Perception of language

Darren and I had a chat about my article on arrogance. He said he didn’t like my “anti-pragmatic” stance.

I was confused. “But… I wasn’t anti-pragmatic. Was I? I said that idealists need to listen more to pragmatists. I parodied our idealistic attitudes and countered them with pragmatism. Why did my post seem anti-pragmatic to you?”

“Well,” he said, “you started talking about us (idealists) and them (pragmatists).” And that kind of talk led Darren (and others, we theorize) to an assumption that the us position is going to be defended against the them in the subsequent argument.

People see what they expect. I remember a television program in which two people carrying a door walked between a man who had stopped to ask a student for directions. While the door passed between them, the direction-seeker behind the door was switched to another man – not necessarily physically similar. I don’t remember exactly how many people didn’t notice the switch, but I remember it being surprising (like 50%).

So my post led Darren to expect a confrontational argument in which I backed my position as an idealist, and initially at least, that’s what he saw. (It wasn’t his only criticism, but it was the only one that I thought was brutally unfair. šŸ™‚ )

Maybe this kind of use of language is part of the “perception of arrogance” problem. Nobody expects self-deprecation. Who builds up a position for themselves and then attacks it? I did, uncharacteristically, and at least one person didn’t notice.

We also talked about negative and polarising language; the use of terms such as right which implies wrong, and the battleground formed by us and them. There’s no logic to it. Arguments aren’t won or lost on logic alone, nor can people be persuaded by it, but it always surprises me when very logically-minded people misunderstand communication – and makes me wonder how often I misunderstand, too.

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4 Responses to Perception of language

  1. anonymous says:

    I think you are making something simple appear very complex. You claim that people see what they expect to see, and that Darren saw what his expectations lead him to see.

    But perhaps it is much simpler than that: perhaps you did not write what you feel and did not express in words what you think. You do not give human readers enough credit. When you say “But…I wasn’t anti-pragmatic. Was I? I said that ….”. Here you are focusing on a few choice bits of the blog entry. But readers base their impression on more than few choice bits.

    Writing goes beyond just individual words, sentences, and paragraphs. Writing encompasses complex interactions between different portions of a text, interrelationships between words, and sometimes surprisingly subtle nuances. It’s not just what you say, it’s exactly how you say it and in what order.

    It may have been subconscious, but the blog entry as written was anti-pragmatic. Perhaps you can’t point to a single piece that was anti-pragmatic. But the overall tone was clear.

    To use a gross example, think of political propoganda. A skilled propogandist might write an opinion piece where most people who reads it comes away thinking “Wow, that candidate McJuicy really sucks”. And yet, when the pro-McJuicy crowd criticizes the article, the original author says (with an innocent look on his face) “Why sir, I don’t understand what you mean! No where do I say that McJuicy sucks, or unduly criticize him any way”. And lo and behold – you look at the piece and it’s true. There is no sentence you can pick out. It’s the overall, subtle slant of the article.

    Now I don’t think you were writing propoganda šŸ™‚ But I think we all project, subsconsciously, what our feelings are and often may not even realize it. The tone slips out even when we try not to let it. Incidentally this is why successful propogandists have to be wicked smart people, because they have to emulate this unconscious tone intentionally, which is quite difficult to do.

    For more examples, pick up several newspapers for a single day and read articles on the same topics. You’ll find that not only do the articles often read differently, but some articles leave the reader with a completely different feel than others. Even if you can’t put your finger on exactly why. In NYC, pick up the Daily News, New York Times and the New York Post to get an excellent perspective on this.

  2. sirenian says:

    I’m a reasonably experienced writer, and write from the heart wherever possible. My growing appreciation for pragmatism was at the root of the section under discussion (of which, incidentally, the “few choice bits” were a summary, rather than a selection). I don’t think comparing an article I wrote, very deliberately, in favour of pragmatism to a subtly worded slur on a target is fair. There’s a difference between the faint praise which can emerge from subconscious dislike of a subject, and an active attempt to make its virtues known.

    Articles in the NY papers, if they’re anything like those here in London, will be targeted at particular spreads of the population. If my entry was targeted at all, it was towards the technical, logically minded IT bods who might be reading it. The logic of it was lost on Darren, at least in the first reading; a glitch of the highly complex human mind. On the second reading he accepted that he had been unfair and mistaken, and discussed why that was with me. Both Darren and I are bright, creative individuals used to a little self-analysis. If I had written with an anti-pragmatic undertone I’m sure Darren would have pointed it out during our conversation, which was more complete than the small blog entry above will allow.

    I’m genuinely surprised that you yourself consider it to be entirely critical. Have you actually read the entry, or did you make some assumptions based on the above? And are you aware of the rather patronizing tone of your own comment?

  3. sirenian says:

    Okay – I haven’t deleted the above comment because I don’t like doing that (bad habit to write stuff that I’m not willing to let lie; much better to get the things I want to say right first time).

    It’s not very fair of me to say “You were patronizing” without clearly explaining why I felt that. If I hadn’t already posted it, on reflection, I’d have put this comment here instead.

    This is a paraphrase of your comment. I hope it might explain why I found things irritating.

    “You and Darren had a discussion about why he found your blog entry anti-pragmatic, but you’re both wrong. You come across as anti-pragmatic because you’re not good at writing subtle undertones, and secretly you don’t like pragmatists. You’re clearly anti-pragmatic. If you want to act as though you really do like pragmatists, this is how you have to do it.”

    Except I don’t dislike pragmatists. I’ve re-read my own entry, and whilst I accept that I might be blind to my faults, the anti-pragmatism isn’t clear. Not to me. Not to Darren, in retrospect. I don’t want to learn to lie, because I don’t have to; if I don’t feel that something’s true – or at least, starting to hint at the truth to me – I won’t write it. I’m idealistic, but I have a genuine respect for those guys who can take my ideals and make something out of them that works. I have a hard time understanding how they do it, but that just makes them a wonder. There’s no anti here. I know myself, and while I may not know all my weaknesses I’m good at spotting any specific ones. Anti-pragmatism is no longer one of them.

    So I’m annoyed because you don’t know me and you assumed that you knew what was going on in my head, more than the criticism (which was constructive and would have been helpful if you’d been on the right track). Hopefully this makes more sense than the “No, I’m right, you’re wrong,” above.

    Strangely, now that I think I’ve got my point of view across a little better, I feel a lot less annoyed. What you do with it now is up to you. Maybe there is another, different reason as to why my blog reads the way it does, but your reason isn’t it. Sorry.

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