Intro: We use the word semiotics quite frequently on this site. The basic meaning of semiotics is “the study of signs,” communicative signs. Semiotics deals with how signs are made, used, and understood. Signs can be anything that communicates—language, gesture, expression, writing, photos, movies, music, behaviors, gifts, tone of voice, etc. Anything that communicates.
Semiotics is also very much about what signs mean. When you use a sign to communicate (and you always use signs when you communicate) with your partner it will mean one thing to you and very possibly something else to them. FIML practice is designed to make sure that the signs you send to your partner are understood as you mean them, and vice versa.
When we emphasize the importance of the meaning of communicative signs on this site, we are using the word semiotics in a slightly unusual way. We could use the word semantics or some other word that we make up. But we like the word semiotics because it always implies at least two meanings (the sender’s and the receiver’s, or yours and your partner’s) and the sign or signs that transmits those meanings between you.
Analyzing (the Buddha was an “analyst”) the signs you use with your partner and within your own mind is an extremely worthwhile activity. Basic FIML practice is all about analyzing and becoming crystal clear about how signs/semiotics are operating between you and your partner. Done properly, FIML will show you how to vastly improve communication with your partner.
Since humans are profoundly interactive beings, clarifying communication with your partner will also clarify you to yourself. For Buddhists, I believe FIML will show you with great specificity very important aspects of what the Buddha meant by delusion and how to overcome it. For others, FIML will do much the same though you may think of it in different terms—FIML removes mistakes from communication (and from your own mind) by isolating small incidents and analyzing them.
Below is a post from some months ago that illustrates how a FIML-based semiotic analysis works.
FIML and practical semiotics
Though FIML practice may appear to deal mainly with spoken language, it actually works primarily by stopping language, or the heedless use of language, so partners can observe and consider the semiotics that underlie what they are saying to each other.
A simple way to understand what FIML does is to consider the main components of a typical act of communication between two people. In this case, the components are semiotics, language, and emotion. These terms can be expanded if need be to include other factors such as behaviors, partners’ bodies, instincts, sensations, etc. But for now let’s just consider semiotics, language, and emotion.
Semiotics are like cables or snakes or ribbons of meaning that accompany our uses of language. They underlie our words and weave in and out of them. Words and language can also be thought of as a kind of semiotic, but for now, let’s separate them. Semiotics is the meaning while language is one way of expressing that meaning.
Emotions as they arise in communicative acts can be of many types. In FIML practice, partners will find that they most often need to use FIML techniques to deal with sudden emotions that seize control of the mind and thence influence or determine what it says or does.
Basically, in all interpersonal communication, strong emotions can and will get attached to a semiotic. In normal non-FIML communication, this attachment almost always occurs without conscious control and it is usually not discussed by the people communicating, and almost never discussed rationally.
A mix-up (or contretemps, as we have sometimes called it) occurs between two people when they have significantly different semiotics in their minds and when one or both of them have attached an emotion to their semiotic.
Notice how closely that description fits with Buddhist thinking—when we become attached to or cling to a wrong view, we cause suffering.
When either partner notices a mix-up, they should initiate a FIML query or discussion. The main point of the discussion is to find out how partners’ semiotics are diverging, if they are. The internal sign that this may be happening is a sudden feeling, usually a negative feeling, based on what your partner has said (or what you think or feel they meant).
Mix-ups occur very often. I would say it is normal to experience a few mix-ups per hour of conversation even with a very close friend or partner. The reason this happens is we depend a great deal on semiotics when we speak to each other. With close friends, our semiotics become more intimate, personal, and emotional. That’s the whole fun of having close friends, but that is also where the danger lies. If friends or partners don’t do FIML, their small mix-ups will compound and lead to big mix-ups.
FIML is designed to catch mix-ups right as they happen. The reason for this is if you wait even a few seconds too long, you won’t be able to remember accurately where the mix-up started, what provoked it. And your partner won’t be able to remember accurately what they were thinking when you first felt the emotional jangle that signaled the appearance of a mix-up. If either partner can’t accurately remember what was in their mind at the onset of the mix-up, you can’t fix it at that time. You have to agree to be quicker or more observant next time and move on for now.
If you keep trying to get to the root of a mix-up whose origin has been forgotten, you will get lost in generalities (general semiotics) and not only not fix the problem but probably make it worse. Just remember that something happened and that it will probably happen again. See if you can catch it next time. It will almost certainly happen again because a mix-up almost always is based on one or both partners having a strong emotional attachment to a semiotic and then associating that semiotic with triggers or cues.
For example, I have a habitual strong emotional attachment to the semiotic that other people do not care about me or what I am saying. If I get that wrong in a conversation—that is, if that semiotic wrongly lights up inside of me—I am going to make mistakes about what the other person is saying or not saying and why. True, sometimes people really don’t care. But if I have that reaction with my partner while she is caring, I have made a huge mistake. I will feel bad about myself and her and I will be completely wrong. I will have taken something good (her caring) and turned it into it’s opposite. That mistake will then cause me to make others. I might speak sharply or start sulking or go do something else, leaving my partner feeling abandoned. How sad that is, but how very, very common.
FIML is designed to prevent that kind of bullshit. From this small example, I hope you can see how serious even a little mistake can be.
FIML allows partners to engage in an entirely different way of speaking to each other. It teaches us how to think differently. Not all mix-ups are serious. Many of them are neutral, some are funny, and virtually all of them are interesting. As you get better at identifying when you and your partner are starting to veer off into mixed-up semiotics, you will find that the range of subjects you can comfortably talk about increase greatly. How you talk to each other will become a normal subject and, with time, you will really feel that you and your partner can depend on each other for good clear speech that arises out of your own unique individualities.