In which I engage in some observational tone trolling

Alternative title: “the devil is in the details”. :-p

Anyhow, recently I’ve watched from the sidelines (and eventually got involved in, because I’m not immune to SIWOTI Syndrome) a number of discussions which can pretty neatly be summed up as people talking past each other, and projecting the “correct” answers to their arguments onto their opponents’ comments. This happens usually with either extremely emotionally involved topics (or when at some point one side uses an emotionally powerful symbol in an argument), or on topics that tend to run along the same lines whenever they happen (at which point deviations from the usual “script” are often not noticed).
What seems to happen is that people don’t read the specific words and arguments that are actually written down, but rather notice the keywords and key-phrases, and from that construct a statement that fits within the narrative of what they themselves are arguing, and what therefore the opposition should be arguing in response. Sometimes this is caused by sloppy or vague use of language that allows for such projection, but sometimes it happens even when the language is quite precise; and that itself seems to present very interesting problems.

For example, SC is extremely precise/nitpicky/literal/specific in her use of language, both in the way she expresses her own arguments, and in the way she reads other people’s arguments. On the other hand, most of the people she argues with use language much more loosely, sloppily and generically, again both in the way they themselves express their arguments, and in how they read her arguments.

This leads to a handful of scenarios based on this mismatch:

1)
Person A expresses a belief that specific situation X always applies
SC presents Person A with loads of exceptions to specific situation X, and says that believing that it always applies is wrong.
Person A gets insulted by a perceived implication that they’re a bad guy, without addressing the exceptions to X
SC is confused as to why Person A thinks she’s accusing them of being a bad guy, and repeats exceptions to X
Person A reacts by responding that exceptions to X aren’t relevant to what they said, and that SC is stereotyping them as a bad guy.
After several more rounds of this, it turns out that Person A actually meant to express a far more general and basic sentiment Y, of which specific situation X was a specific case, and they assumed that SC was arguing against Y, not against X

2)
Person A makes statement X
Later on in the discussion, Person B uses the fact that Person A made statement X in their argument, but paraphrases statement X roughly, thus inadvertently changing several details (let’s call this statement X’).
SC points out that Person A did not as a matter of fact make statement X’
Person B accuses SC of lying/ignoring facts, because Person A did quite evidently make statement X

3)
SC asks a very specific question X
Person A gives a generic answer to a generic question Y, which applies to situation in question X in principle
Person B gives a specific answer to a specific question X’, which is similar to, but not identical with question X
SC repeats question X
Persons A and B get upset for SC not “liking” their answers to her question and therefore “ignoring” them and being “dishonest”.

the reason I find this fascinating is because it shows how communication often functions at a meta-level beyond the direct and immediate meaning of words themselves. Statements almost always seem to have assumed meanings and literal meanings, and the assumed meanings are often at a meta-level where people who take things more literally (either because they’re just that sort of nitpicky, or because they’re not native speakers and therefore not sufficiently familiar with meta-meanings) don’t pick up on them and therefore will begin an argument about something below the level at which the speaker had meant the argument to be. Conversely, a statement by a literalist read by a generalist would be read much more sloppily, often assuming a more generic, wider meaning than is actually being presented.

The same dynamic seems to appear even between people who use language similarly, when the subject of the conversation is sufficiently emotionally charged. It’s not so much about “taking it personally”, but about having reactions to certain key-words, ignoring the specific and perhaps unusual way in which they are expressed.
A personal example of this would be an argument I had a few years back with an older feminist about abortion. I basically agreed with her on everything, except that my particular position in the argument was focused on making the need for abortion as rare as possible (basically, the”legal, safe, rare” argument, vs. the older “anytime, anywhere, no questions asked” argument). I used lung cancer as a comparison of a situation where we absolutely do give full medical care to people who have contracted the problem, but at the same are having a lot of health-campaigns to reduce smoking, so the problem doesn’t come up in the first place.
She responded that this was a horrible argument, and that I was basically suggesting that we should let cancer patients die on the streets. I imagine that this is because she had interpreted my argument as an anti-abortion argument, and thus the comparison I drew looked differently to her than what I had actually tried to express.

I find this dynamic of conversation very fascinating. I wonder if there’s a way to stop and diffuse these miscommunications as soon as they occur, so as to avoid arguing past each other? I sometimes try to dissect the misunderstanding to show where the misunderstanding is occurring, but half the time it seems people just get insulted by such a dissection (even when I’m not stuffing it full of insults :-p )and accuse me of “telling them what they think”.

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25 comments on “In which I engage in some observational tone trolling

  1. boygenius says:

    So… you want to kill cancer patients and helpless unborn babies? Despicable. Wait… what?

    Seriously, though, I get frustrated by the same thing. I see it all the time at PZ’s. The current bat-porn thread is a fairly typical example of this phenomenon.

    Granted, I’m usually somewhat removed from the situation as I am more often an observer than a participant; but that probably gives me an even better perspective to recognize when people are arguing past each other.

    Maybe we need to come up with a code-word that the less fervent observers/lurkers could drop into a thread. Kind of a hint that everyone needs to take a step back from their emotions and re-examine the arguments being made.

    Bah. Probably a bad idea. Never mind. Every other comment would be some lurker (like me) dropping the safe word. “watermelon” or some such.

  2. Rorschach says:

    Very astutely observed ! These kind of discussions can indeed be seen everytime SC, and to be fair, not only her but a few choice others, get into a detailed argument with someone.
    I do note that in your post you use the term “nitpicky” as well…..That, too I think, is an astute description of the technique formerly known as “telling me what I think”…:-)

  3. Jadehawk says:

    I use the word “nitpick” not as a negative, but because there really isn’t any better word, to my knowledge, to describe what happens when someone who uses language precisely tries to deal with a comment by someone why uses language sloppily. Unless you pick the nits, you won’t be able to figure out what they really meant, after all.

    But yes, nitpicking can look suspiciously like telling people what they think (since it’s effectively telling people what they said :-p )

  4. Rorschach says:

    As you know I have been on the receiving end of this nitpickery more than once lol, and it led to me essentially give up on having those day-long discussions with SC, strangey and the like, because while it is helpful to insist on defining terms in a discussion, which I think in my early Pharyngula days I was guilty of not doing very well at times, and the likes of truthy and SC helped me to improve on that, there is a fine line between that and redefining terms for the purpose of misrepresenting someone’s position.

  5. Jadehawk says:

    well, I’ve never seen either SC or SGBM play Humpty-Dumpty with words

  6. Rorschach says:

    well, I’ve never seen either SC or SGBM play Humpty-Dumpty with words

    How do you play Humpty-Dumpty with words ?? Who’s Humpty-Dumpty? *googles*

    Btw, wrt the lung cancer argument you gave above, I think it fails because there is no strict if-then relationship between smoking and lung cancer, at least 10% of lung cancers arise in non-smokers(the adenocarcinomas), add to that a good number that arise from environmental factors like asbestos and the analogy is probably not ideal.

  7. Jadehawk says:

    and not all pregnancies are caused by unprotected sex either; the analogy was merely that doing things to prevent people from getting a problem can be an addition to taking care of them and giving them the medical care to fix their problem. but it was misinterpreted as me saying that we should do prevention instead of treatment (hence the accusation that i wanted to kill lung cancer patients as analogous to me supposedly wanting to ban abortions)

    playing humpty-dumpty = redefining words to suit one’s purpose, at random, which is something I’ve never seen them do. Sometimes it feels like they’re doing it when it’s my argument they’re dealing with; but since I’ve never seen them purposefully misrepresent the literal meaning of what others have written (as opposed to misunderstanding and/or missing the intended meaning/meta-meaning), I’m going to have to conclude that they’re not doing it to me either, I’m just attached to the intended meaning of what I wrote (because the only alternative explanation is that I’m super special, and they hate me specifically and single me out for intentional abuse :-p ).

    And that’s what this post was about; how to get people to stop talking past each other because of these non-intentional misunderstandings between what is meant and what is actually being said.

  8. Rorschach says:

    I’m going to have to conclude that they’re not doing it to me either, I’m just attached to the intended meaning of what I wrote (because the only alternative explanation is that I’m super special, and they hate me specifically and single me out for intentional abuse :-p ).

    I think you’re being too, ehm, submissive here ! You know what you intend to say when you say something, and while it is entirely possible that you do not express yourself with the necessary precision, there still remains the meaning you intended to convey.And no person on the other side of the world, with their own confirmation biases and preconceptions, should be telling you what your true intentions were, even if your language is imprecise.

    *pet peeve, as you know..:-)*

  9. Jadehawk says:

    And no person on the other side of the world, with their own confirmation biases and preconceptions, should be telling you what your true intentions were, even if your language is imprecise.

    one more time: I’ve never seen them do this. Just because it feels that way, doesn’t actually make it so, unless you are implying that I’m the only person they do this to.

  10. Rorschach says:

    I’ve never seen them do this

    Do you earn money on a comment basis here? You could get rich soon if we invited SC and SGBM over at this point…:-)
    I feel this is a nice neutral place to discuss these things that bother us over at Pharyngula, nice opportunity to achieve a meta-view and talk about it, dont you think ?

  11. Jadehawk says:

    lol, no money, just procrastinating getting to work. and, hey, i got truth-machine to argue his point on here once, so yay me :-)

  12. Walton says:

    playing humpty-dumpty = redefining words to suit one’s purpose, at random,

    From Through the Looking Glass, in which Humpty-Dumpty defines “glory” to mean “a nice knock-down argument”. (So Rorschach won’t get much guidance on this from googling “Humpty-Dumpty”, as the reference is, of course, not to the nursery rhyme but to the work of Lewis Carroll.)

    Amusingly, this passage was actually cited by Lord Hoffmann, a British judge, in Investors Compensation Scheme v West Bromwich Building Society, who was expounding the principles of interpretation of terms of a contract. /lawgeek

  13. Rorschach says:

    Well, srsly, I do think this is a very fine line here. Can some person really, using “precise language”, know how to represent what I intended to say, in my imprecise language ? I don’t think they can…So I use imprecise term X, and a commenter pins me down and says “what you really mean is X’ “.But what that commenter interprets my term X to mean is just a product of their own presuppositions about me, since my term X was not well defined.So their interpretation is as valid as mine for a neutral commenter, while I am the only person to actually know what I intended to say ! Does that make sense? Maybe I’m not explaining it well…

  14. Jadehawk says:

    ok, this is getting stupid. I keep on repeating that this is precisely what they do not do: they never get at the intended meaning, but rather focus exclusively at the expressed meaning as it stands, in the literal text given.

    that this is often not what is meant is precisely the problem. I’ve never seen them insist that what one said was what one meant, only that they insist on arguing over the literal meaning (because that’s the only thing one has to work with) rather than the meaning that was supposed to be conveyed. this then feels like they’re trying to “tell you what you think”, but looking from the outside it really never is; it is, however quite often a case of being told what you said.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Insert my usual fawning over your intellect here. No, seriously, I’m too lazy to put it into words this time.

    Nerd of Redhead is a good example of someone with knee-jerk reactions to keywords. According to himself, he’s deep enough in Asperger’s that I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack about missing sarcasm, but I think he has demanded of every single vague deist and every single Buddhist-like body/mind/soul dualist that they pull an eternally burning bush out of their pocket. He expects the discussion to go a certain way and acts accordingly.

    I wonder if there’s a way to stop and diffuse these miscommunications as soon as they occur, so as to avoid arguing past each other? I sometimes try to dissect the misunderstanding to show where the misunderstanding is occurring, but half the time it seems people just get insulted by such a dissection (even when I’m not stuffing it full of insults :-p )and accuse me of “telling them what they think”.

    I (guessed it) like your dissections, find them (guessed it) helpful, and think you should (guessed it) even do them more often. And (guessed it) I have no fucking idea how to avoid the accusation. For some people — Rorschach! <broad, toothy grin> — it would help to frame the whole thing as a question (beginning it with “So, have I understood this correctly?” and ending it with “Is that about right?”), but others would interpret that as sarcasm and take offense, I bet.

    I use the word “nitpick” not as a negative, but because there really isn’t any better word, to my knowledge, to describe what happens when someone who uses language precisely tries to deal with a comment by someone why uses language sloppily. Unless you pick the nits, you won’t be able to figure out what they really meant, after all.

    I’ve used “autistic” for this, but (I think) only about myself, because too many people would misunderstand it as “stupid, and their own fault”… Of course, such a misunderstanding would itself be stupid, but I lack truth machine’s (cou)rage to actually tell people that and fight with them over it.

    I think you’re being too, ehm, submissive here ! You know what you intend to say when you say something, and while it is entirely possible that you do not express yourself with the necessary precision, there still remains the meaning you intended to convey.And no person on the other side of the world, with their own confirmation biases and preconceptions, should be telling you what your true intentions were, even if your language is imprecise.

    Then simply repeat what you intended to say, in more precise words this time, and say you want to explain the misunderstanding. :-| Unless you’re pressed for time, I fail to see the problem.

    To pick a nit, I don’t see where “on the other side of the world” comes in. There is no such thing on teh intarwebz. :-)

    Do you earn money on a comment basis here? You could get rich soon if we invited SC and SGBM over at this point…:-)

    No, it’s not a ScienceBlog.

  16. Kausik Datta says:

    Ooh, ooh! A topic close to the heart! I have been on both ends of this situation before. May I put in my 2 cents worth?

    I think the problems arise (Cf. the scenarios that Jadehawk mentioned) because oftentimes we get too emotionally invested in the topic/discussion, and forget that this is written communication. The discussions on the internet are word-geysers, erupting from various participants – devoid of the subtle non-verbal sensory cues that often convey the full intent of a discussant in the meatspace.

    Therefore, however precise/nitpicky/literal/specific the language used may be, all the reader sees are words – and there is every possibility that those would not be correctly interpreted. Language is dynamic, as you well know, and the meanings or imports of words can often change, or shift, based on the context and connotations.

    And if the language is imprecise and sloppy (as sometimes happens), it becomes open season. Heh, I am reminded of three books, written approximately 3500, 1400 and 1300 years ago… Literal interpretations of all three have varied rather extensively, and look where it got the world!!

  17. Jadehawk says:

    KD, you’re right that the internet makes specific challenges to communication.

    But I’ve seen the same thing happen in verbal, face-to-face communication; the problem here is that in such a situation I’m relying on my own memory of what was said, which is not as reliable as re-reading and analyzing a piece of text, so it adds a level of uncertainty to the discussion because there’s no reliable replay of what was said.
    And because verbal communication isn’t as permanent as text communication, it can look like this isn’t happening. I find text communication (or recorded speech) much better for clarifying these mistakes.

    Especially when talking to men. Because my girly brain obviously didn’t remember a conversation as well as their manly brains did; must be all those girl-hormones clouding my memory. (I’m not bitter at all, no)

  18. Dr X says:

    Excellent post. I’m always examining the meta level in comments, particularly in cases of comment exchange gridlock. I find it fascinating, as well. Generally, I don’t jump in with observations in those situations. Meta level observations are difficult to absorb when the exchange is heated. Most of the time, I watch and think about what’s occurring. In the last couple of days, there was a humdinger between two very bright, well-informed commenters I have great respect for over Dispatches. Both good guys. I almost said something, then changed my mind. I didn’t think my thoughts would have helped. Anyway, meta level focus is at the core of my work with people, so obviously it’s of interest to me. It’s always nice to find others with a similar appreciation.

  19. cicely says:

    Ah, this sounds like what I call, “not having the same conversation”. It may look like the participants are involved in the same conversation, but actually, the heavy lifting is all being done in their own respective heads.

  20. 'Tis Himself says:

    I admit I’m one of the sloppy writers. I’ve had my share of misunderstandings with SC because I didn’t quite write what I was thinking. When I’m writing something at work, particularly a position paper, I let it sit for an hour or three and then edit it so it does say what I want. The bad grammar, missing words, non sequiturs, and “not quite the right word” reveal themselves on this later reading. Blogs don’t lend themselves to that method of written expression.

    Oh well, as the asbestos removal people say, “We do asbestos we can.”

    I’ll get my hat.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Especially when talking to men. Because my girly brain obviously didn’t remember a conversation as well as their manly brains did; must be all those girl-hormones clouding my memory.

    <headdesk>

    Wow. Probably those were exactly that kind of guy whose combination of testosterone, adrenaline, and wishful thinking fogs their own memories.

  22. Sili says:

    Since when do men have supposedly better memories than women? I can’t even get to the GP on the correct day. And, writing that, I just recalled that I shoulda called for my test results before Noon. Bugger.

    I think you’re being too, ehm, submissive here !

    Nope. It’s easy (relatively) to see who’s right and/or wrong in an argument where one isn’t involved. It’s far harder to keep that level of distance when is involved oneself. So if I find myself being corrected by someone who I know to usually be in the right where I’m not involved, it would be ridiculous of me to immediately assume that I’m special and obviously incapable of being wrong. That is not to say that the corectee is necessarily wrong (I on the other hand usually am), but they would do well to stop and think.

    Of course, if one does not respect the opinions of the corrector in the first place, I can see how one’d ignore their corrections.

  23. Paul says:

    Can some person really, using “precise language”, know how to represent what I intended to say, in my imprecise language ?

    They’re not telling you what you intended to say, they’re pointing out what you actually said. If there is significant difference between the two, your response would be the opportunity to point it out. You can’t hold people on the internet culpable for taking you to be saying what you’re saying if it sounded different in your head.

    Nerd of Redhead is a good example of someone with knee-jerk reactions to keywords.

    Not even that, he has a knee-jerk reaction to anyone PZ says something mean about (yea, I’m still pissed at him over that abortion thread abortion). It would seem that, more than just having Aspergers, he’s just a jerk. It’s not just keywords, at this point.

    I think the problems arise (Cf. the scenarios that Jadehawk mentioned) because oftentimes we get too emotionally invested in the topic/discussion, and forget that this is written communication.

    That’s definitely a factor, but as Jadehawk mentions it’s in real life too. I suspect it’s a cognitive shortcut where people hear/see statements rather than individual words. Before they read the entire sentence or hear the whole statement, they’re already sure what it will be based on past conversations. This is why you see a lot of talking past each other in places like Pharyngula, where aside from Endless Thread inanity (not to trash it, it’s fun sometimes) there’s really only 5 or 6 different conversations that happen over and over again. There’s a lot of context and a lot of conditioning to expect certain people assuming certain roles, and much opportunity to knee-jerk a response to something that looks quite similar to but is not that really irritating creationist talking point you saw last month. This is, of course, why things like PZ’s “3 post rule” are good in such an environment, but I’m not sure how much it helps.

    I admit I’m one of the sloppy writers.

    I must cop to this as well. I don’t have a lot of experience socializing, though, so the whole “communicating so other people understand you” thing is mostly foreign to me (aside from a very narrow field based on what I do at work, where I need to be very precise about technical issues that doen’t translate well to concepts like society or morality).

  24. The main solution for this is for people to be careful about what they say, and if there’s any reason to think someone else said something that is ambiguous or poorly worded, ask them to clarify it.

    Frankly, I have a lot more sympathy with something like SC in this sort of situation. Precise use of language is intimately connected with precise thinking and precise communicating.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Not even that, he has a knee-jerk reaction to anyone PZ says something mean about

    True. And annoying.

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