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Insight by Night - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
December 29th, 2003
01:25 am

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Insight by Night
I am sometimes accused, sometimes justly, of being too literal-minded, of insisting on the text and ignoring the subtext. It is sharply felt with particular people, and this was my focus in thinking about this.

After much thought, I think that when it happens, it involves the following:
1. Someone says something. (the text)
2. I fail to grasp any intended subtext (e.g. "pay me a compliment", "ask me for details", "don't challenge me on this").
3. I refuse to hypothesize about possible intended and especially unintended subtexts (e.g. "I'm insecure", "I need attention", "I'm compensating for my childhood", etc. ad absurdum) without some perceived data. I refuse to do so because, to me, this is a breach of the person's privacy, as well as a presumptuous thing to do. This refusal is key.
4. At a loss, and with some exasperation or frustration, I am thrown back to the literal text, sometimes with some force, which finds expression in my response (e.g. impatience, aggressive discourse).

This may have been crystal clear to some of you who've been observing me for some time, but it wasn't to me, and I hope I can develop this into a basis for improvement.

G'night.

Ahh, Joni Mitchell is so wondrous!

Current Mood: tired
Current Music: Joni Mitchell -- Rainy Night House

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From:rationalsorrow
Date:December 28th, 2003 09:08 pm (UTC)
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We're opposites, you and I. I search for subtext in everything. To me, it's much more important to understand what people mean, not what they actually say. This is only because I know that 75% of the time, I mean something completely different from what I say.

And just so you know, usually, everything anyone says has, "Pay me a compliment," "I'm insecure," and "I need attention," as subtext. These are constant, daily longings, and it's helpful to take them as a given.
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From:unfilthy
Date:December 28th, 2003 10:10 pm (UTC)
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So true. I can't imagine going through life without constantly interpreting subtexts. My husband, OTOH, is the complete opposite. I have found that he needs to have things made explicit if I'm to get what I need (instead of us getting into a fight).
It can be highly frustrating, though, because he naturally gets his implied needs addressed, while I have to do all the work for him when the situation is reversed.
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From:rationalsorrow
Date:December 29th, 2003 06:58 pm (UTC)
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I have a few friends like your husband, and I do find them frustrating. But you can't control what kinds of people you end up caring about, so I've ended up finding compromises with them. Nowadays, I tend to be very direct with all but my most secret needs. While it may be difficult or strange to say, "I am feeling sad right now. Give me a hug," it actually does work. So I save subtlety and double meanings for my poetry and prose. :)
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From:unfilthy
Date:December 30th, 2003 07:22 am (UTC)
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"I am feeling sad right now. Give me a hug"

That's the perfect example. I can't count the number of times I've said this. You're right, it does work, and it's not that hard to do once you're used to it, but sometimes I want to be hugged without having to ask for it, you know?
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From:wildernesscat
Date:December 28th, 2003 09:49 pm (UTC)

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Yes, it's a guys' thing - to take things more or less literally. Girls are natural in this "reading between the lines" thing. It takes time and practice, and you can make a little improvement, but don't make such a big deal out of it. Unless you're gay, you stand a little chance anyway ;-)
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From:antinous
Date:December 29th, 2003 01:57 am (UTC)

Humpf

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My being gay certainly explains a lot, then.
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From:mummimamma
Date:December 29th, 2003 12:37 pm (UTC)

*More often* a guys' thing...

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Thank you for including the ;) in your comment, if not you'd gotten a grumpy comment about women being able to be totally clueless when talking about reading between the lines.
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From:jspoons
Date:December 29th, 2003 02:59 am (UTC)

How true.

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This is possibly the biggest problem facing man-woman couples since the dawn of time, though your case - and mine - are rather on the extreme side. K, in fact, had to learn to express her needs and moods in direct and rather exact terms, for she understood that otherwise there's no chance in heaven or hell that I'll understand her.
I know it might sound strange, but I still actively refuse to relate to any kind of subtext in what people say to me. I will not play guessing games with anyone. If someone wants something from me, he or she had better say it very clearly. I do the same.
If I suddenly feel an irresistible urge to experience a subtext, I go and read a book.
From:raisinlike
Date:December 29th, 2003 03:40 am (UTC)
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אני מסכימה איתך לחלוטין, אם אדם רוצה משהו, שיגיד את זה בבירור. אני גם לא מוכנה יותר לבזבז זמן ואנרגיות במשחקים כאלה, וגם אני כמוך גולשת לאיזור הכעס והתוקפנות בתגובותיי לפעמים (כתוצאה של תסכול מכך שאני לא נותנת מענה לאדם שמולי וגם מכעס על זה שמשחקים איתי). אני חוזבת שהנכון הוא להמשיך בדרך שלך. השיפור צריך לבוא בעידון התגובה וסילוק גורמי האי נעימות ממנה, שכן רב האנשים לצערי מבלים חלק גדול מאד מזמנם במשחקים כאלה ואחרים ומורגלים בנסיונות חוזרים ונשנים של פענוח, כאילו זה היה קוד נימוס חברתי שמונע מאיתנו להגיד מה אנחנו באמת רוצים ו"מאלץ" אותנו להתחבא, להציק ולרמוז כאילו כל חברינו היו קוראי מחזבות מקצועיים
From:raisinlike
Date:December 29th, 2003 03:41 am (UTC)

..כמובן

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מחזבה=מחשבה
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From:unfilthy
Date:December 29th, 2003 04:45 am (UTC)
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Subtext has nothing to do with "playing games".
From:raisinlike
Date:December 29th, 2003 05:36 am (UTC)
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i think it does. when one says one thing and means another but chooses not to say so for whatever reason, expecting the other to understand and comply, that, in my book, qualifies as playing games.

i think it is important for people to say what they want, and i expect my friends to respect me enough to do so. why would i want people i love to do anything but be true to themselves?
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From:wildernesscat
Date:December 29th, 2003 05:39 am (UTC)
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Sometimes people cannot express their true emotions, either because they are unaware of them (on the conscious level), or because they feel too embarassed to put them into words. In either case, they are not playing a game.
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From:unfilthy
Date:December 29th, 2003 06:03 am (UTC)
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Right. Saying one thing while meaning another does qualify as playing games, or, more accurately, lying. However, that is not subtext.
Humans are emotionally complex beings, and often when they say something, they mean it, and more. Subtext is the "and more" part. It's not "instead of", as you seem to think.
Everyone uses shorthand, even when they happen to be aware of everything they're feeling at the time (which is not at all common). Language itself is built that way. If you think you say everything you think, feel or need at all times, you are gravely mistaken.

I could probably explain this further, but frankly, I don't feel like it right now.
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From:wildernesscat
Date:December 29th, 2003 05:37 am (UTC)

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Exactly! Games have nothing to do with it.
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From:mousa
Date:December 29th, 2003 06:05 am (UTC)
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I agree. I often can't put all my feelings and thoughts into words. I believe people *should*, and I am a great believer of "doogriness" myself, but some times you just don't know what is that you want. Talking to friends often helps crystalizing the thoughts and feelings and findind the problem, and then the solution.
From:raisinlike
Date:December 29th, 2003 06:20 am (UTC)
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are we talking about being human or about פול's here?

pulling a פול is indeed a game. saying "no, go ahead and eat without me, cause i have atleast 10 more minutes of work and i don't want you to starve" meaning "wait for me, i am starving and i don;t want to eat alone" is playing a game. wanting to call the woman you dated last night, which is by far the most wonderful one you have met in years, but thinking "nahh.. i don't want her to think i am too interested" is a game.

contemplating on what to do, discussing a probelm, getting your thoughts out there with someone to help sort things out, discovering in the middle of a fight you were wrong and changing course - all this is "being human" (so to speak)

these are two different things, and i have no interest in the first one. if you want me to wait - tell me, if you love me, tell me, if you think i am an asshole and want me to change something - tell me. if you don't want to say it, but rather leave me guessing with innuendoes i am not playing this game, i wasted too many years on this. it is a matter of respect IMO, both for myself and others.

did i make my point any clearer? it is hard to think straight while working.
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From:mousa
Date:December 30th, 2003 05:09 am (UTC)
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Oh, I totally agree with that. I just understood Ijon's entry a little differently.
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From:mousa
Date:December 29th, 2003 06:09 am (UTC)
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You shouldn't refuse to "breach a friend's privacy". By telling you their problems, your friends actually *invite* you to talk about their private matetrs with them, because they need to talk to someone and they deliberately chose you. Refusing might hurt them and worsen the situation even further.
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From:ling_tso
Date:December 29th, 2003 06:50 am (UTC)

Fascinating topic

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I sympathize with your unwillingness to play games, but there are other ways to avoid game-playing besudes staunchly preserving your innocence. What tends to work for me is asking explicit questions about subtext. "Did you say that just to be polite?" If I dislike the way the person is behaving, I suggest an alternative behavior, and explain why (s)he should pursue it instead. "We don't have to be talking every second. If I make you nervous, we can do something constructive instead of sitting around trying to think of things to say. Let's bake a loaf of bread." Often, this makes people less embarassed about saying what they mean and more embarassed about not saying what they mean.

Of course, too much of this can be incredibly annoying. The hope is that people get to the point where I don't need to do it (and yes, that I get to the point where other people don't need to do it to me). This post seems like a step in the right direction.

Anyhow, I'm a little skeptical of your naivite. Whenever I post things that mean, "I'm showing off! Pay me a compliment, dahhling!" you seem always to pay me a compliment, dahhling.

A philosophical question: how do you tell what's explicit and what isn't? If you say, "How do you work this drill?" and I say, "There's a book over there," then part of what I've meant is, "You can find the information you want in the book", and another part of what I've meant is, "I don't feel like explaining it to you; I'm busy with something else". Is either of these messages subtext? My feeling is that the first one is as good as explicit, but that the second one is subtext. Maybe a good working definition of subtext is "information about the emotions of the speaker provided by context, inflexion, or bodily expression". So the first bit of drill information doesn't count as subtext (since it's about books and drills, not about emotions) whereas the second one does.

Of course, there are probably some residual questions about irony: does the point of Swift's A Modest Proposal count as subtext exactly?

Incidentally, I used to be terrible at reading people emotionally. It wasn't until I got into drama in college that I could understand why people ever failed to behave in accordance with their speech.
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From:mummimamma
Date:December 29th, 2003 01:12 pm (UTC)
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You have been thinking about this far more than I have. I can't see subtext unless you throw it at me. I've come to the habit of warning my friends (and my flatmates when I've moved somewhere new) that if they want something from me they have to tell me in clear words, I will not get mad at them.

Perhaps I'm stupid, being so set in my own ways that I refuse looking for deeper meaning in everything, but it has kept me sane - have you ever encountered girls saying Oh, but that's what he said, but not what he meant! There was a reason I preferred being with the boys (yes, I'm falling for the simple gender segregation idea here.)

I must say that I'm getting better at not just reading the text as you call it - of course, I'm not stagnated as a person - but it's still an effort.

Will stop rambling now.
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From:emblemparade
Date:December 29th, 2003 04:13 pm (UTC)
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Heed ling_tso's wise comment...

And let me add that I even question your authenticity. (though not your sincerity! i have no doubt about that; i admire these attempts at self-improvement, even if they end up self-indulgent) Let me try to explain. You provide an intensely rational justification for your obtuseness, such that it ends up with you looking like a very well-meaning man, naive and honest, stumbling in the woods of a disingenuous society. You got a few indignant responses to this, though nobody went so far as to accuse you of lying. That's my job. :) I submit to you a less flattering justification: You are smart enough to read the subtext but are afraid of facing it. Thus, you play the exact same game you wish to avoid. Your model of "text" and "subtext" is not a theory of speech, but a reflection of your pretense, a way of avoiding an honest struggle with your emotions. Some people suggest that this is a "man" thing. I suggest that it is a literate thing. People of words and letters tend to use these as solutions to actual relationships. A healthier model, I think, is to treat them as formulations of the problems, with the solution being the labor of dialog.

That sounded harsh. Let me repeat: It's just one more explanation I am throwing at you. I have no idea if it's true, but it seems as plausible as all the others offered.

Another suggestion: Check out the Bakhtin Circle's theory of language. It may provide you a rational justification for being a better friend, which you seem to need.
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From:themoniker
Date:December 30th, 2003 07:35 am (UTC)

Possible problem

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I wonder if Ijon is talking about personal communication (the man-woman thing is an example where the subtext issues crop up all the time), or if he's talking about public forums, in which case, as others have said, calling out people on their subtexts is NOT a good idea.

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From:mux2000
Date:December 29th, 2003 11:25 pm (UTC)

Myself,

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I'm a mixture of both. I can't take the hint or subtext when they're good, but I understand insulting subtexts immediately. I also find insulting subtexts that don't exist.
From:ex_mijra932
Date:December 31st, 2003 03:43 pm (UTC)
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I do this sometimes also. No, make that often.

Perhaps the reasoning is different: I like things to be certain, or at least stable. Uncertain subtexts drive me crazy.

Am just back from a trip and therefore appologize for seemingly pointless comments on (older) entries.
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