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 »


Lessons from Empathy

The preponderance of etiquette handbooks and checklists give the impression that social grace is about memorizing rules. But this method is destined to fail. You’ll find yourself on a date and forget the “don’t interrupt others” rule because you’re too focused on the “chew with your mouth closed” rule. It’s much more productive to look at a situation from the bottom up. The “rules” of social interaction are complicated, but a serious effort to put yourself in the place of others will go a long way toward demystifying many of these seemingly unmotivated tenets. They even came up with a word for it; it’s called empathy.

But what exactly does it mean to empathize with someone?

It’s a tricky term. I’ve heard empathy defined as knowing other people’s fears and desires as our own (also as “when you feel other people’s pain in your body” courtesy of Yahoo Answers). But since this isn’t always possible, it’s best to start with ourselves. We know things about others because they are true about us. Read the rest of this entry »