This is an expansion of a topic I raised in this post, where I
We never did get to do any wine-tasting (though the wine at the wedding
was excellent, as one might expect, and made up for the lack). This
occasioned an argument, too: I could hear the disappointment in Colleen's
voice, but she said "no" when I first asked her whether she was
disappointed. A lifetime of social conditioning will do that. But it's
disastrous for someone like me who can't read people very well, and has
to get accurate feedback when I try to confirm my guesses. I think the
normal expectation is that somebody will understand the tone of voice and
interpret the polite denial as a subtle request to leave the subject
alone. I don't do subtle, and don't trust my ability to "read" people.
In other words, my ability to perceive moods and emotions in other people
-- even in myself -- is highly unreliable and inaccurate; I need to
calibrate it by getting feedback from people, to see whether my guesses
are correct. My ability to understand implicit communication and hints is
practically nonexistent. As I've often remarked here, I don't do subtle.
Most people -- "normal" people, as opposed to geeks like me -- appear to
rely heavily on one another's ability to read emotions and recognize
implied communication. This leads to a social convention whereby a short,
polite answer to a question establishes a polite fiction that is often
contradicted by an emotional undercurrent that people like me usually
miss, leading to total lack of real communication.
So, in the preceeding exchange, we had Colleen giving what I'll call the
"social answer" to my question, relying on my (nearly nonexistant)
emotional perception to supply the "real answer". Which I still don't
fully understand. I understood that she was disappointed, but have no
idea what the implied message might have been. "I don't want to discuss
it"? "I want to discuss it but only if you want to as well"? "I
was disappointed but don't want to get into an argument"? All of the
above? Something else? Probably. But I don't think Colleen herself
knows, or could give me any help understanding it. It was hard enough
calibrating my reading of her mood.
I may never get any good at all at understanding -- or even detecting --
implied messages, but my ability to read emotions is improving, largely
because I'm getting a little better at calibrating my readings.
The trick, for me, is recognizing when I'm getting a "social answer", and
framing a question or two that will elicit the "real answer". So,
"Are you disappointed?"
"I thought I heard disappointment in your voice. Are you disappointed?"
"Of course I was disappointed. You told me..."
Similarly, take a common social greeting:
"How are you doing?"
"You look a little down."
"Well, ... "
What follows the "Well,..." could be anything from "I just haven't had my
coffee yet" to "My mother died yesterday" -- the social convention appears
to be to give a noncommittal answer and let the other party follow it up
if they really care about the person and want the real answer. Or
something. I'm still not really sure; all I know is that I have to follow
up if I want to get the real answer.
As I say, I'm getting better at this. In other cases I'll try to
paraphrase a response that seems to be ambiguous, or request further
information when the response seems incomplete. I think that most people
find this annoying and perhaps even offensive, but I can't help that -- I
need my calibration, my feedback, or I won't understand what they were
trying to tell me.
It would be unrealistic and totally unfair of me to ask people to give me
a real answer to an ordinary social question. The social answer is what
almost all of the people they communicate with are expecting. The social
convention serves them well; I'm guessing that it lets the conversation
drop before getting into realm of real emotions unless both parties are
prepared to go deeper. Basically, it's up to me to figure out when, and
whether, I need to follow up.
Similarly, I'm far enough outside most people's normal range of experience
that they're almost certain to misunderstand me -- they
misinterpret my tone of voice, or look for an implied message that isn't
there, and find something I didn't say. They don't follow up, of course.
It's up to me to notice when they're misinterpreting what I said, and try
to correct it. Often it's too late: I've made them angry or distressed,
and they've stopped listening to me. Other times I simply don't notice,
and they go off thinking I said something totally different from whatever
I actually said.
Public Service Announcement #1: When I say something to you, there is no
implied message or hidden meaning. The words I used said precisely what I
meant to say, at least if I was at all careful about framing them. If you
don't believe me, or don't understand me, or think there was some implied
message, ask me.
Public Service Announcement #2: I don't do subtle. If you want to tell
me something, use words and say it explicitly and in detail.
Don't rely on my ability to pick up hints and hidden assumptions -- I
don't have that ability.