Miscommunication or difficult personality?
January 6, 2022 8:18 PM   Subscribe

I have a family member I don't see often. We love each other, but every conversation is tense and prone to breakdown. How do I know if this is due to the communication/cultural gap between us, or if this family member is just difficult to be around? Because if it's the former, I'll work on it, but I'll just bite my tongue and be careful if it's the latter.

One example: I used the phrase "I'm picking my battles" with reference to my kid cluttering the house. Response: "This is not a battle".

That sounds like just not knowing the idiom, right? But when I explained what the idiom means (patiently, I thought), the response was "Don't make a big deal of everything. I'm too busy to worry about every little thing like that."

Which I don't know how to respond to. And it hurts because every conversation goes this way and I feel helpless. I really want a good relationship but I don't know what to do.

Anyway, just wondering how you would deal with this. I'm happy to work on rebuilding our communication, but I don't know how to start, or whether it will even work.
posted by redlines to Human Relations (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever I find myself having difficult miscommunications with someone like this, I find the thing that works best is to ignore about 50% of what they say. Change the subject or make a joke or drop the topic. Some people just have an odd way of communicating, or don’t think before they speak, or are a bit too critical, and if you try to pick apart everything they say it just brings down the mood. Just keep it light and if you can’t respond positively then change the subject.

OBVIOUSLY this doesn’t apply if they are actually being actively mean or rude or insulting to you — you can definitely stand up for yourself in that case. But if you actually like this person and want to build a relationship with them, keep it light and don’t analyze the things that come out of their mouth.
posted by mekily at 8:40 PM on January 6, 2022 [8 favorites]

Could this person have the beginnings of dementia? Because this sounds somewhat like my conversations with my mom lately. It is exhausting having to explain everything, so I just don't. I can't. I don't actually ignore what she's saying but I just don't engage with it all.
posted by HotToddy at 8:51 PM on January 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

One example: I used the phrase "I'm picking my battles" with reference to my kid cluttering the house. Response: "This is not a battle".

That sounds like just not knowing the idiom, right?

That’s not how I would take it. I would think they were saying that casting the conflict with your son as a ‘battle’ was too much.

And the other response seems to mesh with that. Loosely talking it sounds like you may be too much for this person right now.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:58 PM on January 6, 2022 [15 favorites]

that sounds exhausting. It sounds like there's definitely a bit of a mismatch in styles - they seem quite pedantic.

In your example, the easiest way forward after they said it's not a battle, would be for you to just almost blow it off. Take it and just let it go. "Eh, just a figure of speech. Anyway, did you hear about what Mildred made for the bake-off..."

I do agree with Tell Me No Lies that it sounds possible that this person isn't really your biggest fan right now. You might need to take a step or two back if you can.
posted by hydra77 at 9:24 PM on January 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

Hydra and Tell Me No Lies said it better than I could figure out. When I am feeling overwhelmed by my husband (who can be negative sometimes) I end up stopping him from making hyperbolic statements about things and I have less patience if it feels like he’s making too big of a deal about something (like people being grumpy when he went for an oil change) but I do love him a lot and it’s not a 100 percent of the time dynamic. But, at times, I never feel like anything I say is helpful and I feel like a dumping ground…In some relationships other people being negative and complaining doesn’t bother me, I think that’s because they seem to appreciate my response and not over do it… I wonder if you try to just say positive things the next two visits if this dynamic will change.
posted by pairofshades at 10:01 PM on January 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are really interesting responses! I would never have thought to take "pick your battles" literally -- to me, it's just a figure of speech -- so it's revealing to see that other people besides my family member do as well. I had another incident when my toddler was crying very vigorously and I called it a meltdown, which my friends and I often do regarding our toddlers, and this person bristled at that. So I think there is value in me using more neutral/positive language when possible.

But I think there's an element of being too pedantic as well, outside the positive/negative spectrum. Just now, I mentioned an incident at somebody's wedding. They immediately corrected me, saying "wedding reception, not wedding" though that distinction wasn't super pertinent to the story.
posted by redlines at 10:56 PM on January 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think it's a combination of cultural, generational and personality differences (projecting from my relationship with my own Asian mom lol sigh).

My rule of thumb is to keep all communication really simple in these situations. You said, "I'm picking my battles" and *I* know what that saying means, but I've also thought, is it really a battle? Is battle really the best way to describe it? etc. Anyway, your family member said, "It's not a battle" - to which I would have said, "Ok." In other words, keep it simple and don't take things personally. Easier said than done, I know. On preview: same thing with being corrected on "wedding" - "ok." Yes it's annoying, but I don't think you'll be able to change who they are.

Generally people don't like being explained things unless they've asked for that. You assumed that they didn't understand the saying (due to cultural differences?), when in fact maybe they're trying to communicate something different to you. Anyway, family member may have felt put upon by being suddenly in a lesson to understand language and is trying to communicate "I'm not interested in learning what a certain saying means when I didn't ask for that." Which I think is understandable and again, don't take it personally.

I totally understand wanting to be understood by a family member. The cultural and general differences are challenging. It gets to the point where you have to accept they're never going to understand the way you want to be understood, because your life experiences and frames of reference are very different. Even if you're both living in the same country now, the memories of home, and of a different place and time are still very powerful.

So what does a good relationship look like to you - what do you want? Maybe think about whether your expectations are reasonable given the type of person family member is. What is their personality like? Are they generally pretty negative and critical? What do they like doing and talking about? Can you talk to them about what they're interested in? I would have a few go-to, light topics and activities that you can talk about and do together. Ask them about home, their childhood, family, friends, food, etc. I don't think you have to bite your tongue necessarily, but shift your mindset a little. Basically, pay attention to who they are and work with that. (If they are really negative and critical, figure out a few strategies and boundaries around that, i.e. address it, or change the subject, or if they're really terrible, get up and leave/hang up the phone.)

It's kind of like with your kid - who is your kid as a person? What are they into and what do they like doing? It's slightly different with an adult family member because of the power dynamics - like if this is your parent, their words and opinions matter so much more to you, whereas with your kid, you have the responsibility to guide, shape and teach them. (And know that your words and opinions of them have a big impact on them too! No pressure though. :D )

So I don't think this is an either or thing. Cultural differences can be very challenging to deal with. I think you can do more to recognize that and meet them where they're at. It's hard to know based on your post if they are difficult - what is their general personality like, could they have been having a bad day that day?

Anyway, hope this has helped.
posted by foxjacket at 11:20 PM on January 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

I think you're correctly picking up on the fact that rather than empathizing with your viewpoint and supporting you, they're contradicting and criticizing you. In your example, you clarified and they persisted in disagreeing. "I'm picking my battles" might actually mean exactly what they suggested after your clarification "Don't make a big deal of everything," so there's more agreement that could be found and they're not liking what you're saying or not looking to find agreement or something.

One idea is just to not expect supportive communication, gird yourself for disagreement and snippy criticisms, and just create whatever level of feel-good communication you want by not engaging deeply with what they're saying. I wouldn't look for approval or understanding from this person. They disagree or are critical but aren't currently communicating that in a loving, thoughtful way. So i think the best solution is either to give them space or just not let them get to you, let their criticism sail past without catching it.

"I'm picking my battles."
"This is not a battle."
"Exactly! Not everything needs to be a battle. So anyway..."

*Explained the idiom*
"Don't make such a big deal of things."
"Right?? Totally! I've been realizing, hey, some things aren't big deals!"

If they want to get across whatever it is that they're meaning, they could try to better explain their point.
posted by slidell at 12:52 AM on January 7, 2022 [32 favorites]

I would gently test these two waters with this person, so to speak:

First: Focus on shared likes, but without excluding clear but brief conversation about dislikes. "I thought you knew I don't like comments about my preferred parenting style. Give me something more interesting to work with here. You read any good books lately?" Or whatever it is you have found that you have in common.

Second: Specifically raising what you don't like about what they said, and specifically asking if they think it's fair for them to criticize details that matter to you, by talking about how their own preferences are so wonderful. (Getting at first equity in relating--let's relate, and how about we each get to enjoy it? But also touching on propriety and social behavior)

If these can be done with some humor and grace, awesome. But at a baseline if this relating is to be done in the short term, there should be some feeling that it's not all give from your side. If it's to be done in the long term, you are right on track in starting this thread and it's a good idea to start trying out tools and strategies. Not to win, but to explore the yet-unknown, do some relationship prospecting and you never know what cool things can come of it.
posted by circular at 12:53 AM on January 7, 2022

Another tactic is explicitly stating your boundaries/expectations during the conversation. This isn't necessarily for the conflict-averse, but if you want to express your emotional reaction to some of these "clarifications", you are allowed to.

For example, my father is strikingly pedantic. If I tell him I how excited I am to do a particular trip with my family, he will always respond with a tangentially related factoid like "DID YOU KNOW that the arches in Utah's national monument are 150 million years old" and it really f'ing bugs me b/c that has little to nothing to do with my excitement or interest in telling the story in the first place and as an adult I'm not looking for an academic lecture.

Often I use "ok" or just ignore it, but when I feeling more irritated, sometimes I will say "Dad - when you offer unnecessary facts like that, I find it really frustrating. I've told you this before. I was telling you b/c I am excited to go on this trip." Its not comfortable to do that but sometimes it helps my Dad be less annoying, and gives him information about how I want our relationship to function. I feel like you could do this especially in the wedding-reception example.
posted by RajahKing at 5:11 AM on January 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Is it possible you talk about negative things more than this person is able to hear? The pattern I'm noticing in your examples sounds a little bit like this:

battles : it's not really a battle, is it? It's just a choice on what to focus on.
meltdown : it's just a toddler crying when upset.
incident at a wedding : actually, at the wedding reception, which is less problematic.

I have a few friends who sometimes bring more negativity to our conversations than I am up for, and my internal thoughts go much like your family member's replies.
posted by xo at 6:02 AM on January 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

pick your battles" literally -- to me, it's just a figure of speech

I have used this exact phrase in this exact same scenario - and also interchangably with: "that is not a hill I am willing to die on" when it comes to cleaning household/child-created messes.

These are definately hyperbolic figures of speech. If someone would call me out on using at them, I would tilt my head and wonder what their problem is/was.

I have been called-out for speaking enthuisiasticly, excessively using metaphors, figures of speech, allegories, etc - and being hyperbolic.

Too bad - that is me - that is how I write and speak. If you can't handle it and want me to either "dumb it down", shut-up or be bland - then I won't spend time with you, family or not.
posted by rozcakj at 6:03 AM on January 7, 2022 [12 favorites]

To detect a pattern with more certainty, we’d need more examples - or you could write some down for yourself and see if you find more commonalities.

For the example you gave, I see some possible interpretations
- they understand the idiom but find it inappropriate in the context or just hyperbolic
- they corrected you based on that but you launched into an explanation, in their eyes escalating unnecessarily
- they have a hard time with not quite accurate use of language and can’t give higher priority to context (e.g., whether it’s even relevant to the story; for them the wedding and the reception are different things and one does not use the words interchangeably.)
- they don’t think to explicitly mention what they agree with, as that is redundant to them, but point out the differences - ironically, this can be an attempt at support, just helping you be more precise so they can agree with the whole statement instead of just most it.

(It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some neurodiversity involved.)
posted by meijusa at 6:28 AM on January 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

Since the two examples are about parenting, I wonder if this person has an inherent critique of how you manage your kids.

If picking your battles means "I don't worry about the clutter because I have more important rules/expectations to focus on", are they saying something along the lines of: "you should enforce/control the kid's clutter, don't call it a battle, it is being a parent"? Or are they saying, "clutter is okay, don't be such a control freak"?

If they don't like you calling your kids behavior "a meltdown", well, too bad for them. But my guess is there is something else involved. For example, I had a family member with a small child she didn't really manage well. So, we often had to leave an activity, stop to eat, do another thing, etc. because the child was either "having a melt -down" or "going to have a meltdown"...It was annoying to have a three-year-old dictating the day's events. I am not saying this is your situation at all, I'm just sharing I bristled at "having a meltdown" because it was her excuse for not dealing with the fussy kid.

So, I could be completely off here, but I think you are noticing a passive critique of your parenting.

Whatever the reason, I'd let them say whatever and just yes them to death.
Good luck
posted by rhonzo at 6:29 AM on January 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Do they act like this with other people too? Including people from the same culture?
posted by trig at 6:30 AM on January 7, 2022

Is it possible you talk about negative things more than this person is able to hear?
not quite accurate use of language
I think my head is about to fly off my neck. Saying "picking my battles" is not "talking about negative things." Picking battles is a common idiom that means exactly the opposite of a "negative thing." It means "I'm not going to sweat the small stuff." Use of common idiom is not inaccurate use of language wtactualh. This situation happens to me occasionally and when it does it makes my blood boil and my eyes start from my head and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine because, precisely because, I do not know how to pick my battles.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:33 AM on January 7, 2022 [20 favorites]

Use of common idiom is not inaccurate use of language wtactualh
I was referring to conflating wedding and wedding reception, not the idiom.
posted by meijusa at 6:41 AM on January 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yeah, sounds like your relative is a bit pedantic about wording. I mean "picking you battles" is exactly what you do when you decide to not make a big deal about something because you want to focus on more important things. I would find it frustrating too when someone can't see we're on the same page about something just because I phrase it slighty differently than they would.

But I guess this is one of these things where you can practice picking your battles. So your relative is fussy about phrasing and doesn't do well with hyperbole. Chances are it really doesn't go deeper than that, so biting your tongue and moving on does seem like a good strategy.

I do like another commenter's suggestion to go for the "My point exactly"-reaction - rephrase your original point in their words to affirm that you're not actually disagreeing after all.
posted by sohalt at 6:49 AM on January 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

I have two theories that are potentially related:
1. This person finds your language hyperbolic or dramatic, and it annoys them for some reason.
2. This person views/prefers communication as an exchange of factual information, and doesn't understand/care/appreciate that people sometimes talk *only* to bond/share (and the latter tends to include more emotion or drama).

You could try being more factual/literal in your language (though that seems like it would take a lot of forethought, so it's probably easier to experiment with different ways of reacting to them). You could try ignoring the corrections, and assume they do support you, but are not conveying it well (though that might take a while to feel okay about). Or you could try generously accepting their correction and restating more neutrally: "Yeah, you're right, toddler was just having a hard time." Or, after they correct you, ask them to say more about whatever their point is, in a genuinely warm and interested way: "Oh huh, can you say more about that?" or "That's an interesting distinction. Can you explain more?"
posted by unknowncommand at 7:14 AM on January 7, 2022

How do I know if this is due to the communication/cultural gap between us?

Well - it would help to know - are they older? Younger? How large a gap? Did they grow-up in the same culture? But that culture has changed recently? Is there a big difference in education level between yourself and them? Do they communicate the same way with other people? Do they (or have they) recently spent alot of time alone, due to this isolating pandemic that is happening? Are they stressed-out.

Is English their first language? (Idioms do not translate well across language and cultural gaps - if I am writing something for work/technical in-nature, that is when I definately do modify my language and try not to use "figures of speech")

We have having some challenges with my mother-in-law (who lives with us) - and over the last month her communication ability seems to have dropped quite noticably - at first I thought it was just me she was not conversing with - but now, my partner see's it as well. She is not getting idioms - and is much slower to actually understand the context of the conversation - and loses it as it goes as well. We think she may be having memory/dementia issues - but, she hates the medical establishment, so unless it is an emergency she won't go for a check-up or take any prescription medication.
posted by rozcakj at 7:34 AM on January 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have a relative with a very oppositional conversation style, where she'll seize on some random word or turn of phrase. Then she's like a dog with a bone.

She contradicts, corrects, debates, one-ups.

It's really hard to remember what the conversation was actually about while she's arguing with herself about Tylenol, so I don't even try. I wait it out.

I would simply regard it as an aggravating quirk, and not anything personal. Some people just don't have conversation skills.
posted by champers at 8:44 AM on January 7, 2022 [8 favorites]

So I think there is value in me using more neutral/positive language when possible.

No, there really isn't. You need to speak just as you speak, rather than contort yourself trying to make this person happy. I don't mean that you need to go out of your way to antagonize them or be brusque with them. I mean that you need to envision yourself as a large oak tree or a giant rock: unmoved by whether your behavior is making this particular person annoyed or unhappy. You are who you are. An oak cannot pretend to be a willow when they are around someone who is annoyed by oaks. A rock cannot gently bend to accommodate someone who is annoyed by the rock's position. And, like, who you are is FINE, you're not a destructive or damaging entity. It's not like you're a volcano who is spewing lava and ash around that hurts people around you, right? You're just a fucking rock minding its own business (or a tree) (or a whatever image you prefer). You keep doing you. Don't try to become someone else to please other people.

To put it another way: you are currently making it your business to make this person happy with you, less angry with you, etc. But their feelings are not your business. They are allowed to bristle and be angry and be annoyed by you. You should allow them to have these feelings about you without doing anything to change their feeling. Leave them be. Stop trying to change what they feel. Don't change the way you speak.

If THEY wish to change their feeling, THEY might decide to take actions such as speaking to you about a pattern in your behavior that bothers them, or refusing to interact with you anymore, or yelling at you, or being passive aggressive towards you, etc. etc. etc. And then you get to react to them, as always, in a manner that is authentic to and springs from your own feelings about their words or behavior, your own desire to collaborate with them to find a solution that suits you both, your own needs, and your own values --- not with the goal of making them less angry, less upset, soothing their feelings, changing how *they* feel, etc.

Stay inside your own skin and tend to your own authentic self. Do not change to stop others from feeling what they feel.
posted by MiraK at 8:49 AM on January 7, 2022 [18 favorites]

If they have a kid/s too, or may have taken an interest in the subject of raising kids, those specific examples remind me a lot of certain parenting philosophies (RIE for example, if you want a search term to get started with) that seek to always describe the child as another human being and not something one is in opposition to. I personally prefer not to use language like "battles" or "meltdowns" about children casually (autistic meltdowns are their own thing), though I understand what others mean by it and wouldn't correct it under most circumstances. If I were stressed and grumpy enough though, I could imagine feeling the impulse to toss off a non-sequitur like "it's not a battle."

It's of course entirely possible that you just happened to mention things that fit that pattern, so feel free to ignore this is it doesn't feel relevant. It's mostly just that I am that literal pedantic person who's genuinely trying to do what I think is the correct thing, and maybe they are too but with somewhat less capacity for reining it in.
posted by teremala at 9:42 AM on January 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

My father often did something that sounded a lot like this. He would respond to comments or questions with something tangential and contradictory. For example, I might ask something like, “can you show me that magic trick you did last week?” and he would respond “that wasn’t a magic trick.” I don’t know why he did this (I’ve always assumed was some form of “play” or he found it fun or funny), but it was very frustrating and I never figured out a good way to respond. Eventually I learned to just say “ok,” and stop the conversation, because I just wanted to have a normal conversation and he wasn’t going to do that. But that wasn’t very satisfying.

You mention possible cultural differences, and that was not an issue between me and my dad. It also was not the case that he genuinely didn’t understand whatever I had just said, and none of these conversations were about parenting. So I don’t know if my experience was relevant, but I’ll throw it out there as a possibility.

(Btw I would consider “wedding” and “wedding reception” pretty much equivalent in many contexts and, unless it was really relevant to the specific discussion, would consider that another example of this kind of tangential-and-contradictory response.)
posted by argyle sock at 10:26 AM on January 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

Agree that we internet strangers don't have enough information to know for sure.

However, one strategy might be to reduce the level of detail provided. (E.g. instead of "picking your battles with your kiddo," you say "it hasn't been easy raising an x-year old, especially with the whole Covid situation. I can't believe [kiddo] is now in the y-th grade "). It might be useful information for you to see whether this person presses for more information or lets the conversation move on.

On a similar note, you might want to see what happens when you gently deflect/ volley the conversation back to the family member in question.

It can also be relationship building to ask for advice in someone's area of expertise.
posted by oceano at 11:02 AM on January 7, 2022

I have/had a few people in my life who behave like this. I've also heard it referred to as an "oppositional conversation style." I consider it a them problem, not me problem, and tune them out when they snipe at me or argue over little stupid things. What do I care if they agree with me about idioms? Interestingly, this anti-people pleasing approach seems to make them a little more agreeable. I guess because I've made it clear they won't get what they need from me (an argument, feeling like they've dominated me in some way, whatever).
posted by Stoof at 11:11 AM on January 7, 2022 [8 favorites]

Stoof’s and champers’ comments reminded me that at some point - quite likely here on MF - I saw this referred to as “mismatching” in context of NLP. I was thrilled to finally have a name for this thing my dad did, but I haven’t ever found good online info on it or actually read any books on NLP in context of communication. “Oppositional” is also a very good word for it.
posted by argyle sock at 12:31 PM on January 7, 2022

Also, this is often a personality trait and/or learned behavior and/or autism spectrum quality. The intention isn’t always negative, even though this pedantic type of behavior is incredibly annoying. My mom is generally a kind person but she communicates like this all. the. time and so when I was growing up I learned to communicate in this oppositional way too. I genuinely wasn’t trying to be difficult, I just thought this was how people talked to each other, since it’s all I knew.

It wasn’t until college when I finally had some close friends tell me “dude. I like you but you always pick on every little thing I say and it drives me up the wall.” After that I slowly began to unpack my conversational style and was mortified to realize how annoying I must have been for years. I’m a much more pleasant conversational partner now, but damn, that was a rough awakening!

All that to say, in many cases when someone does this, it’s genuinely not personal — it’s more of a (very annoying) mental habit than anything else.
posted by mekily at 9:44 AM on January 8, 2022 [5 favorites]

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