Imaginary communication

Normal socially-defined communication—business, school, professional, etc.—operates within known limits and terminologies. Skill is largely defined as understanding how to use the system without exceeding its limits, how to play the game.

Many other forms of communication must be imagined. That is, I have to imagine what you mean and you have to imagine what I mean. This is so because the rules of  communication are not well-defined.

In many cases of this type I will imagine that you are normal to the extent that I am able to imagine what normal is. And I will imagine that you imagine me to be normal. As I imagine you I will probably assume that your sense of what is normal is more or less the same as mine. This is probably what the central part of the bell curve of imagined communication looks like. People in this group are capable of imagining and cleaving to normal communication standards. If you reciprocate, we will probably get along fine.

If my imagination is better than normal, I will be able to imagine more than the normal person or given to imagining more. If this is the case, I will tend to want to find a way to communicate more than the norm to you. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating. If you don’t, I might appear eccentric to you or distracted.

If my imagination is worse than normal, I will have trouble imagining or understanding normal communication. I won’t have a good sense of the cartoons we are required to make of each other and will probably appear awkward or scatterbrained to most people. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating and find comfort in each other.

Normal communication, even when imagined, is based on something like cartoons. I see myself as a cartoon acting in relation to the cartoon I imagine for you. If my cartoon fits you well enough that you like it and if your cartoon of me fits well enough that I like it, we have a good chance of becoming friends.

A great deal of normal imagined communication is cartoon-like, and being normal, will take the bulk of its cartoons from mass media—movies, TV, radio, and, to a lesser extent today, books and other art forms.

People still read and learn from books and art, but normal communication has come to rely heavily on the powerful cartoons of mass media.

The big problem with our systems of imagined communication is they are highly idiosyncratic, messy, and ambiguous. We have to spend a lot of time fixing problems and explaining what we really mean.

It’s good to have idiosyncratic communication, but we have to find ways to understand each other on those terms.

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First posted May 25, 2014

Notes on communication problems

A good rule of thumb is more efficient communication is almost always better than less efficient.

A few basic communication problems that FIML partners (and others) will surely encounter.

  • Whenever a new subject is raised in informal conversation, there is a great likelihood that the listener will experience some sort of mix-up concerning the context of the subject; the intent or attitude of the speaker; their reasons for raising the subject, etc. There is no way we can expect a partner to fully appreciate all aspects of a new subject we have just raised or why we have raised it. Similarly, when we are listeners, we cannot expect to fully understand what our partner is saying (or wants to say) when they are just beginning to raise a new topic.
  • This same sort of problem occurs whenever we raise a new aspect of an old subject. If we are speakers, we should be aware that our partner will probably not quite understand where the new aspect differs from the old. And as listeners, we will have this problem from the other side of the equation.
  • It is very common for speakers, especially when informally introducing a new subject, to be vague, unclear, even seriously misleading. In free-flowing conversations between friends, new subjects will be spoken about as soon as they arise in someone’s mind. This tends to generate imprecise speech and contribute to the points raised just above.
  • Similarly, the hearer of a new topic may understand the message very differently from the way it was intended.
  • It is much better to sort out these basic problems as they arise than to fall into the trap of arguing, accusing, or mocking each other, to cite some of the worst outcomes of these fundamentally innocent kinds of mix-ups.
  • “Suffering” in silence is not a good way to fix these problems either because the “sufferer” is actually experiencing nothing more than a common speech mix-up and not some ongoing “bad trait” possessed by their partner.
  • I am certain that FIML practitioners will be amazed and delighted to see (through practice) how often mistakes like this occur. What a relief to see how and why we may attribute a wrong intention to our partner and how and why to stop that process from going forward.
  • If a subject of conversation suggests another subject to one partner who then changes to that new subject, the other partner may not understand that they have to almost completely decouple from the old subject if they are to understand what their partner is now saying. Speakers will do well to make this explicit before going too far into the new subject.
  • Another common problem partners may have is slipping into a bipolar mode when none is called for. This means that if one partner says A, the other partner may want to pause and consider what is meant before jumping at saying not-A. It is easy to slip into talking in a bipolar (A vs. not-A) mode when a cooperative or exploratory mode is more suited to the subject.
  • Sometimes bipolar is good and necessary, but partners should not ever use it as a default mode. It is just one way of talking and should only be used when two choices have been clearly outlined.
  • Sometimes our questions (or statements) can lead to confusion in our partner because they may misunderstand our intentions for asking. For example, if I ask my partner if she is going to make salad now, I may just be wondering why she is cleaning the lettuce. But she may very well hear me saying that I want her to make some salad now. This sort of mix-up can be kind of sweet because it is often based on each partner being very considerate of the other. If she asks me, do you want me to make salad now? And I reply, no I do not. I may be replying that way because I want to save her the trouble of making it now. And then she will begin to wonder if I am just being considerate, and so on. This sort of thing can go on a long time. It’s best if partners learn to identify the ways these sorts of exchanges occur between them and how to step back and be very clear with one another.
  • This sort of mix-up also clearly shows that communication problems can and do occur even when partners are very considerate and kind to each other.
  • Just being nice doesn’t work in all situations. The key is to find out where the misunderstanding or mix-up is and fix it. If the only tool in your chest is to be nice, your partner (and you) is eventually going to find it impossible to know what you mean or feel. Is he just being nice again? Does he really not want the salad?
  • It is important for listeners to check with speakers about what they mean. And it is important for speakers to be able to clarify what they mean. Then it is important that the listener be able to understand and accept what the speaker is saying. And both partners must be honest about this at all times.
  • FIML partners will see how significant these matters are as they advance in their practice. An incident that may in the past have caused a big mix-up will be handled quickly and easily with FIML techniques.
  • Generally, it is very important that the listener not have the power to decide what the speaker means or meant. A speaker can be misinterpreted in many ways (even more than the ones discussed in this post) and it is tragic for anyone to assume full understanding of another’s speech without asking.
  • Indeed, this tragedy is so common and so serious, without FIML techniques between committed partners, mistakes are likely to occur even after asking the speaker.
  • This can happen because when a speaker is questioned, it is quite normal for most people to bristle or freeze or misunderstand why they are being questioned, thus forcing them all too often to say something inappropriate, misleading, stupid, even aggressive.
  • Once a mix-up gets going and its origin is lost to memory (often this takes just a few seconds), it is all but impossible to turn back and fix the problem. This is why we need to use FIML techniques as much as we can with out partner.
  • FIML helps partners see these problems (and many more) and deal with them before they can grow into bigger problems.
  • FIML also helps partners avoid resorting to public semiotics as a main way of preserving harmony in their relationship. Public semiotics in a private relationship can become very boring and unsatisfying if they are the only way partners know how to deal with mix-ups.
  • Some examples of public semiotics in this context might be employing stock behaviors, religious or otherwise; adopting roles that are designed to hide feelings; relying too much on unsatisfying habits; being extra committed to some cause as a substitute for genuine intimacy with your partner, and so on.
  • A mix-up denied is a mix-up multiplied.
  • Before quitting this post, I want to mention one more speech act that can feel weird to the speaker and may be insufficiently appreciated generally. It is saying something more or less definite about a subject that you know you don’t fully comprehend. For example, I have an alcoholic friend and whenever I say anything about that person or alcoholism I feel a terrible mix of shame, guilt, sadness, meanness, weak hope, utter befuddlement. Friends or relatives of alcoholics will probably know what I mean by this. It happens because we don’t well-understand alcoholism and don’t know how to cure it in many cases. And yet we have to say something sometimes; sometimes we have to make decisions about alcoholics. Some other examples might be speaking with certainty about something we are not certain of; speaking too highly about something or not speaking highly enough about it.
  • I hope FIML partners (and others) will take note of the many ways they can and will misunderstand each other. And I hope they will use FIML (or some other similar technique) to correct these misunderstandings as soon as they happen.

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First posted June 2, 2012

Psychology and mental illness

The essay The Myth of Mental Illness by Paul Lutus hits hard. I agree with Lutus that there is a great deal of deceit and self-deceit in psychology and a grotesque paucity of physical evidence, but it’s not just psychologists who are to blame—many school teachers are involved in the support or even initiation of dubious psychiatric diagnoses while general practitioners are responsible for the majority of psychiatric prescriptions.

I still believe there is a valuable role to be played by psychologists, if only because they have spent more time with troubled individuals than most of us. That said, readers can make up their own minds about Lutus’s essay, which I recommend.

What I want to do in this post is point out the ways that FIML practice does not have the sorts of problems Lutus describes. FIML is not (yet) supported by large studies because not enough people have done it and we don’t have the money to conduct the studies. Nonetheless, FIML practice is based on real data agreed upon by both partners and in this respect is evidence-based, though the kind of evidence used in FIML practice is not the same kind that is used in large studies of many people. (Please see A Theory of FIML for a rough idea of how FIML can be understood from a scientific point of view, and how it could be falsified.)

In my view, FIML is a growing tip of science. It is an idea coupled with a practice or technique. It works with real data that is objective in that both partners must agree on it. It is based primarily on words just spoken, thus limiting distracting generalizations and ambiguity. It allows for and relies upon comprehensive mutual understanding of what partners are actually saying. Normally, both FIML partners will experience a sense of relief after a FIML session because both have achieved a fuller, shared understanding of whatever was in question. Normally, both partners will also be capable of describing the event in question in ways that are essentially the same. Ultimately, partners will realize that many of their FIML discussions have been arising from on-going mistaken interpretations that they had always believed were true. Partners will also come to understand that simply using language to communicate—indeed, to communicate in any way at all—will lead eventually to serious misunderstandings and emotional suffering if their communication is never analyzed in a way similar to FIML practice. And all of the above will help partners understand how neuroses (mistaken interpretations) are formed and how they perdure. And this will gradually free them from neurosis and, it is hoped, most of what we now call “mental illness.”

Today, FIML is mostly an idea. That’s how science progresses. New ideas are explored, improved upon, or discarded. Though FIML has worked very well for me and my partner, I will happily discard the idea of it working for others if it can be shown to be ineffective.

On this site, we have frequently tied FIML practice to Buddhist practice because: 1) several core Buddhist ideas and practices greatly support FIML practice; 2) Buddhism is fundamentally a truth-seeking enterprise, somewhat like modern science but with greater emphasis on the experiences of the individual; and 3) we believe that in many ways FIML practice leads to the same liberative ends as Buddhist practice–freedom from delusion, unnecessary ambiguity, false ideas, emotional suffering.

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First posted 02/25/2012

Indeterminacy of translation and FIML

I betray my poor education by admitting that I had never heard of W. V. Quine’s “indeterminacy of translation” until last week. My ignorance is especially egregious as I have worked as a professional translator for many years.

Maybe I had heard about it but had forgotten. I am being self-reflective because FIML practice is deeply, fundamentally concerned with the “indeterminacy” of translating one person’s thoughts into another person’s head.

Quine’s thesis is not just about translating from one language to another, though there is that. It is much more about the fundamental impossibility of determining what anything means well enough to “translate” it into another context, a next sentence, into another person’s mind, or even “translating” your own speech from the past into the context of your mind today.

If I had known about Quine, I probably never would have thought of FIML because his ideas and the slews of papers written on “indeterminacy of translation” surely would have made me believe that the subject had been worked through.

As it was, I have plodded along in a delightful state of ignorance and, due to that, maybe added something practical to the subject.

In the first place, I wholeheartedly believe that speech is filled with indeterminacy, which I have generally called ambiguity or uncertainty. In the second place, I have confined my FIML-related investigations mainly to interpersonal speech between partners who care about each other. I see no solution to the more general problem of indeterminacy within groups, subcultures, or linguistic communities. Until brain scans get much better, large groups will be forced to resort to hierarchical “determinacy” to exist or function at all.

For individuals, though, there is much we can do. FIML practice does not remove all “indeterminacy.” Rather, it removes much more than most people are accustomed to. My guess is FIML communication provides a level of detail and resolution that is an order of magnitude better than non-FIML.

FIML does not fix everything—and philosophical or “artistic” differences between partners are still possible—but it does fix a great deal. By clearing up interpersonal micro-indeterminacy again and again, FIML practice frees partners from the inevitable macro-problems that ambiguity causes.

Moreover, this freedom, in turn, frees partners from a great deal of subconscious adhesion to the hierarchical “determinacy” of whichever culture they are part of. Rather than trapping themselves in a state of helpless acceptance of predefined hierarchical “meaning,” FIML partners have the capacity to sort through existential semiotics and make of them what they will with far less “indeterminacy,” or ambiguity, than had been possible without FIML practice.

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This essay was first posted 12/07/2014

What we are speaking into?

Contemplate some of your speech acts from when you were young, say 10-20 years old.

Many of the ones you remember you probably would not say again if you could go back to that time. The core reason is now that you are older you realize that your understanding of what you were speaking into is different today than your understanding at the time you spoke.

When you were fifteen, your limited understanding of speech and its effects may have led you to slant your words in ways that were likely to be misunderstood. For example, you may have made a clumsy bid for sympathy by complaining about someone with words that were too strong, producing a counter-effect to what you wanted. Or you may have self-deprecated too much, thus leading an important adult to misunderstand your real abilities.

Another way to see this is consider the times you did not say anything, believing that your silence would be understood. You might have said nothing when wronged because you imagined the person who harmed you would see their mistake on their own though they did not. Or you might have said nothing when you thought you deserved something because you believed the other person would see it on their own though they did not.

Now that you are older you probably know that you have to be more careful with what you say; sometimes you need to be more explicit and other times it’s best to say as little as possible. How will you feel about your speech today ten years from now?

The same sorts of questions can be asked and valuably considered about how we listen and have listened to others. Problems with speaking and listening are constant and lifelong and will never go away if only because of time constraints, though there are scores of other reasons why people misunderstand each other.

Notes

  • All motivation and action is based on an assessment of “reality”.
  • Public assessments include the sciences, mainstream psychologies and religions, various traditions such as the arts, sports, work, etc. The general elements of these assessment are agreed on by many people. This makes them sort of satisfying within a limited sphere of thought. They can hold a good deal of psychological water, but not all of it.
  • Private assessments are usually neurotic (mistaken) because even if shared with others, they tend to contain many unfounded assumptions. These assumptions often appear true to the individual but don’t hold up well if exposed to other views or better evidence.
  • Not only do neither public nor private assessments of reality as described above completely satisfy, but even when combined, they fail to fully satisfy. This is because the problem of interpersonal ambiguity cannot be answered in those ways.
  • FIML practice provides a means for partners to reach a reasonable assessment of reality that includes both wholesome public and wholesome private components. The private components are made wholesome through FIML practice because partners actually have the means to achieve satisfying mutual understanding, to remove ambiguity.
  • FIML partners should feel that they can say what they want to each other. They should also feel that they can refrain from saying things they don’t want to say.
  • Most people tend to see other people as being on some sort of scale–they might be seen as “normal” or “crazy”, “responsible” or “irresponsible”, “reliable” or “unreliable”, etc.
  • These scales are always a mixture of public and private components as described above.
  • FIML partners, in contrast, need only ask how is the non-FIML person adapting to ambiguity? What standards have they chosen or forced on themselves? What standards do they use to assess “reality”?
  • Their standards will always be skewed one way or the other. To simplify, they will either be fairly strict adherents to a public code or fairly eccentric adherents to private neuroses, or most commonly, a mixture of these two.
  • Even Buddhist practice can fall victim to this problem. Insofar as Buddhist practice is nothing more than an imported public standard, it cannot satisfy for long. Buddhist practice plus FIML will satisfy because FIML allows partners to establish mutual interpersonal standards that both of them can understand and agree upon completely. These standards are not the imported standards of someone else, but self-generated, mutually generated standards created by the partners themselves.
  • If you don’t fill the void of interpersonal ambiguity, you will have to compensate by compartmentalizing your life, importing standards from the public sphere, or generating your own neuroses (mistaken interpretations). This point may seem obvious or trivial, but it is huge. Emotional suffering, delusion, the First Noble Truth all stem from this problem.

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This essay was first posted May 7, 2012

 

Using truthful statements to lie

A recent paper explored the effects of using truthful statements to deceive others.

The authors of the paper call this behavior paltering and define it as “the active use of truthful statements to convey a misleading impression.”

The paper, Artful Paltering: The Risks and Rewards of Using Truthful Statements to Mislead Others, says:

…we identify paltering as a distinct form of deception. Paltering differs from lying by omission (the passive omission of relevant information) and lying by commission (the active use of false statements). Our findings reveal that paltering is common in negotiations and that many negotiators prefer to palter than to lie by commission.

The paper tests the effects of paltering during business negotiations, but paltering can happen in many other contexts. Examples of paltering by public figures can be found in the news every day.

The concept of paltering is also interesting psychologically. I am going to speculate that individuals often palter to themselves concerning their own internalized autobiographies and reasons for doing many actions.

If we use our inner voices to palter to ourselves—that is use the best “truthful” description of our actions that also just happens to place those actions in their best light—then we are not living with full integrity even in the privacy of our own thoughts.

At the same time, we have to be careful about how we assess our own paltering. We might be right to use the best version of events because that really is the correct version.

The problem is there is no good standard for an individual alone to decide what is objectively right or wrong.

For example, if someone smokes pot in a state where it is illegal are they paltering by telling themselves the law is stupid so why follow  it?

FIML partners will want to avoid paltering at all times but especially in the midst of a FIML query. Properly done, FIML can help with internalized paltering because this sort of subject matter lends itself well to FIML discussions.

As with all moral questions, where we draw the line is not always easy. The more tools we have the better. Awareness of paltering and its effects on others is good tool to have.

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First published 12/16/16