Thursday, October 4, 2007


Sometimes I'll say, "I feel like having a cup of coffee." And he'll say, "Can you get me a cup too?" But what I really meant was, "Can you get me a cup of coffee?"
Some friends (CH), accuse me of over-analyzing other people's feelings and motivations. As I wrote, it occurred to me that my family relationships are the cause of this (over) analysis. I really fear that I'm missing what someone says or does. That's a real quote from my mother, by the way. One that's stayed with me and always makes me gun-shy when I talk to her. Does she mean what she's saying? Or does she mean that she wants something from me? And that translates to my relationships with other people, not matter how shallow that relationship.
All I can do is take what people say at face value.
--A lie I tell myself and others
Whether or not it's reasonable, I feel compelled to analyze people's underlying motivations and deeper meanings.
All I can do is tell people what I mean, what I want, and how I feel.
--A truism that I tell myself and others
I can't expect other people to know what I want or how I feel unless I tell them. That sometimes comes off as sharing too much or getting too personal. Why? Oh, probably because I sometimes feel compelled to explain why I feel a certain way or make a certain request.

Whoa. Kind of like this entire post.


  1. I wonder how much of this is cultural. I remember a conversation with your mom in which I asked her how Japanese Quakers reconcile plainspeaking and indirect Japanese communication styles (of which the "I'd like some coffee" is a perfect example).

    I don't remember her answer.

  2. With each passing year, I realize how many people inherit baggage from their relationship with their parents. We retain a wide range of neuroses, fears, and behaviors. I am no exception. Clearly, the best way to navigate through this inheritance is recognition.

    But what happens when the doubt or uncertainty is "structural" or a priori to all your dealings with others? Endless parsing of possible meanings in communication (or lack of communication) is a real issue. I have struggled through this as well. I have known others to have it as well. I know one person (not John) who constantly takes apart everything I say (and don't say) as if I was speaking two languages at once - as if my words were window-dressing to my true meanings and intentions. Overtime, I have found this increasingly irritating.

    So what to do? For some people, it's a real neurosis. For others, it's a habit to be worked through with the confidence that most people often aren't so intentional or conscious of supposedly implicit cues. I have more to say on this... but I'll think on it.

  3. John: I remember you asking that question too. But I can't remember her answer either! :-( I'm sure part of it with my mother is cultural, but she's not the only one I've had issues with, just the only one I quoted. Though I have to say that perhaps we have the toughest time communicating. In the middle of an argument, I sensed that we were having major communication issues. To test that, I made a statement to her, and asked her to immediately repeat it back to me. She quoted me as saying the exact opposite of what I had said. How does one clearly communicate with someone when they here the opposite of what one says? :-)

    Craig: I might have overstated the issue. I think I might over-parse what people say only when I want there to be more meaning than there actually is. Like, is she giving me the 'I don't have a boyfriend any more?' Or she wants to go a bike ride with me. What does that mean?!

  4. well, it's a big issue that often comes up in innocuous scenarios.

    But if we're just talking about reading conversational cues - it's definite more art than science. Plus, the more uncertain you are about your ability to discern, the more likely you are to analyze (like thinking about riding a bike and then falling over).

    So, the short answer is, it's better to be wrong and appear confident (you can always apologize later) then to be overly inquisitive. Of course, there are times when seeking clarification is good (like in arguments). But if its subtle dating and relationship signs, I would opt for your instinctive (read: first) judgment.

    In my own case, I try not to read much into anything. Since I do that for a living, I find this a never-ending battle. :-)