Tag Archives: communication

Interpreting meaning

Humans like reading meaning into things. It is an urge that has given us both divination and the scientific method. We want there to be meaning and we find it preferable to see the hands of judgemental and angry Gods in our misfortunes than to attribute it to random chance. This determination to find meaning can do us a great deal of harm if we imagine causal relationships where none exist. It can be particularly harmful when we apply it to each other.

We all read things in to each other’s words and actions. Not least, I think, because we’re looking for something that is about us. We want to be significant. There may be more attraction in thinking someone is cross with us than thinking they are tired, or have low blood sugar, or are constipated. It’s similar to the way we prefer to see the anger of gods than random happenstance. At least if people, or the gods are angry with us, we are involved in what’s going on. Being peripheral or irrelevant can feel very uncomfortable indeed.

We are all involved in the business of reading each other, because mostly we make less than perfect sense to each other. The exact ways we use words can vary. A term loaded with dire implication for one person can be empty of that for another. What we hear, what we understand, what was meant and what is admitted to, do not always neatly align. We read each other to try and find meaning or common ground or we hear what we want to hear and refuse all scope for reinterpretation or compromise.

We read each other visually, too. We read for gender and sexual identity, for power and status, for wealth, normality, sanity… We read for signs of membership to small and more secretive groupings. As Pagans we look for sacred symbols on clothes, jewellery and skin to help us find fellow travellers.

We read to validate ourselves. Sometimes, we read what we fear may be true because it is perversely more comforting than changing our stories about how the world works. We read each other for ego boosts and proof of our own excellence. How often we manage to communicate precisely what was meant and no more or less than that, is anyone’s guess.

When two people exchange ideas, two realities collide. It is as though we are each standing in a separate universe that works to different rules. We speak alien languages to each other and make hand gestures that seem obvious to us, and that tell entirely different stories to the other person. We give messages with our bodies, in eye contact, in touch that may be read in myriad unintended ways. But what else is there?


Mammal communications

On Sunday, a heavy horse pressed his nose against the palm of my hand, and snuffled a bit. It was a moment that I found both affecting and affirming. Mammals do a lot of communicating through touch, and use touch as a part of social bonding. Most mammals are willing to touch and be touched as part of encountering and interacting with each other. Non-human mammals cheerfully extend this courtesy to humans, but we often aren’t very good at it. As mammals who have decided that we are separate from the animals, we don’t really do much touching in the normal scheme of things. Not by other mammal standards.

When it comes to humans, the question of who is allowed to touch who, and when, is complicated, rule-laden and tends us towards non-contact. Unlike other mammals we don’t touch to communicate with each other, most of the time. And yet, there’s a great deal of information to be gleaned from whether, or how a person touches you. Touch can express kindness and affection. It can also be an expression of control, or power over. It can be withheld as a form of punishment, or as an expression of unacceptability.

Professional humans who work with animals use touch to soothe and reassure. Professional humans who work with humans do not use touch beyond what the role demands and we are collectively pretty clear that on the whole, touching in a professional context is inappropriate. Even if the other person is crying and obviously in great distress.

Most mammals seem able to embody what they’re feeling and act upon it. I have an animal body, but I have no real idea how to embody anything. I can use words, which create a distance between what I feel and whoever I might be offering it to. I can and will talk calmly about how I feel, but I find it unspeakably difficult to rock up as a mammal and let my body speak for me. I am always surprised when anyone, any other living mammal, chooses to touch me. Be that a horse, or a person. I find it easier to know what to do with the creatures, because I don’t think they judge me on the same terms. So long as I am not afraid of them and move gently, they are likely to accept me. I’ve never really worked out what the rules are for people.

Maybe it is simply that, as I am more inherently afraid of humans than most other creatures that the mammal response to fearfulness plays out just the same as it would with a dog or cat. Is it my own fear that causes other people’s hackles to rise sometimes?

I’ve been round this line of thought before, always coming back to Mary Oliver’s lines about letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves, and wondering how that could be so simple and so painfully difficult all at the same time.


Are they ignoring me?

If you live with a phone that’s always on, or otherwise attached to the internet, it’s easy to expect instant responses to everything. If you think everyone should reply straight away and they don’t, stress, annoyance and misery may ensue.

There are of course lots of good reasons people don’t respond. Many of us aren’t available 24/7 – there’s no internet on my phone, and I have whole days where I’m not online. Self employed people should not be working seven day weeks – some do, of course – and the shape of their work may mean it isn’t obvious when their days off are. If I’ve worked a weekend doing an event, I take time off in the week to offset this. Around big events I can be largely out of contact for the best part of a week.

There may be something else going on. I may be on facebook because I need a conversation with a person. If you message me and I’m busy, I’ll ignore you until I have time to give you proper attention. I may be online because I’m not feeling good and I’m looking for something amusing and distracting. If that’s the case, I won’t answer work messages or queries. I am pretty confident I’m not alone in any of this. I feel strongly that just because a person appears to be around doesn’t automatically mean they have time and energy to respond to someone.

Sometimes, I don’t respond immediately because I don’t know what to say. I may need to go away and think about it. Sometimes I’ll just flag up that the message got through and I’ll get back when I can. However, if someone has made me unhappy or uncomfortable, I may need time to decide how to proceed. I give myself space to enquire as to why I’m reacting badly, whether I need to change something, or step away from a person. I’m dealing with thousands of people online, with various hats on. I can’t be everything to everyone and sometimes I have to make decisions other people don’t like.

I dropped someone entirely, early this year, who had emailed me to gripe about his life, again, and when I didn’t respond fast enough started demanding my attention on facebook instead. This is not ok. The instant nature of the internet may help us feel entitled to rapid responses. It certainly makes it easy to suck up other people’s time and energy. These days, I always ask what good that does. I try to be there for people who need my help, but if people keep having the same problems, refuse to make changes and just want me to pay attention to them (as with facebook boy) I can’t afford to indulge that. It’s very easy to make some of us feel like we should be helping, like we’re obliged to give our precious time and energy, but that doesn’t make it ok.

Of course sometimes things go astray online. Messages get lost – facebook is a terrible place to try and do anything important. If you want a serious conversation with me, ask for my email address and if I’m up for that serious conversation, we can do it by email. Sometimes emails get lost, and if something important isn’t answered, a follow through email after a few days might be appropriate. I miss things, we all miss things, and so long as you aren’t going to give me a hard time for being slow, I don’t mind being chased up on.

We need to slow down, give each other more time and space. If someone’s inbox is full of people asking, ten minutes later, why they didn’t get a reply to the first email… nothing gets done. It’s important to have boundaries, and where instant communication is possible, we need those boundaries more than ever.


Being honest about sex

I know I’m not alone in finding that speaking openly and honestly about sex gets some weird and unhelpful responses. For me, this was most relevant during my time as an erotica author, and I’ve seen it happen for other erotica authors too. It happens for activists whose area of activism has a sexual aspect. It happens for people who are honest about being kinsters, fetishists and so forth.

What happens, simply, is that a significant number of people assume that because of the above, you are promiscuous. You will shag anything. You want to be sent photos of them, and their girlfriends, you want to hear what they have in mind to do with you. For a minority, your sexual honesty will lead to verbal abuse, based on their assumptions and accusing you of whatever it is they imagine you do. Sometimes it’s all about projection.

However, a lot of this hangs of some basic assumptions about human sexuality. The habit of dividing women into angels and whores, the prudish and the promiscuous is at least a few hundred years old. Apparently that idea can be rolled out to embrace anyone else who dares to be open. If you are pro-sex, if you are keen, if you make visible your enthusiasm, then you can only be an object for use. In truth, the most enthusiastically promiscuous of us have standards and boundaries. Wanting a lot of sex, even a lot of sex with a lot of people still doesn’t mean being up for anything with anyone. We all have boundaries, but ignoring those boundaries makes it much easier to use and abuse.

I find this odd, in terms of the logic. Quantity and quality are two very different issues. To be pro sex is generally to be looking for high quality sex, and for that you need people you can communicate with. Ideally people who know and understand you. Unless your kink is sex with strangers, then most kink is better served by established connections. Not necessarily a traditionally shaped romantic relationship, but something with duration. Random pick-ups are not (despite what books and films alike try to tell us) good for kinky sex.

One of the side effects of spending many years as an erotica author, was the number of unsolicited stories I heard about what people like to do, and want to do. Most people, I think, are far more sexual and far more sexually keen than they present in public. Nothing wrong with that – it’s a very private, personal thing after all, no one should feel obliged to wear their hearts, or their genitals on their sleeve. A percentage of humans are not sexual, but a larger percentage likes to shag, kinky or otherwise.

So, why this collective response to the people who are a bit more honest about it? Is it just a habit of thinking passed down from previous generations? Is it a matter of collective shame, a feeling that we should be ashamed of our sexual appetites, so anyone who isn’t must be… well, whatever you want them to be? Is it all about projection, of putting onto the person who is open all the things the person being weird about it would do if only they felt brave enough? Is it a lack of education that leads some people to feel that anyone honestly sexually active must be other things as well?

We have a lot of taboos around sex, and one of the most problematic ones has to do with communication. We don’t talk about it enough, and when we do, it’s seldom in useful ways. We’ll objectify each other’s bodies and project onto them, but we don’t hear each other. People who can speak honestly to each other about what they want and do not want are in a much better position when following through on that. People who can hear what other people want, people who can both give and withhold consent, and who can work with the consent or refusal of others have happier, healthier, safer lives. Shaming people who talk about sex by treating them as though they have no boundaries, is a way of silencing them. Silence creates misunderstandings, facilitates abusers,and reduces creativity and expression. We need to talk more.


Getting it wrong

Mistakes are an essential part of learning, but only if we use them that way. I have a story to tell, there will be some sort of moral at the end.

A bit back, I messed up, hugely. I knew that I’d messed up because I got an email that made this very clear to me, and it wasn’t stuff I could easily fix or undo. I went through a fair amount of angst. The simplest response to the email was just to stay away – admit I was of no use and leave it at that, doing nothing else that could cause further discomfort to me, or to the person I’d offended. That might have been the end of the story, a small chapter unhappily closed, while I tried to learn how not to make the same mistakes again.

I could have gone back and checked, or asked or clarification that I was understanding it right, but I was afraid of taking more damage, and afraid of making a further nuisance of myself. Plus, I thought I knew what I’d got. Fear, and an odd sort of over-confidence a work there.

I was very lucky, in that some pretty random events conspired a couple of weeks later to make me go back for another conversation, about something else entirely. Around doing that, it became evident that yes, I really had cocked up. What I’d got wrong, above and beyond all else, was how I’d understood the key email. I’d come to it with all my baggage and history. I’m used to being told I’m too much and too difficult; people genuinely have said things like “our lives should never cross again” to me. So I expect to find that, I expect to be a problem.

I hadn’t been told to go away. I’d been given an option on doing something that might be protective of me, that might make my life easier. What I’d done in response made it look like I’d accepted that offer. I created an impression I did not mean to make. It all took a bit of unpicking, and that unpicking required some abandoning of pride, and that was well worth doing. What it cost in feeling exposed, it more than made up for in getting through to a better place.

Language is a very imprecise thing. We don’t all use words in the same way. Not all of us are word people, and many have to interpret into words from however they actually think. I’m very wordy, but that’s no guarantee that what I mean will come across as intended. We all bring our own stories, baggage, beliefs, assumptions, fears and hopes to every conversation. Taking that into account it may be some cause for wonder that any of us manage any deeper communications at all.

I went through a lot of grief for the sake of some misunderstood words. I probably also caused a fair amount of discomfort at the same time. The only way to do differently required courting a potential humiliation, and I nearly didn’t risk it. That kind of self-protection isn’t worth much. It only lets us imagine we haven’t been humiliated because we didn’t go back for seconds, rather than facing the real cost. There is so much scope for getting it wrong. Next time, I will just go back and ask.


Abuse of language and person

I had a discussion with a friend a bit back, in which I commented on the issues of saying ‘I suck’ and she said…”What I think he really means is…” It gave me a double take. What on earth were we doing, trying to interpret so simple a statement? I’ve had situations where I apparently should have understood ‘never’ to mean something less absolute, and where my saying ‘no’ was not understood as ‘no’ by the person hearing me. This is dangerous territory.

I can point at a few things that got us here. There’s the pop-psychology stream, giving us a tenuous shared grasp of interpretation. What does he really mean? What is she implying? It’s become more relevant because parts of modern life are full of double speak. When someone selling a property says ‘spacious feeling’ we know the place is probably small. Any time a politician opens their mouth, we expect them to say something other than what they mean, carefully hedged so that afterwards they can pretend they were honest with us all along. We’ve learned to mistrust apparently plain speech.

The idea that someone means something other than what they’ve said feeds the passive aggressive approach, and is fed by it. “Fine” does not always means fine. Sometimes it means furious. “Do what you like” can mean “do what I want you to do or suffer the consequences.” It can also be the defeated whimper of a person who has given up trying to get themselves heard, and that can be problematic, too.

The trouble with interpretation, is that you can read anything in, and insist on its presence regardless of what the person speaking tells you they meant. You can go further and decide the other person had unconscious impulses that make your interpretation right. If you want to do something they are not consenting to, deciding you can interpret their unspoken desires is a route to doing as you please. “I know what you really want” is a dangerous and destructive line to take.

We second guess each other. We look for deeper meanings and implications that weren’t there. All too often we ignore the possibility that the surface language was fair and true. If we can’t tune into each other’s distortions and double speak at this point, we are doomed to mutual incomprehension. Then we can follow through by blaming each other for lying and misleading.

Language is a flawed, but also fantastic tool. It is the underpinning of human co-operation and we depend upon it to share and develop ideas. And yet we deploy it carelessly, and bend other peoples’ to distort their meanings. We do not say what we mean and then get angry when other people fail to understand us. Or we get angry with the people who do carefully speak and understand in literal ways.

We need to say what we mean. We also need to assume other people are saying what they mean because it’s probably the only hope we have of weaning each other off passive-aggressive language use. We need to give a good, hard look at those facets of our culture that are corrupting language with on-going misuse. Or we end up unable to talk meaningfully with each other, interpreting ‘I never want to do that,’ as ‘maybe later’ and “you are hurting me,” as “I like this, please do it again.”

I gather it is a Domestic Abuse awareness week here in the UK. I’d like to point out that wilful re-interpretation and misinterpretation can go a long way to enabling abuse. When nothing you say is taken at face value, it is impossible to speak. Your words will be reinterpreted to suit the inclinations of your abuser. When nothing they say is to be taken at face value, and you might be harmed if you don’t understand what they really want, words become weapons. They become the justification for weapons. Interpretation can become a reason for violence, for forced sex, for shouting and breaking things. The implications are huge.

Taking a person at their word is an important mark of respect. If that is taken from you, the damage to your sense of self is massive. Being able to trust what you hear is essential if you are to feel secure. If you’ve got to constantly second-guess what is being said to you, then you never feel safe or comfortable, you are always anxious and on edge. That’s no way to live. If a wrong interpretation will lead to a denigrating bout of verbal abuse, or a bodily assault, you learn to be really afraid of getting it wrong. You also feel like this is your fault and responsibility – you are the one too stupid to understand, so it’s because of your mistakes that you are assaulted. There’s huge psychological implications to feeling that way. It destroys your sense of self.

This is what we do to each other when we let over-interpretation go unchallenged. We make a culture in which some women are not able to say no to sex because their words are twisted to mean other things. We make a culture in which some men think its ok to hit the person who didn’t get what they really meant. If we stop abusing the language we will edge in the direction of not abusing each other.