Ambiguity in speech as the source of most psychology

Genes aside, I believe ambiguity in speech and its consequent cascades of error are at the root of virtually all human psychology, both good and bad.

And this goes back in time as far as we can imagine because the problem of ambiguity in speech was there for your parents, your grandparents, and everyone else who came before you. And the same is true for everyone else in the world.

All cultures everywhere are both burdened and determined by this problem.

(The only exceptions are specialist “cultures” that make a point of removing error from their communication systems, such as mathematics, hard sciences, engineering, some branches of linguistics, etc. The people in these cultures only avoid the problem while working or speaking within their specialist culture. When at home or off the job, their psychologies are the same as the rest of us. In fact, smart as many of those people are, I bet few of them have ever considered how inaccurate their common speech is or how error-ridden their listening is, to say nothing of how profoundly that messes up their psychologies.)

Ambiguity in speech comes from inaccurate words and phrases, our strong tendencies to want to keep the wrong parts of speaking too short, our fear of open, truthful speech, our hyper-focus on wording and typical refusal to allow people to take back or alter their words or our inability to see the need for that, our strong tendency to believe we know what others mean, our constant need to grab meaning on the fly, or extract it from gestures or tone of voice, the brevity of most speech acts, our fear of being wrong or saying the wrong thing (legitimate fears given the foregoing), our practical incapacity to describe our own subjectivity or even know it, our inability to get other people’s subjectivity from them because they also suck at this.

I could go on, but let’s just take one item from this loose list—our typical refusal to allow people to take back or alter their words or our inability to see the need for that.

Of course other people do this to us too. And when they do, we rarely know how to deal with it. Even when we try, it often turns out badly because our attempts are stereotypically taken as excuses or apologies.  Moreover, taking something back usually only involves glaring stuff that someone might have felt was “offensive” or that we believe reflects badly on us.

Even worse, let’s say you have taken something back successfully or rephrased it and explained everything perfectly to all parties’ satisfaction. When was the last time you did it? How often do you do it?

Not much, I bet. Because if you do do it often, almost everyone will think you have a loose screw.

How often should you rephrase something you said or allow another to do that?

The right answer is at least several times per hour of conversation.

When we don’t do that, ambiguity flourishes. Meanings are imagined. Guesswork replaces knowing. In response, everyone’s psychologies become confused or rigid. We act roles rather than life.

How can we claim to know anything about human psychology without acknowledging that almost anything with psychological import that anyone ever says to anyone is sure to be riddled with error and ambiguity?

And even when it’s not, 1) it’s very hard to know when that is and 2) the event is so rare it’s like a bird that stops flapping its wings and falls to the ground.

 

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