On Conversational Traps: A Formula for Responses

We had a very rewarding dialectic with our fellow traveler this morning, on a subject that was very painful for her, and centered around characters with whom she has a situation that she doesn’t feel is changeable. That is to say, she doesn’t feel she can work on the problem by making necessary demands of the other characters. We arrived at this topic because she reacted to something we said, and we were present enough to be generous and ask our way deep into her motivations, arriving at the situation suggested above. Our conversation led us indirectly to become aware of an extremely frequent mistake of conversation that results in the misinterpretation of a response, which we would like to reveal. We hope that some renowned language philosopher hasn’t done it yet, and will refrain from looking until after we’ve written it out.

People who use language to communicate don’t really ever understand each other, and it is a high attainment to understand each other’s language, which is as close as we can come to knowing the other’s spirit. A flexible but clear language between two or more people, founded on a few well-rehearsed moves that show not only motivation but agreement to work on certain terms, is a badge of a profound relationship.

We would like to make our argument in a simplified way, not making specific claims about prosody (tone of voice) or choice of words, such as using “why” when a simple “what” would keep the interlocutor going. The rapid exchange of dialectic results several times a minute in the following, which is responsible for language moving in the wrong direction, and therewith the topic, the speakers’ motivations, and ultimately the speakers’ emotions moving in completely unnecessary directions:

For assertion (A) there are, in an infinite set of responses, responses (B1) and (B2), in which

(B1) = Speaker is thinking out loud, organizing thoughts in response to (A), reflecting with words upon the impact of (A) upon his/her own thinking.

(B2) = Speaker is making a completed response (after the process described in (B1)) that contains a judgment of something contained in (A).

and in which speaker of (A) hears the response and mistakes one of the (B)s for another; the most disruptive response is to confuse (B1) for (B2). Arguably, in a sensitive and generous dialectic, the more frequent response would be (B1), which is a necessary thing for many people. This writer finds it next to impossible to think silently when engaged in a conversation. But our brains are obsessed with all responses being of the type of (B2). So we get “butt hurt” when we get a response that we consider to be an inappropriate judgment, and furthermore a premature one.

The ambiguity in the language used to make (B1) and (B2) can be cured through generous and clear use of language. A response (B1) can be uttered, qualified by including a statement such as “and that’s just my thinking, I’m not demanding anything of you by that.” In this way the speaker of (A) will understand that the speaker of (B) is not judging or pushing forward prematurely, as well as better understanding speaker of (B)’s intentions and perspective. It also takes away the ultimately destructive motivation by either speaker to tolerate something hurtful from the other. That tolerance is what we found at the core of our fellow traveler’s problem in the conversation that started our thinking about this.

Again, this doesn’t fix understanding of the other; it fixes a problem of one’s own understanding of what one is getting from the other. But the real truth in the formula is found in the fact that the fix depends on the generosity of the other speaker. The true culprit in this ambiguous situation is selfishness, and to get around the ambiguity we have to place our contributions a little bit into the interests of our interlocutor. This simple clarification is instinctual in the conversations of children, who are often occupied with seemingly lower-level tasks, like juggling the very meaning of the words in a conversation.

Let’s now think of our topic from this morning’s conversation: if the other speakers who are causing the hurt used generosity, she wouldn’t have to make the demands on their language use that she feels she can’t make, even though their language keeps her in a hurtful place.  To be aware of the confusion described above, and to use such a solution as the one we’ve proposed, should work to slow our reaction speed, check our emotions, and look for the common ground in conversation, like children and foreign language learners do.

Finally, we’d like to point out that the ambiguity we’ve examined bespeaks a real existential problem. It is mathematically possible that up to one hundred percent of our misery is caused by when we want something that isn’t there. We find this explanation to be sufficient because the thing’s non-existence can be caused by us individually or can be visited upon us by others, the latter of which most agree gives the right to be upset. When the speaker of (A) hears a response from an infinite set that includes (B1) and (B2), the fact that one mistakes (B1) for (B2) demonstrates that (B2) is not really there, within fairness assuming that the speaker of (B) is sympathetic. Anger arises out of nothing -the insult is not really there -and the conversation can begin to turn around an axis of anger/hurt for no good reason.

As a student of existentialism, which has aided our investigations of language immeasurably, this writer would like to encourage all readers to put these principles into action. The reader will find that the language we use to accomplish it is not so important; when our motivations are clear, the language will reflect that.

To go further from this article: search “prosodic phrase boundaries.” You will likely need access to an article database to view the results, sorry!

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