Communicating about communicating: some initial thoughts

Communication style is my jam. Show me to a conversation about how we communicate with each other and how different people perceive the same words, gestures, and contexts, and I’ll happily yammer away all night with you. So many of the troubles and strife between people seems to me to come down to how we communicate with each other: I said this, and you interpreted it, and your interpretation and my intent don’t match up, and now we both believe things about the other’s point of view that aren’t true, and that’s going to color the rest of our interaction.

I’m not into figuring out which communication style is “best.” It’s just not an interesting argument to me. I’m much more interested in working with other people to make sure that what I say and what they hear match up as well as possible, and any solution that increases the amount of accurate understanding that happens is good to me. And one of the first steps to having these kinds of discussions productively is to deeply understand our own communication style. When I’m feeling this way, I express myself this way. When I hear this from a person, I tend to assume it means that. That kind of thing. Unearthing our own patterns of communication helps us check the assumptions we tend to make, and it lets us discuss our patterns and preferences with those close to us.

It’s not just about specific messages and interpretations, either. The medium in which we communicate is also a meaning-laden decision, and can have very different meanings to different people. Choosing to have an important, emotional conversation over chat or text rather than in person could mean, to one person, “This is not important enough to take time to discuss with you face-to-face” while to the other it means, “This is so important that I want to talk about it in a medium where both of us can choose our words carefully, and have a record of the conversation to go back to later.” Without meta-communication about that choice, the two people are going to misunderstand and be frustrated with each other.

The order in which to communicate two messages is also a meaning-laden decision. If you’re simultaneously angry with someone for how they hurt you, and sorry for how you’ve hurt them (surely I’m not the only one for whom this is a common combo!), you have to decide how to prioritize those messages. If you lead with either, “I’m angry” or “I’m sorry,” there’s a risk of the entire conversation becoming about that message (and thus, an implicit communication that one is much more important than the other). Sometimes that’s what you want, if you have a hard time facing up to your own guilt or your own anger. Sometimes, you genuinely meant to get around to the other half of it, but the conversation in the meantime has spiralled far away from a point where that makes sense to say. You can try putting both of them into the conversation right at the beginning: “I’m really mad about what happened, but also I’m sorry for how I treated you” or vice versa. That’s generally the preferable approach to me, but to some people it reads as if the apology is insincere. Same message, different approaches, different interpretations.

Even the decision to communicate a message at all is a meaning-laden decision. I’ve argued with Shaun about this before so let’s see if I can convince him here. By expressing a feeling to someone, I am not just saying, “This is how I feel.” I’m saying, “This is how I feel and I want you to know about it.” For a lot of people this might be a trivial distinction: I guess, people who generally always want people to know how they’re feeling, or don’t feel that they have the ability to conceal their feelings. For me, though? I have a lot of feelings I don’t express, for various reasons, so communicating a feeling is a very conscious and sometimes weighty decision. Communicating a feeling, to me, means either, 1) we’re on such intimate terms that I pretty much always want you to know how I feel (for me, there are about five people on this list, and I struggle to maintain that level of openness even with them), or 2) I believe my expression of feeling will have some kind of positive effect: on you, on me, on our relationship. I believe it will make you feel good… or I believe that it will benefit our relationship in the long run even if it makes you feel bad right now… or we have an instrumental relationship and I believe it will help me get what I want.

So, if I’m at a restaurant, and I’m getting really annoyed with the waiter’s service (the waiter/customer relationship is an example of what I mean by “instrumental relationship”), I may communicate my annoyance if I believe it’s likely to make the waiter move faster and pay more attention, or if I believe it will get me free dessert, or something like that. If I think it’s likely to make the waiter more nervous, avoid our table, or spit in my food, I won’t communicate that.

Maybe part of looking at things this way (besides a possibly-unhealthy level of emotional reserve) is due to being a writer. I’m used to analyzing interactions in terms of motivated action and consequence. If two characters are in a scene together, every line of dialogue — ideally — has a motivation and a result. Characters don’t just say whatever pops into their heads… that would be boring. They say things for a reason, and what they say has an effect (usually on the other character.) Dialogue is action, at least it should be.

But, sure, some people — some people who are married to me, even — are much less deliberate about what they say and when and to whom. I’ve been told (and I really am taking this on authority because it’s sort of incomprehensible to me) that a lot of people really do just say a thing because it popped into their head. So maybe communicating that thing didn’t have semantic content for that person; it did, however, have an effect of some kind. The listener now has knowledge that they didn’t have before. And the listener might assume that it was a more consciously motivated action: that there’s some specific effect the speaker wanted that message to have on them.

So, for example, if someone says, “I’m sexually attracted to you,” the message itself is pretty simple and not particularly liable to being misconstrued. But the act of saying that — what does that mean? Someone like me is going to assume that the speaker doesn’t go around telling everybody that they’re sexually attracted to. (Probably a correct assumption.) So why did they say it to me? I’m likely to further assume that they considered whether or not to say it, and decided that the effect it had was likely to be positive, by whatever standards they use. (Possibly an incorrect assumption: maybe I caught them in a moment of inhibition-free expressiveness.) Which means that they’ve decided the chance of my responding positively is high enough to outweigh the risk of causing me discomfort. Which could be because they think I’m very likely to respond positively. Or it could be because they don’t consider my discomfort to be much of a negative consequence. Or it could be because they want a level of closeness with me where feelings like that are openly expressed between us, even if the other one isn’t interested.

All these possibilities are going to flit through my head and I’m going to make a knee-jerk assessment of which one is most likely. And that’s going to impact how I view the speaker. Maybe they’re a person who’s correctly interpreted my signals of interest (in which case, bonage ahoy!) Maybe they’re a person who’s incorrectly interpreted my signals of non-sexual friendliness (in which case, some embarrassment for both of us follows.) Maybe they’re a person who doesn’t care about causing me discomfort if there’s any slight chance of getting something they want from me (in which case, bye asshole.) Or maybe it’s the open-vulnerable-friendship thing, in which case some lengthy and deep conversatin’ is likely to follow.

And if I know they have a pattern of uninhibited self-expression (occasionally known as foot-in-mouth syndrome), I’m going to interpret it still differently. Which takes us back to the beginning, where I view understanding communication patterns — our own and others’ — as vitally important. I know I’m prone to making the error of attributing too much importance to the fact that someone chose to say such-a-thing at such-a-time. I try to correct for that. The people I’m closest to know that when I communicate a feeling, it’s important and probably something I’ve carefully considered. Understanding how we individually communicate, and communicating about that with each other, is one of the most important steps to intimacy for me, and I think we’d all do better to be more conscious about it.

6 thoughts on “Communicating about communicating: some initial thoughts

  1. Very interesting, given what I said to you at LM East. FWIW I only wanted to complement you on your lecture and your winsome personality, in the terms you were using, and how I was feeling in that moment. I had no intention of making you uncomfortable. If I did please forgive me. If you don’t remember, then I neither offended or made any impression.
    I hope to see you again someday for a more clear and interesting conversation about sex and education.

  2. Oh no, that wasn’t about you at all. I was just using it as an example of a general situation that most people are familiar with, likely on both sides.

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