Sunday, August 3

Being Misunderstood

As some of you may know, I'm a very literal person. I try my best not to be ambiguous, and don't assume those I'm talking to have an innate psychic ability. I also try to be as accurate and clear when making a point. Ironically however, it seems to precisely be this attitude that results in my being so misunderstood. Some examples you ask? Well okay then.

Take a recent invitation I received to an Islamic course. After reading the brief yet clearly spammed message (I've written about the abuse of BCC before) and considering both the course and school I replied with an admittedly short but (in my opinion) appreciative:

cheers! but ill pass....
I'm hoping the individual in this particular case doesn't mind me cutting and pasting the above, but I feel it's important to be accurate here. Apologies if this and what follows violates personal emails but I'm trying to make a point about me, not anyone else.

Fast forward to a week later, and after meeting the original emailer in person and I suddenly find myself being verbally kicked in the nuts for being terse, blunt, and, ultimately, rude. On asking how I was supposed to have replied, I was told that I should have wrapped the declination with smalltalk and things: so, a "how are you" here and a "how's life" there - pretty rhetorical if you ask me. On asking how many people actually replied and further thanked her for the message it turned out that I was the only one. In effect, I would have been better off just ignoring the email altogether.

But my friend here wasn't alone in this assessment of my tone. Another present gave their own example of my feeble use of communication, and this time I was being blunt for offering the following after being asked for some travelling tips in a country I had recently visited:
not really - XXX is pretty neat and easy to travel in. do you want the number of the driver we had there?
I was even more surprised this time, partly because I couldn't quite remember the occasion anyway, but mostly because I had such a brill time in this place that it would have been my pleasure helping someone else experience the same. And looking at the context of the email there wasn't any indication that I had offended anyone at the time either.

So how come I'm so out of touch? So misunderstood? Are my attempts at being straight-up, transparent and answering exactly what's being asked of me inappropriate in a world where people expect something much more?

Interestingly enough my "cheers! but ill pass" above became a "NO THANKS" (capitals and all) when I was being told off for it, so some kind of miscommunication is happening somehow. Should I always assume the things I say will be transmitted so erroneously? But if so what hope do I have in saying anything accurately? I really don't know and don't usually find out until its too late. Perhaps the issue is me not giving the right rather than how I'm saying it; but unless I should be developing an ability to read the minds of others, I don't see how I can fix that without them telling me what they actually want (you know, using words).

It's almost as if some think I go out of my way to craft such deeply double-speaking messages, or that I have the ability to encode reams of meaning in so few words. I certainly don't think that I do - the verbosity of some of my posts here kinda suggests that if I'm short of anything, words it ain't.

I'm reminded of Captain Subtext, a gag character from the BBC's Coupling (one of my favourite sitcoms) demonstrating how easily the "simple" things men say can be interpreted as something much more deep and meaningful by those of the opposite sex. But although the above examples both involve girls I've had the same criticism made of me by guys too so it's definitely an asexual problem in this case. Furthermore it doesn't just happen over email - I've had problems in one on one situations and can't use the phone to save my life (but more on that in a further post). I've also have a habit of lamenting how misunderstood I am (here and here).

Still, I'm lucky in that most of the time my verbal faux pas aren't taken too seriously - in the examples given above I don't think I had offended those involved too much and I've yet to lose friends over my inability to communicate with them properly (or at least manage to catch and rectify myself before it's too late). However, a more serious issue is when I have someone take me aside to "make their peace" over an incident I've either totally forgotten about or, worse still, totally passed me by altogether. I'm not saying I'm immune to getting into serious rows with my friends, but it's quite worrying when I'm not even aware that I'm smack in the middle of one.

But I am open to making adjustments in my style if necessary - yet even my relatively recent use of smilies doesn't seem to get me off the hook. I read somewhere about how the best communicators consider the people they intend on communicating with - this certainly goes for the method in which they do so (so they won't text someone if they suspect the recipient would prefer other means), but perhaps it counts for the actual style and language used too? Perhaps being efficient and to-the-point isn't the best thing to do if it's not wanted? And if I know someone prefers a particular style of writing then maybe I should stick to it no matter how superfluous, patronising or rhetorical I feel it is.

In short maybe empathy and and consideration is more important than what I think is most appropriate at the time?

And finally for those of you who will inevitably be offended by what I've written please don't be. Just put it down to my inability to say what I mean in a way everyone can understand it.


  1. Anonymous00:35

    I think it's normal to tailor reponses to different people, but most people probably do this naturally as per the relationship you have with them,i.e. if i didn't know someone very well i would be more polite in a response, whereas with my best mate a one word answer would be cool..and expected. it may be worth considering and managing expectations other people will have, on the other hand if you're happy with the way you respond and feel your intention is clear then it's no big deal.

  2. Anonymous12:02

    Most geeks have a touch of autism

  3. anonymous -- ooh. cruel!

    Shak, in another post you write:

    >> So I have this habit of winding people up. Yes, sometimes it's deliberate (and it's obvious when it is judging by the reactions of others) but more often it's not.

    So there are occassions when you're not being literal then? If so, how are people to know when you are and when you aren't being literal? Particularly online with 80% of communication being non-verbal blahdy-blah.

  4. Osama,

    Good point and one I was thinking about when I linked to the post you quote from. I reckon that it is possible to be both a wind up and literal while doing so; if (when?) I do deliberately annoy people it's not implied or ambiguous but explicit and something everyone is aware of (and so I can't deny it afterwards), whereas what I'm talking about here is the reading of non-existent stuff between lines. Quite tellingly I seem to get away with the former more than the latter.

    As for non-verbal communication, a number of people seem to misunderstand me in person too. I suspect email etc just exaceberates an existing issue.

  5. Anonymous09:16

    I think it really depends on the importance one holds in anothers life- most often you'll find people don't actually care.What is up with the overly- sensitive people in life?- get a grip!

    'Big woo'- someone didn't reply the way you expected them to- don't expect anything and life will make sense and maybe get a hobby you'll find yourself thinking less about things that actually don't matter!