Diabolical Dialogues

A big part of my frustrations with the social realm are the crazy bits that keep surfacing in dialogues, like rocks that keep surfacing from a nicely tilled field.

One of those crazy bits are the unstated, inferential messages with which neurotypical people fill their conversations. You ask a nice, straightforward question, and you get … ambiguity like a fog obscuring the field. You get hidden meanings to stub your toes upon.

The conversation is full of subtexts, like coded messages. But unlike real coded messages where “Grandma knitted me some socks,” really means “You’re in peril, leave the country immediately,” these subtexts are not codified. They do not have a specific meaning known to both parties. Instead the subtexts could be any number of meanings, and it’s up to the other party to guess what those true meanings might be and which one they might be! The subtexts don’t even remain consistent; the same phrase might be used to mean completely different things at different times.

I like cryptograms as an intellectual puzzle, but I don’t like them in everyday conversations like this one where I ask:

“Do you want some soup now?”

“I could have it later, what about you?”

I’m too tired to spend the effort deciphering what other unstated hints or desires might lie behind such a “polite” response, so I send out a familiar preface, and repeat, “I’m asking, do-you-want-some-soup-now?”

Hubby acquiesces to my simple, blunt question, “Sure, that sounds fine.”

There, now, see what an easy interaction that really is? “Do you want some soup now?” is a straightforward, binary question. It can be answered with, “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you.”

But the original reply, “I could have it later, what about you?” is a very fuzzy response. It is not literal. It can, as I have slowly ascertained over the years, actually mean anything from:

“I’m not hungry right now. You can go ahead and eat your soup now if you want.”

“Would you wait and eat your soup later when I’m hungry and want to eat my soup, and we can share the meal together.”

“Do you really want to bother making soup for dinner? We could just heat up leftovers.”

“Soup in general sounds fine, but actually I don’t like that particular recipe you made.” This is actually a subtext with another subtext: But I won’t tell you I don’t like it, and will spend years coming up with “polite” excuses not to eat it.

“I’m hungry, but soup doesn’t sound good.” This too is actually a subtext with another subtext: Guess what I might want to eat instead!

“I really want you to suggest that we go out to eat instead.” This is yet another a subtext with another subtext: If you really loved me you would know that I want to be welcomed home from my business trip by doing something special for dinner.

(Quite possibly there are other subtexts that I have yet to suss out!)

So I ladle out two bowls of soup and set them on the kitchen table with a couple napkins and spoons, and a carton of blueberries. Why the blueberries? Because they are fresh and delicious and nutritious and need to be eaten before they spoil. That’s all — there is no hidden context to the blueberries. They don’t imply that hubby should watch his cholesterol, or signify my desire to move to a “Blue State”, or that I’m protesting produce shipped halfway around the planet, or that I’m proclaiming my emancipation from kitchen drudgery by keeping the dinner simple, or any number of weird plot devices, post-modern or otherwise. The blueberries are not a signifier of anything.

(No, they don’t even symbolise what I harvest from my rock-strewn field. You can assign all the meaning you want, but for me they’re not literary devices, they’re just a box of fruit. When I use literary devices, it’s pretty damn plain that they are literary devices.)

How the hell do people figure these conversational subtext things out? I have no clue.


Another one of those crazy bits are the distractors. These are the things that people riddle their conversations with that especially drive me nuts. They drive me nuts because the conversation is going wrong — way wrong — on several different levels. Not only is it not literal, with subtexts mining the conversational field, but the distractors serve strange purposes that are contrary to productive conversation. They are like roadblocks and detours. Roadblocks and detours have no business out in the middle of our nicely tilled field, but there I am, trying to deal with them anyway.

The dialogue begins sensibly, but then the other person throws in this wild piece of business:

“She’s going to be living in a place with no gas [heat] and nothing but Ramen to eat!”

“I don’t think that’s likely. That’s taken to extreme scenarios; it’s just a straw man argument.”

“I’m just talking about my feelings!”

“But you’re not talking about ‘feelings’ at all — you haven’t mention one emotion.”

“Yes I am — I’m afraid she won’t have a decent place to live!”

“There: ‘afraid’. That’s the first feeling you’ve mentioned so far.”

“Stop telling me what I’m feeling–”

“I’m not telling what you’re feeling, or how you should feel. I’m saying that’s the first time you have mentioned a feeling. The other things you’ve been saying are just extreme scenarios, they’re straw man arguments. ‘Talking about feelings’ is actually mentioning the emotions you’re feeling.”

This isn’t useful dialogue; it’s just creating argumentative fallacies and wrapping them in the inviolate cloak of “feelings”. Because feelings are subjective and personal, they cannot be disputed. But calling nonsense “feelings” does not make it any less nonsensical, nor any less subject to rational discussion. Asserting, “That’s just how I feel about it,” does not make absurd statements reasonable.

So now instead of discussing living options and the likelihoods of specific scenarios actually happening, we are now having an argument about what we’re arguing about, and why we’re having an argument. The actual purpose of opening the dialogue has been subverted from real problem-solving, to me trying to identify the distractors going on and calling-out statements that don’t make sense to me, plus responding to a lot of emotionally-driven protests from the other person.

We don’t need to “justify” how we feel about things; we feel whatever we feel, depending upon our views. It’s an absurd cycle to use circumstances and opinions to justify feelings, and then to use feelings to justify logical fallacies. This kind of situation, like all distractors, is really just a complex, maladaptive strategy to set up roadblocks, and detour the useful intent of the dialogue.

Well, they interfere with my purposes for dialogue, which are the exchange of information, and the subsequent identification of problems, and the creation of proposals and resolutions for problems. Obviously I’m not playing the conversational game the “right” way.

All of these things, the subtexts and the distractors, probably serve some internal functions for the people who use them, but they certainly don’t help me. Instead, they cloud actual problems with murky interpersonal “issues”, most of which are neither necessary nor functional. Damn, but humans are complex organisms!


  1. Gypsy said,

    9 August 2007 at 3:39

    At long length we have worked out what it is we are doing with some of these questions. But we’ve been married a while and deliberately worked on some of this stuff.

  2. Jacqueline said,

    26 July 2007 at 21:43

    Yes. ;-)

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    26 July 2007 at 4:40

    So … is that indeciveness, or lack of assertiveness, or both, or conversational uncertainty?

  4. Jacqueline said,

    25 July 2007 at 21:43

    I can see myself answering the soup question that way… partly because as mumkeepingsane mentioned, I might just be ambivalent to soup right now, but mostly because I would be trying to figure out your subtexts. Are you saying “I’m hungry now, we should have soup” or “I don’t really feel like eating yet, but it’s lunch time and perhaps you’re feeling hungry” or even possibly “I am not feeling like cooking, so I am hoping you will offer to, but if you don’t at least soup is easy” etc. It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

  5. Diddums said,

    25 July 2007 at 17:30

    This sounds a lot like something I was thinking about (and blogged about some time back). I was trying to work out why I don’t like to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I explained what I thought in my blog post ‘Do I Have to Choose?’ I think it’s something I have to change – I have to be more direct with what I want – and I’m always surprised when I cautiously say “well no, actually, I want to do it another way,” and the other person quite happily agrees, and says “yes, that will probably be best.” Maybe I just worry too much.

  6. 25 July 2007 at 14:18

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    My husband does the soup one all the time. His answers are never yes or no answers. Drives me nuts but it has occured to me that he answers this way because he doesn’t know if he wants soup or not at that moment in time.

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