Being Literal

I value the people whose words I can take at face value. But many situations require you to interpret words that are not meant literally. When people tease you or joke around, they often mean the opposite of what they say. When they don’t want to hurt your feelings, they use white lies or outright lies. When they tell stories, the quality of the story generally trumps its veracity. So whether you want to avoid accusations of gullibility, know what people really think, or not be misled, it is important to know how to decipher what others say.

When you add a little skepticism to your world view, social interaction begins to make sense. You start to understand what people really mean. I can picture myself way back in high school, a little too earnest. If I asked a girl on a date and she responded with “oh, well I’m actually kind of busy this month,” I might have marked my calendar and called her thirty days later. I took things way too literally. Many variants on this like “I don’t think I know you well enough” or “I’m not interested in dating anyone right now” ought to be translated as “I am not attracted to you.” People will say things they don’t mean so as to avoid hurting your feelings. Read the rest of this entry »


Thinking Ahead

The two of us were jogging past the MIT chapel today, so we dropped in to catch the tail end of the service. The priest was talking about sinning. The upshot was that rather than trying to fight temptation, we should simply avoid it. For instance, alcoholics probably shouldn’t go to bars. People in long distance relationships shouldn’t go to stoplight parties. A friend of mine who has the bad habit of ordering the most expensive entree on the menu, saves money by eating exclusively at Dunkin’ Donuts.

This is good advice, and it comes up over and over. A recent TED talk mentioned that people are overly-optimistic about their capacity for self-control in the future. If an individual is asked whether he would rather have a banana or a chocolate tomorrow, he will probably opt for the banana. But when tomorrow comes and he has to make the decision, he chooses the chocolate. The same is true in the context of saving money. We think we will save, but we don’t. The speaker’s solution then, was to get people to commit ahead of time to saving future income. Read the rest of this entry »