punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,
punkwalrus
punkwalrus

Interpretation and communication: I miss good logical conversation

There's this joke I love where the psychiatrist is doing the inkblot test to a patient. Everything the patient sees has to do with perverted sex. The psychiatrist says, "Well, obviously you have sexual problems," and the patient says, "ME?? You're the one showing me the dirty pictures!"

I like that joke not just because it's funny, but because it illustrates so well the problem with interpretation and communication. Let's look at the following conversation:

John: You look nice today.
Jane: Are you saying I look terrible every other day?
John: No, I am just offering a complement.
Jane: Do you think I need complementing?
John: I was trying to be nice.
Jane: What would make you say such a thing, then?

Jane obviously has insecurity issues. She expects that the only reason that a complement would be delivered to her would be for "ulterior motives." Telling someone like Jane they did a good job, or you liked how they acted, or any other complement would be met with defensive suspicion and almost outright denial of the other person's motive. Jane will probably later tell a friend that John is hitting on her, and how John is a weasel-faced scumbag who just wants to have sex with her.

I used to be Jane. When I was in theater in high school, I became angry and embarrassed when I was complemented because of repeated sarcastic comments made by bullies and even my own parents. It took a brave girl, an actress I respected named Lauren, to teach me how to accept a complement. She actually had the nerve and guts to say, "Listen, I don't tell people they are gifted writers for my own pleasure. I offer it as a free expression of my feelings towards your work. If you spend the rest of your life rejecting complements like these, you will stop getting them, you will never have friends, and die a lonely man. When someone complements you, say, 'thank you.' Now, repeat after me: 'thank you.'" Lauren, like a lot of other actors and actresses I worked with, knew my home life was bad, and I was teased and bullied often in school, too. Many of them did their best to improve on what I considered a lost cause: myself. It took many, many years to fully appreciate what they were doing for me.

Today, I am a different person, thanks to them. I feel better as a person. I can take a complement and use it as encouragement. But in this process, I have also dulled the sharp edge that used to be my sarcasm detector, although, truthfully, back then it went off far too much to be of any use anyway. So often, I have to analyze what people say to me if I think they are being sarcastic. This is what I call my "Vulcan Problem"; I expect too much logic from others.

Truth is, people are not logical. They lie to themselves and others. I am never in a position to determine whether someone is lying to themselves, and I can barely determine whether they are lying to me. It's simply not fair to me that I have to constantly watch what I say, and then analyze the response. Take this example:

John: My daughter was caught cheating in school.
Jane: She's a kid, kids cheat. Her crime was getting caught.
John: I disagree. I think the crime was cheating in the first place.
Jane: Are you saying you never cheated?
John: No, not that I recall.
Jane: So who appointed you as Mr. Morality?
John: No one. That's just how I was raised.
Jane: You are conceited, and a poor liar. Everyone cheats. You're no better than anyone else!

This type of event has happened to me twice today. Once on an listserv, and at work. One was via e-mail, one was via voice. The e-mail one I could analyze. I could almost see that Jane and John were having two different conversations. I think Jane's response would have been better suited if the conversation was altered slightly:

John: My daughter was caught cheating in school.
Jane: She's a kid, kids cheat. Her crime was getting caught.
John: I never cheated. You must have cheated, and thus, support cheating.
Jane: Are you saying you never cheated?
John: Cheating is wrong. Thus, you are wrong.
Jane: So who appointed you as Mr. Morality?
John: No one. I am just right, and better than you.
Jane: You are conceited, and a poor liar. Everyone cheats. You're no better than anyone else!

Jane certainly responded to John as if this was the real conversation. John probably expected the conversation to go like this:

John: My daughter was caught cheating in school.
Jane: Cheating is wrong.
John: I agree, and that's why I am upset.
Jane: What are you going to do?
John: I will punish her with a stern lecture, extra chores, and no dessert.
Jane: That sounds reasonable. What is the school doing?
John: The test is an automatic "F," and she's in detention for two days.

But it didn't. That's a logical conversation between two mature people. I know, I have them from time to time. But I often have more people who seem to think that I think I am better than they are, are out to get them, or somehow have some weird moralistic power that will shame them. I am never in a good position to judge people, and try not to do it, if anything because I am lazy and don't want to keep track. What if Jane disagrees? I'd think a good conversation would go:

John: My daughter was caught cheating in school.
Jane: Oh no! What did she do?
John: She cheated on a pop quiz.
Jane: I got caught cheating once. I got in big trouble. How bad is it?
John: I will punish her with a stern lecture, extra chores, and no dessert.
Jane: That sounds harsh. Were your parents so stern with you when you cheated?
John: I don't know, I never cheated. I was too scared of getting caught.
Jane: Maybe you should just have the lecture. It was just a pop quiz.
John: Cheating is cheating.
Jane: Still, overreacting is not going to help, either. She'll avoid you when she has to make a moral choice in the future.
John: I stand by my decision.
Jane: Let me know how it works out.

This is the kind of conversation I am blessed to have with Christine when we disagree.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000105.html
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