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.


  1. lee said,

    4 October 2006 at 18:17

    Language is arbitrary anyway. I think he just wanted to talk more about the idea of hinting to you that he would like to go eat Italian without being crude about it. Its more subtle

  2. David N. Andrews MEd (graduating Dec2006) said,

    30 September 2006 at 18:49

    I can relate to some of this… sometimes my daughter is reluctant to do things, like go home with her mum so that mum can go with dad to sort out a money issue, while she’s with step-dad. No go. Basic explanation… didn’t work… tempers fraying… and I hold in breath and calmly tell her what the *natural* consequence of her not doing as requested will be: no money for dad, and therefore dad can’t buy her nice things…

    Whereupon, she went ‘Oh!’ and – with no more fuss – buggered off with her mum.

  3. Anne said,

    30 September 2006 at 14:24

    It’s not always a game, it’s a style of communication, like abstract expressionism was a style of painting. As the NT parent of an autistic child, just saying so is a skill I have had to work hard on. It has been worth it.

  4. Rose said,

    30 September 2006 at 12:14

    “Say what you mean, and mean what you say…” isn’t nasty language. Christ said, “Say yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no…anything else is from the evil one.” Probably was an Aspie…

    Socialization, my patootie; it’s “mass” passive aggression! I get so tired of the games.

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