were facts, which may be rubbing people the wrong way even if they agree with some of your larger points. If this has become a habit for you, these folks may already be primed to be a little annoyed and fighty.

Either way, what you've written here sounds like something I would more expect to find in an essay than a conversation - it reads like you're more interested in making your beliefs heard than in actually engaging in discussion, and I can understand why you're frustrated if that isn't really what you want. I can't speak to why other people you know might be able to get away with this (although I'd suggest you examine your assumptions about that, too - it's possible they're doing this much less often than you think, or actually are framing things in a way that invites conversation), but I'd suggest worrying less about that and focusing more on ways you can scale back on assertions as your opening gambit, and insert more questions and curiosity.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:20 AM on April 24, 2016 [9 favorites]


Ideologue is ideological. Those who "get" what you mean aren't those who share your opinions but those who share your sensibility.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:04 AM on April 24, 2016


"why are people reacting/interpreting me this way, when the same comment from others would reap curiosity or more?"

Are these people you know, or are they just casual acquaintances (or even less)? If they're not people you know, then why would you expect them to value your perspective enough to be curious about it? Do you react similarly to statements made by strangers?
posted by steady-state strawberry at 10:05 AM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh hey, another thing that occurred to me--and I think is consistent with most everyone else is expressing-- is that there are ways to communicate things that sound on one end of the spectrum like "Here is this universal truth and I'm telling you how it is" and on the other like "Here is my personal take on this issue that I don't necessarily expect you to share, although you might."

The more your word choice, tone, body language, and other conversational cues tilt you toward that first end of the spectrum, it seems reasonable to expect that people might bristle at it a little bit.

Is it possible that when you observe people saying things that you think are equivalent to the things that you say that there are subtle differences in your words and other cues that might move you toward the "universal truth" end of the spectrum and them a little bit more toward the middle, or even to the "personal opinion" side of the spectrum?

Sometimes these cues can be hard to read, too-are you someone that easily reads communication cues or is this often a challenge for you?
posted by MoonOrb at 2:52 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's possible that your "like-mindeds" actually ... aren't.

Meaning ... people get involved with political causes for all sorts of reasons. Some of them are like-minded. Some of them are experimenting with becoming active for the first time. Some of them are working out daddy issues. Some of them are just trying to get laid.

Find some of the problematic folks. Don't make statements. Ask questions. Listen to them. Then you can get a better handle on a communication strategy based on their actual approach, their actual personalities, their actual desire for what they want to get out of this activity.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:21 PM on April 24, 2016


"Charity is often more about the giver than the receiver. "Givers" feel good that they are able to do something, but the benefits for the receiver (while not zero) are temporary, because charity doesn't challenge or change the root of the inequality. As such, charity isn't a sustainable model. We need to reconsider the way that we assess the value of certain labors above others."

If your example is representative, there are two things that leap out at me:

Front-loading context like that can sideline people's thoughts enough that they are busy in their own head by the time you get to your actual point. For example, your point is that charity isn't a sustainable model. Start with that. (I struggle with this myself. Sometimes the way that I think through logic in my own head is not a path that's particularly clear for someone else to follow, even if they would agree with my conclusion.)

Secondly, your phrasing states theories/opinions as absolutes...from which you then draw conclusions that you also present as fact rather than as an opinion or a question to be explored. This would drive me bonkers and get my fight up, too. Are you having a conversation in which you're interested in other people's ideas even if they complicate your conclusion, or are you competing to win praise for your idea?

I assume my audience is smart and can figure it out--but it doesn't seem they've given me the same courtesy.

It frustrates me to no end that I'm misunderstood and then judged by the misunderstanding. I've taken to not speaking much because of it. This leaves me stuck and being talked at, since the person hasn't asked for clarification but has assumed that I need education, which I do not.


You assume that your audience is invested in understanding what you have to say and you're offended when they don't react the way you expect. That's not showing them courtesy. That's entitlement.

Frankly, there's a pretty strong current of "how can I get these people to listen to me" throughout this question. Consider that maybe you're getting clarification from people because they don't see any indication that you're listening to them. And you know how frustrating that can be...
posted by desuetude at 10:55 AM on April 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


I often have the same experience. I find that people often don't listen to what I am saying; they listen to what they think I am going to say, and then respond based on something which was not said. It is frustrating, because then I get defensive, and try to re-explain the thing I originally said, which they didn't really listen to!

It is very annoying when you express a thoughtful, nuanced idea, and instead of thinking about it, the listener just uses some key words from your sentence as a launch pad to take off on a rant.
posted by LauraJ at 11:42 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


This used to happen to me very often with one particular person at work who is massively insecure, and seems to interpret anything you tell her as a criticism or a question on her values or knowledge. I have noticed she has exactly the same sort of interactions with other people, and I have reached the conclusion that she reacts this way when she feels intimidated.

So to expand on the insightful comments above, I would say pay attention to what kind of people you are talking to: if they are in a perceived position of privilege (they are male and you aren't, they think they are more experienced than you, or for whatever reason they have an urge to look like they know everything and like everything they do is the only right thing to do), then you being direct and speaking about remotely touchy subjects might result in them biting your head off.

As I grow older, I notice it is mostly insecure people who react like this. I mean if you for example did indeed say something like well, ya'll are a bunch of sellouts and here's the reasons why, then any mature person on the receiving end would have either replied to your comments, asked for clarification to see if indeed you were attacking them, or diffused the situation with a non committal change of subject. Only a truly insecure, GRAR sort of person would be like OF COURSE WE KNOW WHY DID YOU EVEN SPEAK. I am not saying it would be okay for you to attack people like that, but even if you said something as bad, people tend to just think hm, RaRa might be having a bad day, and move on. Very few people would be like NO YOU ARE WRONG!

If it serves, I only have honest, no holding-back conversations with two groups of people:

A) People I love, respect and trust, who will tell me if they disagree with me and why and I might learn from them or I might share something interesting with them and we will enrich each other's world. At the very least they will tell me they don't feel like having that conversation at the moment and we'll change the subject to kittens' bellies or something

B) People I don't give a fuck about offending. I say my piece and they can deal with it. This can happen at work (which is why I have a list of potential enemies who I have gotten in trouble for their gross incompetence, and a list of allies who love me and know I get shit done), or in my personal life (I don't give a shit about offending sexist assholes, racist assholes, or Trump supporters). Mind you, people have to EARN their category B status. It takes a lot of effort to be that kind of asshole in my book.

The rest of the people I interact with using my PR-approved personality. Most people think I am a sweet, mildly mannered, quiet sort of nerdy person. They don't need to know I am an atheist, socialist, feminist, kinda pedantic perfectionist until I choose to reveal it. The perfectionist part is harder to hide at work since I do program evaluation.
posted by Tarumba at 11:16 AM on April 27, 2016


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