Stymied by Semiotics

Sometimes people don’t say what they mean, or don’t mean what they say.

Sometimes it’s because they were taught self-effacing modesty or “not wanting to bother”, or from being euphemistic (saying “passed on” instead of died). Sometimes it’s from embarrassment.

And sometimes, I have NO idea why people say what they say!

My problem is that I am more inclined to straightforward, pragmatic communication, and talking to most others is like conversing in a foreign language.

One evening, my husband asks me, “What would you think of Italian?” Hmn, I remember eating at the last Italian restaurant we went to, and answer, “I don’t feel like having Italian tonight. Mexican sounds good to me, or Chinese.”

We were on the road, discovered that the Mexican place had closed, and he finally told me that he wanted to try out the new restaurant that had opened nearby! I said sure, because their menu could be really different than the other places we have visited.

Apparently he was disappointed because I had ruled out Italian food, and by not going along with his very indirect and implicit suggestion, was (nearly) denying him the opportunity of trying this new place. He took denying his suggestion as something personal, apparently. Once again I have managed to create Grave Disappointment through complete ignorance of what he wasn’t saying.

The thing is, most people do understand this kind of implicit, indirect conversation. It’s the whole mangle of semiotics! The signifier, or thing they are saying, does not literally indicate the signified, or idea they are meaning, and the action they perform does not indicate what they are wanting. Imagine someone gives you a bouquet of red roses, which signify “I love you”. But you are allergic to roses and reply, “Oh, no thanks, I can’t bear being around those.” Person feels rejected.

But I find the symbolism of objects easier to understand than the symbolism of unspoken conversation. Sometimes I catch it, through sheer force of experience. Sometimes I sit there mystified, hoping that something later in the conversation will make things clear. And sometimes I stumble through the conversational dance, feeling like I’m trying to waltz when everyone else is doing the bunny-hop.

I keep reminding him, “Just say what you really mean!”

Blarg! But decades of socialisation are hard to counter.

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