Well I'm not literally literal. But I interpret communication relatively literally. Specifically I usually take definitions literally. This leads to misinterpretations.

Others have called me literal. And just this past week someone compared my communication to a robot. That wasn't the first time.

Here's an example of me misunderstanding:

A friend said this publicly online:

Call your friends out for their sh-tty behavior. Encourage your friends to do better. Love is pushing someone to be their best self, it is not being complacent in order to keep from disrupting the balance you are comfortable with.

Here was my interpretation: "If you're pushing someone to be their best self, you are pushing them from sh-tty to good, to great, to execellent to best. Not just the first step. Friend wants said pushing."

A few days later while reflecting I thought of a piece of constructive criticism. I sent it over a message.

They replied:

I wasn’t necessarily looking for a challenge though lol. When I said challenge your friends, I moreso meant when they are being sh-tty people, call them out.

I went back and read what they wrote.

The first sentence aligned with the reply.

If "Encourage your friends to do better" means "Encourage your friends to do better [than sh-tty]" then the second sentence aligns, as well.

However I struggle to make the third sentence align with the reply. If if I were to redefine "best" to mean "not sh-tty", then it aligns "Love is pushing someone to be their [not sh-tty] self". But that's not what "best" means. What am I doing wrong?

How can I determine what people mean when they communicate?

  • 1
    Was this a spoken conversation or was it written?
    – sphennings
    Jun 9 '18 at 14:32
  • @sphennings In this instance written/online
    – user16858
    Jun 9 '18 at 14:35
  • It's close, but not quite: "They told you..." They also said (paraphrased) "push someone to their best self" which I took as "help me get better". I thought of a past interaction a few days later so I messaged them. I can try your suggestion
    – user16858
    Jun 9 '18 at 15:23
  • 1
    @Raditz_35 I changed the order like you suggested. I tried to simplify what I wrote, including omitting 2 of the points in one place. Is it understandable, now?
    – user16858
    Jun 9 '18 at 15:31

There's a lot to consider when interpreting speech acts. Parsing the text of the act is only a small component of this. The whole field of Linguistics is devoted to the study and understanding of language and how it's used. I found that taking an introduction to linguistics class in college helped a lot with my ability to understand and reason about the non-textual aspects of communication.

I found my study of the field of Pragmatics to be especially helpful in this regard since the field is devoted to the study of how context contributes to meaning. I'd strongly recommend reading up on the subject yourself if you have the time to devote to it.

Since you're having difficulties with understanding the intended meaning of a speech act not just the portion of meaning encoded in the semantics understanding implicatures is a good place to start. These are bits of meaning that are implied by the text but aren't logically implied by the text.

A classic example of this is:

A: Where do you want to eat?

B: I've heard that you can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant.

There's nothing in B's response that explicitly says that they want to eat at Alice's but what's actually being communicated is an desire to eat there.

One of the prevailing theories for how we are able to understand the implicatures of a speech act is called the cooperative principal. Conversations that follow this principal (which is most of them) are based on the assumption that both parties are working to further the intended (but often unspoken) goal of the conversation. There are some maxims associated dictated by this principal called Grice's Maxims.

In the exchange above we can use the Maxim of Relevance which requires that speech acts be relevant to interpret that B's remark about hearing a place with good food is relevant to the goal of the conversation, ie. to find out where B wants to eat. If B didn't want to eat there it would be flouting the Maxim, and counterproductive for it to be brought up.

  • 1
    We're not here to analyze situations for you. This answer was written with the intention of pointing you towards learning information I have found useful when I'm trying to understand what people are trying to communicate.
    – sphennings
    Jun 9 '18 at 15:40
  • 1
    You didn't really provide much information about how to tailor this to your particular situation. I'm not sure what exactly I'd do to tailor this answer for you specifically without knowing exactly you find difficult about understanding the non semantic portions of speech. I'm not a professional linguist or a therapist so my ability to speak about what will work for you is rather limited. All I can say is this is what worked for me when I was dealing with a similar situation.
    – sphennings
    Jun 9 '18 at 15:51
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    @WordsLikeJared Since you seem to be having difficulties in this type of situation, helping you find tools for those situations in the general sense seems a lot more useful than helping you in the context of this specific situation, since for other situations you will be unable to confer with us before responding. With that reasoning, sphennings' answer seems to suit your need. Would you disagree?
    – Cronax
    Jun 11 '18 at 8:23
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    @WordsLikeJared The problem I found with a micro to macro approach is that it's very easy to get bogged down on the complexities of all the edge cases involved within every situation. Remember this is something that neurotypical people are expected to still be learning far into their second decade of life. There isn't a deterministic algorithm for determining what someone means. We all constructed our subconscious working models of language differently, they just happen to work well enough often enough that it's a reasonable assumption that we will be mutually intelligible to each other.
    – sphennings
    Jun 11 '18 at 13:55
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    Pragmatics is a whole field of academic study. Reading one Wikipedia article alone isn't going to be helpful. But if you're wanting some formalisms that do a decent job of describing how meaning is conveyed through more than just the semantics this where you will find tools to improve your ability to reason about what people may be intending to communicate.
    – sphennings
    Jun 11 '18 at 13:59