Big mistake: We often own what we didn’t mean

A fascinating study from Sweden confirms something that FIML practice has shown us to be a fairly common occurrence and a potential source of serious interpersonal problems.

In FIML terms, the mistake is that we own something we didn’t mean. Or we take on an attitude, mood, or belief that we did not hold after we have been misheard or misunderstood.

In the study from Lund University in Sweden—How to confuse a moral compass—researchers found that:

People can be tricked into reversing their opinions on moral issues, even to the point of constructing good arguments to support the opposite of their original positions…

I was not surprised at all to read that because FIML practice has clearly shown my partner and me that it is really easy to fall into the trap of owning what your partner erroneously thinks you meant.

For example, you are tired, you ask your partner a question, their answer is slow in coming or unclear, you feel frustrated and that feeling enters your tone of voice or shows in your facial expression, your partner asks with some irritation “are you mad at me“—now here’s the mistake—in your fatigue and confusion you answer “yes,” then all hell beaks loose.

The problem is you were not mad at your partner; you were tired and frustrated and it showed, but when they asked you if you were mad at them, in the rush of the moment, you took it on; you said “yes” due to the sort of effect that the Swedish study has found.

Th example above is fairly crude. I chose it because something like that happened to me just yesterday and because I doubt there is anyone who has never made a mistake like that, so it’s easy to understand.

Other cases of this phenomenon can be more subtle—vague speaking or listening can lead to you taking on a position that is not what you actually think; so can convenience in the moment; being too polite; confusion, wanting to get-along or be agreeable, and so on.

This phenomenon usually happens subconsciously or semi-consciously. The big danger interpersonally is that your new not true position can become hardened into something significant to the other person. From there, it can snowball into becoming “what you believe,” “how you are,” or one of your “personality traits.”

What this phenomenon shows, especially in interpersonal contexts, is how much we are interconnected, how much our understanding of ourselves—even our own beliefs and feelings—is determined by what others attribute to us.

The Swedish study shows the phenomenon is all but automatic. In FIML terms, we could also say that this phenomenon shows the great power of what we have called “semiotic bundles.” One you get put into a semiotic category (or put yourself into one), there is a strong tendency to want to stay in that category, even to defend it, even if it had never been your original position at all. Anger often fuels it, but you don’t have to be angry to have it happen.

Watch for it when you interact with your partner. You both will be delighted to discover and quickly correct this mistake as soon as it happens.

(I bet a good deal of what we call “acculturation” depends on this phenomenon, as does conformity. In other posts on this site, we have discussed the power of “public semiotics” and our deep need for them to communicate. But powerful things can also be dangerous. With the help of your FIML partner, watch yourself closely and see if you can catch yourself doing a “mini-acculturation” to a mood or belief you did not hold and do not believe.)

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