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.

They will also say things they don’t mean in order to tell a good story. It often isn’t until you begin embellishing the details of your own stories that you realize the extent to which others fabricate tales. In high school, I would be surprised when the facts of someone’s story deviated from reality, even in the tiniest of details. True, it hardly matters that the subject of the anecdote was your aunt’s friend’s cousin as opposed to your cousin’s aunt’s friend. Nevertheless, I always found it a bit jarring.

In college, the stories have only grown wilder and the accuracy more questionable. Over dinner the other day, I heard about my friend’s crazy camping trip. His group made the mistake of bringing more alcohol than water, and several days in, severely dehydrated, one guy fell out of a tree and hit his head. After regaining consciousness, he pulled out his hunting knife and tried to kill the rest of the group (almost successfully). Eventually he passed out spooning one of the guys, who had somehow managed to sleep through the whole emergency. It was a great story, and I’ve omitted a lot of the details, but I don’t, for a second, believe it literally.

I also don’t believe that investment bankers work one hundred twenty hours a week. A recent WSJ article mentioned that it’s normal to exaggerate to make ourselves seem busier, to imagine huge demands on our time so as to create a sense of importance. According to the article, when we describe our work hours or our homework load, we often claim that our worst nights are typical. And if we all do this, why should we believe others when they do it?

After a while, you learn that when a story sounds too crazy to be true, it probably isn’t true. Freshman year, I was chatting with some new friends, and we were talking about travel over lunch. Nicaragua came up, and one of the guys casually mentioned, “Oh yeah, I’m not allowed in that country anymore.” When pressed, he mentioned something about fishing illegally and getting blacklisted by Managua. It turns out he got scolded by a park ranger and was asked to stop throwing pebbles into the lake, but hey, close enough.