The subtext of a conversation

Mostly, people have trouble saying exactly what they mean. Language is a complex thing. Encoding your message successfully in words can be difficult.

Then, the receiver needs to take what you have said in words, and then decode what you were trying to say: ideally, they should seek first to understand, but that doesn’t happen as much as we’d all like. A good listener will compensate for the difficulty in expression by working with you to get the meaning from what you said.

Teenagers, and many stupid adults, fail at a few points of this interchange:

  • failing to do their best to communicate their message clearly in the first place, which happens regularly in written communication (business emails, marketing stuff etc) but fail less often in spoken word
  • the listener stupidly thinks they can take the message literally, and that the meaning intended by the speaker is exactly whatever literal meaning is given by their words (this one pisses me off, it’s so Neanderthal)
  • the listener does not try to work out the speakers’ intent or meaning nor verify their understanding through rephrasing when necessary.

There is also, very often, a subtext beneath what people are saying, caused by the subconscious of the speaker and encoded (unconsciously by them) into their words, body language, omissions and so on.

The catch is the speaker is unaware of all this extra data they have encoded in their speech, so they have no idea why the listener is upset or reacting in an unexpected way. It’s because the listener didn’t miss the full message.

Then of course the speaker, having had no idea about the full message he gave, gets upset at the listener and blames them for the failure to communicate. If the speaker had more self-awareness, this drama would not have happened.

The absence of all this mess, a really good conversation where you are heard and you listen fully, is a great experience. Doesn’t happen often enough.

Official forums are also rife with the manifestations of these communication phenomena, particularly since there are a lot of young teenagers talking who do not yet have all the faculties. :) I was one, I’m sure, back many years ago.

A wonderful book on the human potential of organisations is the Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge. It talks about mental models, which is the internal representation of reality carried around in your head, which implicitly effects your judgements of business situations. Usually unconsciously. He also describes how proper dialog can work to expose those models, and thus allow you to see reality as it really is, not how it should be.

If only my workplace had some leaders who understood and wanted to progress this kind of thinking!

This video, whilst intended to convey a completely different point, goes along the same lines I’ve described. The actors are verbalising the subtext, you could say, rather than using the actual words you’d normally see in a film.

That said, it’s pretty funny too. :)


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9 comments to The subtext of a conversation

  • BigKoala

    Yes, less bandwidth (text < speech < speech + visual) for communication usually creates difficulties, but I think the mental model problem is worse than bandwidth.  (Of course, my time at a Fortune 500 company biases me.)
    For myself, I call the mental model problem the Watergate Syndrome. Asked who initiated the coverup, someone answered, “I don’t recall anyone suggesting that there would NOT be a coverup.”  Despite the fact that assigning human actor traits to an organization is the fallacy of reification (“HP cares about the environment” when accumulations of capital are not capable of the human trait of “caring”), it is difficult to see those fallacies for what they are because individuals within an organization act as if the organization indeed has the capability for those actions, because the mental models individuals within the organization have are accepted and, in many cases, useful for individuals to use to influence other individuals.
    When you find yourself in a situation where someone is saying “we” or “the guild” or “the company,” that’s when it is most valuable to look at the mental models involved, for the action in those cases is almost always about a clash of models.

    • Gravity
      Twitter: gravitydk

      Well said. I too have found working for multinationals has made me cynical (combined with being an Australian, culturally skeptical and cynical), and have often wondered about writing more on the failures of large corporations.

      The other side to ‘someone is saying “we” or “the guild” or “the company,”’ is it can be a form of bullying using the in/out group.

  • Blightrose

    “the listener stupidly thinks they can take the message literally, and that the meaning intended by the speaker is exactly whatever literal meaning is given by their words (this one pisses me off, it’s so Neanderthal) ”

    What exactly do you mean by this ?
    If you can give a few examples it would be great because I seriously think I’m misunderstanding you here ( I hope I am).
    Whenever people say something to me, I expect to be able to discern exactly what they are talking about from what they say without me having to analyze their meaning from their body odour, colour of their clothes and the combination of giggling and body language that comes along.
    Say what you mean and mean what you say please so there is no guesswork.
    I absolutely HATE when a woman (this is a clichee ofcourse) asks her boyfriend if her butt looks big in those pants she is wearing, she isnt actually asking about that but just wants some reassurance he still likes her. STOP THAT and speak plainly or I will tell you exactly how big I think your butt looks.

    • Gravity
      Twitter: gravitydk

      Two factors here.

      Firstly, yes I do mean that you will have more successful communication if you try to work out what the other person is trying to say. If you arrogantly assume the other person is a fully capable communicator, you are relying on your wishes rather than reality, to successfully communicate. However this presumes that the speaker is making a genuine effort to express themselves directly.

      Secondly, sadly many women do not communicate clearly; they use implication and are indirect. I don’t like it either but for a variety of innocent reasons, it happens (sometimes self-confidence). If this happens, the lady is not making a genuine effort. Some of this is discussed in the book Men are from Mars, Women from Venus, which is an excellent introduction to this complex topic.

      Before anyone accuses me of sexism, please note my previous posts defending women. Here, I am describing an established complication in the communication between men and women.

      All that said, you’re not alone in wanting people to talk straight and logical, but it isn’t realistic. :)

  • BigKoala

    “the listener stupidly thinks they can take the message literally, and that the meaning intended by the speaker is exactly whatever literal meaning is given by their words (this one pisses me off, it’s so Neanderthal) ”

    I assumed that this is a variant of what Heinlein called “white mutiny,” in which, say, a subordinate chooses to take a superiors words in an exact, literal fashion so as to cause the most damage while being “faithful” to orders.  The WoW version that I’ve seen often appear deals with troll types not making any effort to divine what someone is trying to say, then making a huge deal out of whatever is under discussion.  Take the drama-mama article today, about a priest in a guild accidentally hitting need instead of greed on a piece of rogue gear, then going LOL, causing the rogue to explode in flaming, shrieking rage.

    For myself, the male/female communication differences don’t bother me much.  There is a slight difference in high context/low context communication here in the USA between the north and the south, but not terribly so in our ever increasingly homogenized culture.  No, what trips me up is the high context cultures like techs in India or the Philippines who will say things like, “Yes, the code for that function is done and complete.”  When the flipping code won’t even compile, let alone run, and I’m supposed to figure out that “done and complete” means “we wrote code and put it in the repository and therefore met our deadline, now we need more time to figure out how to make the code work.”

    Ok, having a flashback now, need to do something else to calm down.  Peace out.

  • Zaqiel

    Very interesting, I’ll definately try to look up that book. My interest isn’t really about the business part, but all about the mental models, internal representations and the complexities of language is very much of interest to me.                                                                                            I study Science of Religion at the university and I have a particular interest in the cognitive aspect of religion. That has to do, in big words, about the human brain, how it works, including how we interact with other people.
    If you are interested in this stuff, I can recommend the book Making Up the Mind by Chris Frith. It deals with, amongst other things, how we make models of the world in our brain and how we are able to socialize with other people, reading thier cues and such. There’s a whole range of books concerning these things, but for one, this book is really good and second, its not very heavy duty(like some books on the subject is).

    • Gravity
      Twitter: gravitydk

      Thanks for recommendation, that does look like a good book. Do you study it from a theological perspective or is it secular, and wondering if its taking a sociological view or more anthropological?

      • Zaqiel

        Science of Religion isnt theological, the term is a broad description encompassing many different directions, including sociological and anthropological. Cognitive Science of Religion is a direction like those, that you can decide to study. so yeah, its secular. About the only perspective/direcetion it doesnt encompass is the theological, thats a seperate field of study(theology), although it does cross paths. Taking the theological route means that you study christianity and, in most cases, you are a christian to some extend, although it doesnt have to be that way.

  • Wake

    Very interesting post.
    Psychology major, behavioural science – love this stuff.

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