Muddled intentions, specific intentions

One important thing FIML practice has showed me is that people very often—more often than they realize—attribute specific, clear intentionality to the speech of others when that speech actually originated out of a muddled state and was not clear or specific at all to the speaker.

I think we do this because as speakers we have better knowledge of the rich ambiguity that is our mind, while as listeners we know, for the most part, only what the speaker has said, or rather what we think we heard them say.

In many other posts we have discussed hearing words incorrectly and the consequences that can follow from that. In this post, let’s confine ourselves to a listener’s attributing a more specific intentionality to the speaker than the speaker intended.

A crude example might be a drunk at a bar mumbling to himself. Another drunk walks by with his girl on his arm. Hearing the mumbling, he asks, “Did you say that to her?” In saying that, he is attributing intentionality where there was none.

Sometimes, the drunk at the bar will explain that he was just mumbling. And sometimes he will own the intentionality being attributed to him.

In that case, he might say, “Yes, I did. What are you going to do about it?”

Misconstrued intentionality surely leads to many fights.

But those of us who don’t get drunk in bars like that never do anything similar, right?

Not so. We do it all the time. We frequently hear the speech of others as having more specific intent than they meant.

Whenever we listen, we do so with the network of semiotics and language that subsumes our perceptions. Thus, whatever we hear will tend to confirm or be contextualized by that part of our subjective network that is most active at the time or that seems to apply best to what we are hearing.

Our use of that network for understanding the speech of others is hurried, quick, and often wrong. Our listening makes sense to us, but is almost never in full accord with what the speaker said, especially as so much speech initiates in vague or muddled states of mind. Speech is often groping while listening often is less so.

For example, if someone expresses a political view that we have recently been thinking about and that irritates us, our listening will very likely attribute a more specific or pointed intentionality to the speaker than is justified.

If we agree with what the speaker said under the circumstances described above, much the same thing will happen though our attribution of specific intentionality will be favorable rather than unfavorable.

These examples are the polite forms of the barroom brawl versus barroom camaraderie.

Notice also, the tendency we humans have to frame these sorts of errors as dichotomies. Either you are insulting my girl or we are all best friends.

Furthermore, notice that we also have a strong tendency to own the more specific intentionality being attributed to us by the listener. In the bar, you might decline the fight, but in another location you might lock horns with someone who attributed a specific intention to your muddled or idle expression of a vague political “view.”

Next time you think you heard a specific intent in the words of a friend, ask them if that was indeed their intent. Be careful when asking because if they are not experienced FIML practitioners, they may agree to own an intention they never had or that was far more muddled than it had seemed to you (or them in the moment of speaking).

My guess is a great deal of what we say is sloppier or more muddled than even we ourselves realize. This is simply how we are and how we really use language. You can’t male speech perfect.

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