In grad school, one of the few articles we were assigned that I actually read has stuck with me for it’s vivid imagery and incredible insight. I’ll try to find it maybe so I can cite it properly, but for now I’ll just try to summarize it. We read this article in a linguistics course focused on the role of language in socialization (I’m simplifying, I think the word “socialization” was avoided for being too 60’s-era simplistic and vanilla. Not French-philosopher enough, for sure…anyway). Or was it the role of socialization in the learning of language? Literally every single thing in grad school could be flopped around like that and it often was (the resulting phrase being presented as if the person had discovered gravity). Anyway.
Back to this article: So it was written by someone who, according to the professor, never went on to make another contribution to the academic world. He had this one flash of intense clarity, wrote it up beautifully, and managed somehow to convince the establishment to take it seriously enough to publish and then assign it to students as required reading. And then he faded away into real life somewhere. I’m not sure you know this, but our “real life” doesn’t exist in a tangible sense for social science academics. Once you bow out of the world of higher education your identifying features blur and the you as a person fades; you melt into the series of pie charts, social classes, and labels they use to comprehend “life.” You don’t matter anymore except as evidence.
Which only heightened the appeal to me of this guy’s theory. It really struck a chord. I haven’t talked a lot about my stint in academia (ok not at all), but I was wedged firmly and permanently into the role of outsider/interloper. Which is why I bailed on it eventually (hey, THEY bailed on ME, asshole!). So, the summary.
The article describes a world in which each person lives in a walled-off space, completely separated from contact with others except through like a portal that allows one to pass notes to people in adjoining compartments. Ok, at this point I’m not sure how much is my fantasy/imagination fleshing out or changing the details and how much was explicitly outlined in the piece (ironic, considering the message. you’ll see), so I’m going to cut loose and just tell it like I remember/feel it. Be advised the actual text may be fairly different.
Ok, imagine a huge circular wall enclosing a large area filled with trees and rocks and nature and stuff. Now, internally divide that space into say, 8 pie slices by building walls through the middle, where the slices on a pizza would be. Now put one person in each section. Ok. They don’t know any language, can’t talk, and can only communicate by drawing on paper (I may have invented the paper bit) and passing it to the central hub, where other people can access it. But no other form of communication can occur between the residents of the pie pieces. So, how do they communicate? Well, they can represent the objects in their world, the trees and rocks and such, and be relatively certain that the other people will know what they are talking about based on an assumption that every space contains like objects. Right? But if one of the pie pieces doesn’t have any rocks, the reception of the message “rocks” by seeing them depicted gets a little dicey. What’s this guy mean by showing me a rough-edged circley thing?
So these people, by passing increasingly complex drawings back and forth may be able to gradually work out increasingly complex concepts to share, based on the foundations of an assumed shared reality. The key word is assumed. They can never be sure (if they bother to stop and think about it) that their messages are conveying exactly what they want to mean, because they can never know for sure what the world is like in other pie pieces for other people. There simply is no way, other than the clumsy note passing, to experience another person’s world. So. This is a pretty transparent metaphor for the problem of communication, right? We are all basically living inside our own heads, commenting on what we see and experience, assuming that others will come to the understanding we want them to based on the shared environment and similarity of living in it. Extrapolated through to our shared experiences with people and the various reactions we note other people having to various stimuli, informed by how we ourselves feel/react to those stimuli, etc, etc. I,e, I hate being punched in the face, so I assume that the way that guy looks after he gets punched in the face is an outward sign of displeasure at recent events (the punch. in the face.). So that’s what people look like when they hate something. Along those lines.
What’s the Point?
All of this is to open the discussion up to bitching about this chick I dated for a bit. Hahahahhaha. Not really, but kinda. I’ve had many brushes with people who were taking away a completely different message/impression from something I’ve said or done than what I had intended (and which most normal people around might have gotten). Some examples? Well, obviously this girl, who speaks a different language as her primary one, and who grew up in a vastly different setting (albeit superficially similar, which probably makes it worse with it’s illusion of shared values, etc). Basically any time I say something earnestly serious she thinks I’m joking and any time I’m blatantly kidding, like saying something no-one ever says and means it, she thinks I’m being serious. But she’s definitely not the first.
In college there was this guy who decided he really needed to kick my ass because I was a “complete and utter asshole who made everyone miserable.” Story? My very good friend freshman year had plugged into this group of three chicks who were a little outside our usual style of new friend, and we wanted to take them out on the town. Show them our version of party. We had a few spots most of our peers didn’t know about and some inroads with bartenders and such, so we (my friend, myself, a couple more of our core group) and the girls all went nuts. They brought this guy along with, who I think had been part of their original first-days-at-school nucleus (that tight group you form in the first week of school with people who just sort of glue on naturally at orientation events and such). Anyway, he also had a different style. Sort of Markie Mark. He barely interacted with the rest of us, was quiet and reserved, and definitely hoping to hook up with one of the chicks. I remember that I wasn’t actually super interested in those girls, but I had a great time that night with the crew.
Couple days later my roommate and I are on our way to water polo (that would last a grand total of two practices), I remember I was carrying a duffel bag. This guy, let’s call him Mick (I think he was from Boston, hah!) was out on the quad throwing the frisbee with another guy who was sort of part of our group. As we pass he starts muttering, and about 10 yards later says something like, “that’s right keep walking, pussy!” Huh. I dropped my bag and stopped, which to him was me saying. “Ok let’s go, dickbag.” So he escalates and marches over to me as I turn around to ask him what the deal is.
“You know what the deal is, pussy!” he says as he tears his shirt off, baring his ready to squabble chest. At this point I’m a little scared because let’s face it I was sort of a pussy when it came to physical confrontation, but mostly I’m confused and a little worried that we’re going to miss our first practice. I’d never tried real water polo before…and actually haven’t since. He goes on to invite me to step behind the dorm building where we can settle this. Nope. I tell him there is no way in hell I’m following him to a hidden spot. “Oh yeah?! You want witnesses so you can sue me later, don’t you pussy? You’ll probably file a lawsuit if I even touch you!” What? No. Also, why are you so pissed at me? What did I do to you?
So anyway through some hilarious and tense back and forthing (he called me a giant talking vagina at one point), it comes out that he feels like it’s his job to kick the ass of the guy who was a total asshole and ruined his “friends'” night. What did I do that was so terrible, you wonder? I joked around and had a loud good time. I had a fairly caustic style back then, but it was never insulting or disrespectful. To me. To him, every smart-ass remark, loud whoop, drunken guffaw, and racy joke was another dagger hurled at his ladies fair. That I was mildly ignoring them made it even worse, somehow. A lot of this insight comes from post-event questioning of the girls, witnesses, and the dude himself (who years later would apologize). Classic moment: Me: What are you, some kind of superman saving his damsel in distress? Did anyone actually ask you to get involved? Him: Who’s YOUR superman, punk?!
Another time, I was chatting with a friend quietly at a party in a small side room of this sprawling apartment when one of the hosts barged in screaming at me about my being a fucking asshole. Confused I tried to get more info. Some friends of my roommate (who was there, but NOT being accused of asshole status) had pissed on someone’s car or something. Huh. So? Not my problem. She vanished and her friend returned with a drink in hand. Splash. She dumped it over my head, and I got indignant. On my way out I was spluttering about how unfair my treatment was and how ridiculous the situation was, when SPLOOSH I get another solo cup full of beer tossed at my back. The guy who did it confessed to me a few years later that he thought I was unfairly slandering a chick he wanted to bang, but had since learned he totally misread the situation. Apology accepted…?
Obviously those two particular misunderstandings were also fueled by hormones. Dudes selectively understanding things based on a desire to bang tends to be a theme in life, unfortunately.
But these moments are very very interesting because, if you’re at all sensitive to the fact that you aren’t the center of the universe, they show you little windows into what other people actually think of you. Like the snap judgments everyone makes with very little real information to go on other than how the guy looks and what he’s wearing. These misreadings of the signals I’m putting out are growing semi-logically from a set of experiences and assumptions that anyone could have. Sometimes I just happen to plug into someone’s stereotype of “shithead douche” like right away and nothing I do gets me out of it.
The fact that much of our social interaction happens in the context-bereft internex means this is gonna get worse. Consider the phenomenon of Facebook envy. As I may have reported here a million times before, I very frequently (since its inception) discover that groups of friends of mine are out having amazing times without even asking me along. I see pictures of piles of college friends partying at someone’s wedding. Where am I? Obviously sitting in front of a computer at home wondering why everyone hates me and why my life is so terrible. I hate these inconsiderate asshole who obviously aren’t “real” friends.
But then I will get grumbles from other people who see pictures of my recent day trip, bitching about not being invited. In reality that day trip was depressing and lonely and fairly pathetic, BUT the pictures and their prominence on facebook make it seem like I went off to some amazing weekend fantasy and left everyone out of it because I don’t think they are worth my time.
I know there are some fundamental differences between the two examples (in the first one, about 10 people all failed to go ‘Hey wait where’s that one last guy we always hang out with and went to school with? Somebody text him!’ and in the other a semi-depressed loser, tired of spending weekends alone doing nothing, decided to spend the weekend alone doing something)…but still…
I love hearing about those moments when someone says one thing, but a person takes it completely differently. When it happens regularly, though, it’s a problem. That’s where I was with this foreign girl, and in some ways am still stuck right there in it. We are just friends now, but it’s sad because every time we interact, I can tell she’s reading me off. And I’m reading her wrong too. It’s like I’m hard wired by my life up til now to react badly no matter what. What a drag. Too bad I’m best understood by shifty hipster dickbags and chicks with major damage. I should care less about being understood, no?