Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Conversational Poison: Speaking Between the Lines

I should have written about this long ago, but one discovery I've made about some dishonest people lately is that they often like to resort to "speaking between the lines," where they try to disguise their true thoughts under different words that don't mean at all what they intend it to mean. Aside from being annoying, it can be very destructive to a relationship.

For example, when I first went on the Paleo diet my housemate was impressed by the amount of bacon I was frying that day and stated "Wow! That's a lot of bacon!" However, they were speaking between the lines -- they wanted those words to be interpreted as a criticism of my diet, and cause me to eat less of the bacon than I intended. How do I know? They said those words over and over and over again, all in a row:

Them: "Wow! That's a lot of bacon."
Me: "Yes, it is."
T: " [Chuckle] Wow ... that's a lot of bacon!"
Me: "Yes."
T: "Wow. That is a lot. Of bacon."
Me: "Yes. It. Is."

Instead of being forthright with the criticism all they would do is tuck it implicitly under different words that hardly even hint at that meaning, and then repeat them in the hopes that I would "catch on." Far from persuading me to change my actions, it enormously agitated me, and initiated a verbal fight. I came to distrust and outright hate this person later on for conducting behavior so regularly like this, because they often resorted to it and seldom meant whatever it is they said. They were constantly beating around the bush, and I was constantly stressed out trying to figure out what they really meant.

I value being totally open and honest in conversation, so few things as quickly generate contempt in me than a person who speaks between the lines all the time. Even if I detect it but once it severely hacks away at how much I trust someone. Such behavior leads to little else but conflicts, unmet expectations, garbled conversations, and so on. All in all, there are three problems:

1.) Conflicts: Sometimes what a person truly wants to say isn't so offensive if he were to come out and say it, at least from my view. In the bacon example above, I would have been fine if the person politely disagreed with my dietary choice and persuaded me to act otherwise, so my anger was directed at their cowardice for not being open about it. It's pitiful, as this person often resorted to speaking between the lines in order to avoid discomfort and hostility, and it led to nothing but uncomfortable and hostile dealings.

2.) Garbled communication: Once you identify that a person speak between the lines you can also begin seeing meaning that isn't there. It's like the little boy who cried wolf: Even though the boy was actually telling the truth when the wolf finally did arrive, everyone was justified in not believing him given his destroyed credibility, and he lost some of the family sheep as a consequence. In terms of conveying meaning, speaking between the lines is very unobjective: The words used to disguise the real meaning hardly even hint at that hidden intention. If you look at the bacon example, there's no way you could deduce it to be a dietary criticism if the person had said only that sentence and said it only once. Once they started repeating and repeating it it becomes clear, and since it's seldom easy to deduce any secret meanings from the words themselves you start seeing words between the lines everywhere in that person's speech, even when that secret meaning isn't there. To the person receiving the speaking-between-the-lines treatment he'll become very upset and stressed out at being unable to take that person at their word, thus seldom trusting that they mean what they say, and the person guilty of such conduct will have to face the consequence of not only lost trust, but also being unable to predict how the other person will respond.

For instance, I've seen it once before where a person would falsely compliment another for a good behavior everyone knew he didn't conduct. The compliment was an attempt to sneak a criticism between the lines of course. But acting that way means he leaves himself open to the possibility in the future of being met with anger and stress when he authentically compliments someone, as they could interpret it as just another criticism. The attempt, here, to guilt-trip someone into good behavior by offering a false compliment means that his actual compliments could be rejected or misinterpreted.

There's also the aspect of unmet expectations. Sometimes a person will ask for something or state an expectation by tucking it between the lines, and then get upset later on when those requests and expectations go unmet, leading to yet more stress for both parties. For instance, one time I had to do some extensive yard work for an old lady who was a "super talker." Amidst her super talking she pointed out to me that deer often come and poop in her yard, but the exact meaning of her sentences indicated that she was just venting about a problem, and upset about what little she could do about it. After I had completed the job and got paid, I then later learned that she "got a kick out of" the fact I didn't pick up the deer poop, implying that she expected me to. She never asked me to. I not only dislike the lady for her super talking now, but also for the fact that she isn't upfront with her expectations and wants.

People who communicate their desires between the lines are setting themselves up for little else but frequent disappointment.

3.) Unearned distrust: Finally, as a variation of problem 2, the people who engage in this dishonest communication will often be harder to deal with, as through their own habits they begin trying to view between the lines of your own words, and will make it harder to get a precise meaning across to them. This is psychological projection: They project that you have the same psychological habits as they do.

The same person from the bacon example above was always thoroughly unpredictable in how they would respond to my words, probably because they were deducing all this hidden meaning in my words that simply wasn't there, and absent from my intention. Sometimes I would meet them at breakfast and state what poor sleep I got the night prior. Immediately they would become visibly nervous and stressed out, giggling to relieve the anxiety. I myself was baffled as to why I slept so poorly, and was merely stating it as a matter of fact. I thought it was physiological. The other person, I assume, was probably thinking that I was hinting at some kind of serious illness or the likes, and that I was trying to garner their sympathy or blame them for the problem or something. It perplexed me as to why they found the simple matter of sleeping poorly an anxiety-ridden subject. This person ultimately became too stressful for me to deal with, as their responses to my speaking couldn't be predicted: They'd yelled at random, evaded and tuned me out at random, walked away at random, and so on.

It is above and beyond annoying to work hard at using the proper words to concisely mean what it is that you want to say and actually say it, and then the other person goes around and acts upon what they believe you're saying between the lines. It's impossible to have a healthy relationship with them because communication isn't clear.

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All in all, speaking between the lines is a recipe for stress, unhappy relations, and lost trust. Just mean what you say and say what you mean! 

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