Repost: Being misunderstood

One of the worst things about being misunderstood is that very often the more you try to be understood, the worse the problem grows.

Most societies have strong proscriptions against too much talking, and Buddhism is no exception.

I want to discuss three people to whom I have tried to explain FIML with little or no success—a close friend, a Buddhist nun, and a close relative.

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Tone of voice

How do you know what your partner’s tone of voice means during an actual real-time exchange?

You can ask them and believe their answer. This would be a normal FIML query which resolves the question perfectly in almost all cases.

If you don’t do FIML, you will probably guess. This is normal non-FIML behavior which does not resolve the question very well at all. You could easily be mistaken. Moreover, even if you are right, you can’t be sure. If the tone of voice was significant, you may start a snowball of misunderstanding.

What if you do FIML but still frequently misunderstand your partner’s tone of voice in some situations? For example, my partner sometimes expresses mild alarm or dissatisfaction in a way that often makes me think the situation is more serious than it is. This happens once or twice a month, more or less.

How do I understand this small problem? Is my partner’s tone of voice non-standard or is the way I hear it non-standard? How would we check and even if we did why should we aim to conform to a “standard” that doesn’t truly exist? There may be a rough range of “standard” English alarm tones of voice, and I bet my partner and I know roughly what that is and already do it well enough, but it doesn’t help much in this case because I am still going to misunderstand her a couple of times a month.

A question that might be answered more satisfyingly is: How do I stop misunderstanding?

One thing we can do is have her make her alarm tone of voice a bunch of times while I listen and recalibrate my hearing. Maybe I can also say something about what I hear which will make her recalibrate her speaking a bit.

Doing that will work pretty well. We might stop the misunderstandings, but I am still left wondering about tone of voice. Is there any way to accurately say what it means? How should someone sound when they are alarmed?

Maybe brain scans and many speakers of English will be able to get a clearer picture, but even that picture will change in time as the language changes and those findings, should they ever come to be, won’t do anything for me and my partner right now.

When partners delve into tone of voice they will find that it is just like delving into subjectivity. Can you put an adjective to your subjective state right now? If you look at the object to your left, how should you feel about it?

There is usually no answer to how we should feel subjectively or often even what we are feeling. Tone of voice can be beautifully rich and elusive in a similar way.

Manipulative portrayals

There is surely much truth in the conclusions of the study summarized in this article: Why Are Mean People So Good Looking?

In the terms we have been using on this site, people who work on having “adorned good looks” are consciously plying the semiotics of appearance, often for selfish or even harmful reasons.

People also do this with how they portray their personalities, values, beliefs, backgrounds, incomes, and so on.

FIML partners have the technique to clear these sorts of false-fronts—these sorts of manipulative semiotics—out of their relationship. The clearing happens gradually, but it is possible to clear away all of it.

Moods and moodiness

It could well be said that all non-FIML relationships, or nearly all, are characterized by hierarchical rules/roles that are enforced by moods and violence.

Alcoholism is a type of relationship of this sort. Alcoholism can be seen as a caricature of all, or nearly all, non-FIML behavior. The enabler of the alcoholic is just as “guilty” as the alcoholic, and in a very deep sense neither of them is guilty of anything because neither of them knows of any other way to conduct a relationship.

If you find yourself feeling afraid of your partner or doing too much to accommodate them, your FIML practice needs work. Somewhere, somehow either you or both of you are letting small contretemps slip by without discussing them. This allows them to snowball and turn your relationship into one that caters to moods, moodiness, and ultimately control by moods.

If you find yourself feeling afraid of your partner, it is as much your fault—indeed, more your fault—than theirs. Why? Because you are not bringing up the small contretemps before they snowball.

Alcoholism, with its increasing cloudiness caused by booze, is “merely” a very obvious version of normal non-FIML dysisfunctionality. Much the same could be said about most/many “abusive” relationships, but more discussion is needed on that subject than can be done in a blog post.

AA recognizes in its twelve-step program that the “enabler” (the enabling partner) is as much a part of the problem as the alcohol-addict.

In like manner, in FIML, we can clearly and resolutely say that if you are enabling or feeling afraid of or accommodating your partner’s moodiness for pretty much any reason, you are just as much a part of the problem as them.

When is it OK to feel afraid of your partner? There are normal limits here that a reasonable person should be able to see. If you lie to your partner, cheat on them, do drugs behind their back, talk behind their back, etc. you ought to feel afraid of them because you are behaving badly and you know it. If you think that you have to do any of those things because that’s how the world is, you are participating in a classic non-FIML abusive or dysfunctional relationship.

FIML practice could be described as a technique for preventing the formation of relationships characterized by hierarchical rules or roles that are enforced by moods or violence.

Clear signs that you are in a dysfunctional non-FIML relationship are lying or feeling afraid of your partner. If you feel the need to lie or are being lied to and/or if you are afraid of your partner or they are afraid of you, you are in a very normal non-FIML relationship. It is as much your responsibility as theirs—no matter which role you are in—to correct the problem. FIML practice will correct it if you can get your partner to do it.

Ask your partner

What do you want/need/expect from communication with me?

After they answer, ask them to answer again: What do you want/need/expect from communication with me when our communication is:

  • at its best
  • normal/average
  • below average
  • something you cannot put up with?

Then ask: What do you want/need/expect me to want/need/expect from you?

Then ask this question in the context of the four bullet points above.

Then ask them: How do you signal what you want/need/expect?

Then ask them: How do they think you signal what you want/need/expect?

Ask: How much or what sort/level of detail do they want in their communication with you?

What sort of detail do you want?

Try to figure out what both of your core motivations for communication are. How do those motivations help you communicate? How can you optimize your communication?

An insight into how propaganda and a good deal of culture works

I read a Wikipedia entry yesterday on what’s known as an information cascade.

An information cascade

occurs when people observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made, independently of their own private information signals. A cascade develops, then, when people “abandon their own information in favor of inferences based on earlier people’s actions”. (From the Wijipedia link above)

The way this relates to propaganda, including the softer, gentler kind employed in the West, can be found in point four below. These four points are the “four key conditions in an information cascade model:”

1. Agents make decisions sequentially
2. Agents make decisions rationally based on the information they have
3. Agents do not have access to the private information of others
4. A limited action space exists (e.g. an adopt/reject decision). (Ibid.; emphasis added)

The “limited action space” is the key to propaganda because it constitutes a false dichotomy that requires great strength for an individual to overcome. It’s much easier to accept whatever explanation is being offered by the state than to question it and run the risk of being called a kook or traitor. (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” as Bush famously said to support his war efforts.) This is remarkable because in many cases the only reasonable course of action is to want more information. How do we know for sure that Sadam has WMD? Where did that “yellow cake” information come from? Etc.

This same sort of “limited action space” relates to human culture and psychology in that all individual human beings embody thousands of results of “information cascades” determined by other members of their culture. We can call these results cultural mores, cultural beliefs or values, public semiotics, or most simply, the way things are done around here.

It takes enormous strength to question public semiotics but public semiotics unquestioned can cause enormous suffering, especially when they have major effects on interpersonal communication, which they always do.

The only way I know of to overcome this problem on an interpersonal level is to do FIML or something very much like it. The static, culturally engendered “information cascades” that lie in our heads and affect how we understand our loved ones are poison if they are not caught and observed carefully because each of them constitutes a “limited action space” that causes individuals to box each other in with profoundly mistaken interpretations.

Even a single instance can be serious. But many instances aggregated over the years almost always will lead to, if not interpersonal disaster, greatly reduced interpersonal communication and greatly reduced individual growth and happiness.

Being normal is boring?

An interesting Swedish study (described here: Creativity ‘closely entwined with mental illness’) found not that creative people have higher incidences of mental illness, but rather that they are more likely to be related to someone with mental illness.

As a Buddhist, I am inclined to think most people are deluded, crazy if you will. From my practice of FIML, I am certain that most people suffer significant interpersonal stress due to ambiguities in language/communication that are rarely if ever dealt with in a satisfactory manner.

Repost: More thoughts on “Empathy”

Edit: We are moving, vacationing, very busy right now, so we have less time to write new posts. Please look through our archives for more posts about FIML and Buddhism. Thanks. ABN

It seems that many individuals who self-describe as “empathetic” think of empathy as a talent they have for “reading people”, or knowing what others are thinking without having to ask. I think this is a huge mistake that can actually lead such people to have less empathy over time. To me it seems much more appropriate to think of empathy not as a talent one possesses but as a desire to understand other people. If we think of it this way then the ever-problematic “I know” becomes “I want to know.”

If empathy is conceived as an interest or desire, it is more likely to be developed and pursued. If, however, it is conceived as a static quality or talent, it will be taken for granted, misapplied, and probably warped into just another form of hubris.

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Repost: The human operating system

Traditional human operating systems include a standardized language, standardized semiotics, and a “personality,” which is generally understood to be a measure of how the individual has adapted to the standardized language and semiotics of their time-period.

Standardized in this context means that the language the individual uses is some version of a recognizable dialect, while their semiotics is some version of a recognizable subculture, which may include such elements as clothing styles, beliefs, goals, expectations, education, mannerisms, and so on.

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How to evaluate something you don’t know

A fascinating post by Robin Hanson—We Add Near, Average Far—describes some of the difficulty of presenting an idea like FIML to an Internet audience.

The problem is lots of detail and many bits of evidence make it difficult for people to evaluate the overall worth of a complex idea because people tend to evaluate information of that type by averaging the data rather than adding it up.

Should we just say that FIML will make you and your partner smarter and happier? Maybe we should when discussing it online, though of course, we won’t do that.

In person, we have found people quite receptive, but that is probably due to the same effect—in person we focus on one or two results of FIML practice and we only do that if people show interest.

I think Buddhism probably has a similar problem getting it’s message across through books or film. You really have to go to a temple or spend time with people who understand the Dharma to want to take on Buddhism as a way of thinking or living.

Up close and personal, most of us realize that we live in a very complex world and that our capacities for understanding our conditions cannot be taken for granted. But when it comes to learning how to hone or augment our skills for dealing with speech and symbolic communication, we tend to look for simple answers, or abstract ones, that do not include the kinds of detail we must pay attention to. Broad extrinsic theories that provide a general picture without essential detail—and these are everywhere in psychology, religion, sociology, the humanities—simply cannot do for you what a technique like FIML can because FIML is entirely based on the actual data of your actual life, and there is a great deal of that.

I do understand why it is hard to see this. At the same time, I wonder why it is so obvious in the physical sciences and engineering that we can’t do anything properly if we don’t make sure of our data.

Why should the humanities be different? We simply cannot communicate well or understand ourselves well without good data. FIML provides damn good data.

Signal intensity

An important part of FIML practice is understanding signal intensity. That is, how big or strong or important the signal in question is.

FIML practice was designed to work with small signals and works best when close attention is paid to small signals. These “small signals” can be ones you send to your partner, ones your partner sends to you, or the ways in which either one of you interprets any signal at all.

Small signals are of great importance because they can be signs or aspects of larger or habitual ways of interpreting signals. Small signals can also generate mistaken interpretations that have the potential to snowball.

An example of a habitual way of interpreting signals might be a person who grew up in a less wealthy environment than his or her partner. The less wealthy partner may tend to interpret spending or not spending money differently than the other partner. This could manifest as stinginess, being too generous, or as mild anxiety about money in general. Of course, both partners will be different in the ways they interpret signals dealing with money. Their semiotics about money will be different.

FIML partners would do well to deal with these differences by paying close attention to small signals of that type the moment they come up. This is where partners will come to see how this entire class (money) of signals is affecting them in the moments of the lives they are actually living. It’s good to also have long general discussions about money, but be sure to pay close attention to the appearances of small signals.

From this example, please extrapolate to the signaling areas that matter to you and your partner. These may include anything that causes mistakes in communication or anything that causes either partner to feel anxiety or discomfort.

A good way to gain access to this perspective is to also pay close attention to how often you and your partner miscommunicate about trivial material things. Notice how often—and it happens a lot—you misunderstand each other about even the simplest of concrete, material matters. For example, what kind of lettuce to buy, where you left the keys, is the oven off, etc.

All people everywhere make many communicative mistakes in matters as small as those. If we do that in the material realm, where mistakes are easy to see and correct, consider how much more often and how much more serious are signaling mistakes in the emotional, interpersonal realm.

When you do a FIML discussion with your partner, be sure to frequently include an analysis of how big or small the signals in question are—how intense they are. Remember that FIML practice strongly encourages discussing even the very smallest of signals. FIML does that because small signals are easier to isolate and analyze; clearly seeing a small signal often is sufficient to understanding a big habit; small signals can snowball, so they should not be ignored.