One day—I must have been in third or fourth grade—our teacher had “the talk” with us: the talk about the hazards of playing soccer on the sidewalk, a common pastime for kids in my neck of the planet. Invariably, at some point during a game, the ball would get kicked out on the street, one of the moppets would dash after it like a blinkered cheetah after a springbok, not looking left or right, and risk getting struck by a van.
So our teacher moderated a brief class discussion about the risks of sidewalk soccer, and then we moved on to the regularly scheduled periods for the day (math or geography or edelweiss ikebana or whatever other subjects of interest may have been part of the Austrian grammar school curriculum at the time).
Right before school got out around noontime, we received our homework assignment, namely to compose a story that was to contain the following four words:
(The non-German-speaking reader may refer to this post’s headline for a verbatim translation, or to the picture below the headline for pictorial representation.)
A few days later—we had all turned in our little stories by then—the teacher returned our exercise books, kindly pointing out in front of everybody that Peter [that’s me] had been “the only one who didn’t understand the assignment.”
Apparently, everyone else’s stories revolved around a bunch of littleuns playing ball next to a paved thoroughfare of some sort, resulting in a collision or near-collision between one of the players and an oncoming vehicle during attempted ball retrieval.
I don’t remember what I had written about. All I remember is that for me, the phrase “contains the words” meant “contains the words,” and my story certainly contained those four words.
Maybe by the time I’d gotten around to doing my homework, I had forgotten all about the sidewalk soccer discussion we’d had in class. Or maybe I simply thought that everyone else was going to write about some hapless tyke getting run over while chasing after a ball—yawn!—so I decided to be more creative than that; after all, the wording of the assignment seemed neither prescriptive nor restrictive as far as plot and subject matter, save that it might have discouraged fiction set pre-20th century, where it may have been difficult to refer to a “car” without waxing unduly proleptic; but then again, whipping up some tale about an exceptionally prophetic Neanderthalian child prodigy scientist chiseling his vision of an early BMW into a stone slab while kicking a mastodon skull down an antediluvian gravel road quite easily would have justified even that.
Whatever my thought process—or lack of one—that had prompted me to write what I wrote, I ended up getting ragged on for being the dumb kid in the room who had failed to comprehend a simple assignment.
Conceivably, though, a different teacher might have commended me for having been the only kid in the room to grok that the way the assignment had been phrased in no way limited the subject matter to the “obvious” one. In other words, the assignment may have been deliberately worded that way in order to test how closely we were paying attention to subtleties in language, to wit whether we would simply give the assignment a slipshod once-over and then run with what we had precipitously concluded it must have meant, as opposed to evincing symptoms of mild confusion and hesitation on account of its manifest ambiguity—a telltale sign of incipient intelligence.
So instead of reaping a pat on the back for my impressive attention to linguistic nuance at such a young age and being told I’d make a fantastic lawyer one day, I was scorned for allegedly not paying attention at all. (Granted, I may not have been—God knows what went on in my wee noggin back then—but I wasn’t even afforded the benefit of the doubt, and the teacher never acknowledged, and apparently failed to understand, the ambiguity in her assignment. If someone didn’t get something there, it may have been her.)
Having matured well into adulthood by now, and having racked up a moderate amount of life experience since my grammar school days, I find there are two excellent ways for getting in trouble with people:
- To take what they say literally
- To interpret what they say, i.e., to not take it literally
The classic example of the former would be an assistant apprising his superior that a major but difficult client was on the phone, the superior instructing the assistant to tell the client to “go jump in the lake,” and the employee returning to the client with the words “Thanks for holding, Mr O’Malley. Would you please go jump in the lake. Good-bye.”
Even though, strictly speaking, to not tell Mr O’Malley to go jump in the lake would have been an act of disobedience, it stands to reason that the superior neither desired nor expected her directive to be carried out literally (hence the term “malicious compliance” for carrying out such directives in a literal manner after all). Perhaps she wanted Mr O’Malley to be falsely albeit politely informed she was in a meeting and that he should call back some other time, or perhaps thinking aloud that O’Malley should go to hell was her way of saying, “Alright. Put him through.”
On the other hand, I’ve gotten myself into hot water plenty of times by mistaking specific instructions I’d been given for jocular hyperbole and carrying them out in such modified manner as I deemed reasonable and intended by the instructing party, then getting reamed out for not having “listened” properly, which is the converse of getting reamed out for “thinking too much.”
I’ve been called a nitpicking wisenheimer for detecting nuance where I wasn’t supposed to, and I’ve been accused of being a sloppy listener for failing to detect nuance where I was supposed to.
From the perspective of the speaker, of course, it’s always perfectly obvious what he or she meant. But from the vantage point of any listener astute enough—and this doesn’t even require inordinate levels of astuteness—to realize that factors unknown to the listener might be in play at any time, the course of action desired may appear a lot less obvious.
As a general rule, the better we know someone, the better we should be at surmising with accuracy whether and to what extent he or she wishes to be taken literally on a case-by-case basis, although, given the vicissitudes in human nature, this is unlikely to ever rise to an exact science no matter how well we know somebody.
The difficulty is amplified by a factor approaching infinity when dealing with strangers.
Say you’re browsing a dating site, and you come across an interesting-looking profile. In her “Looking to Meet” section, the lady claims to be interested in meeting men “between 25 and 35 only.” You happen to be 39 years old. Should you respond?
Well, if you do respond, you risk receiving as a reply a brusque and acerbic rhetorical inquiry about whether you knew how to read and if yes, which part of “between 25 and 35 only” you didn’t understand. The poor woman may feel hurt and disrespected on account of her expressly stated wishes having been so blatantly disregarded. In fact, fear of not being taken seriously may constitute the Achilles heel of her soul. Over the years, she may have developed progressive psychological scarring and self-esteem erosion due to her chronic sense of never being taken seriously by anyone in this world, and the mere fact that you responded to her profile may have driven her one step closer to drowning herself in the tub.
But on the other hand, she may have specified these very age parameters solely as a safety buffer in order to deter high schoolers and senior citizens from responding, and as long as you’re of legal age and in reasonably good trim, she wouldn’t mind if you were 20 or 50.
Bottom line, if you don’t know the lady—and since you just stumbled across her profile online, you obviously don’t—there’s no way to figure out what exactly she may have meant by “between 25 and 35 only.” If you, a 39-year-old, decide to contact her, you may either come off to her as a half-witted clunk with poor reading skills, or, quite on the contrary, she may recently have broken up with a fussy accountant and be sick of detail-oriented men, so the simple act of ignoring the minutiae in her profile might put you in her good books right out of the gate.
Now let’s assume the two of you clicked, and you hook up for dinner. The check comes, you whip out your Amex card, and your date insists on splitting the damage. What’s that all about? Does she really want to go Dutch—perhaps out of some women’s lib and gender equality mindset, or because she doesn’t want to feel “bought” or as if she owed anything in return; sentiments to be respected, for sure—or does she subscribe to the thesis that a “real man” would never allow a woman to pay for her own food no matter how vociferously she insisted to do so, i.e., your masculinity is being subjected to its acid test?
Once again, you must decide between (a) taking her literally and (b) interpreting her words and behavior, and choosing wrong will likely spell trouble.
Personally, I haven’t been to any dating sites of late, although about ten years ago, I decided to take eHarmony.com’s widely advertised and comprehensive (and free) online personality test, as personality questionnaires are always fun to fill out. Took me about an hour to complete the dopey quiz, giving all sorts of information about my hobbies and habits and religious views and all manner of likes and preferences down to my favorite types of candy bars. The results came back that I was, and I quote, “unmatchable,” and I was politely informed that in case I had already paid for an eHarmony.com membership (which I had not), I was eligible for a full refund. So that was that.
These days, my scanning is confined to the Help Wanted sections. Trouble is, nobody’s looking for me there, either. Or at least those employers who might be looking for someone with roughly my peculiar and paltry skill set—in spite of my precocious talent for detecting nuance in the wording of homework assignments in grammar school, I never attended law school—don’t seem to post Help Wanted ads, the upshot being that I regularly respond to ads for jobs the stated qualifications for which I clearly do not possess, certainly not according to the text of those ads.
As a result, every time I shoot off a résumé, I am mindful that the recipient may get the impression that aside from my being utterly unqualified for the position, I’m not even bright enough to understand a simple ad.
In my defense, the only meaningful gig I ever landed off Craigslist was an entirely different one from the one advertised: some editor in chief who had been looking for administrative assistant got such a kick out of my cover letter that she changed her mind about hiring an assistant and instead enlisted me as a freelance writer, which took some writing load off her own shoulders and freed up time for her to assist herself in administrative matters for the duration of my association with her magazine.
Moreover, if an ad says, for instance, “B.A. required,” this may be less of an actual requirement for landing the job than an attempt to reduce the flood of applications from high-school dropouts who are blissfully unaware that words like ur and b4 actually have long forms—you’re and before respectively—and that Caesar had been a Roman general before he became a salad.
Speaking of salads, I know this from my waitering days: unless an establishment puts “minimum 5 years fine dining experience” in their ad, the place will likely get mobbed with applicants unable to carry two empty plates from A to B without the sound of shattering ceramic filling the air less than five steps into their trip, and who will burst into giggling fits when asked what “86” means, apparently thinking this crypic number might refer to an advanced variation of the 69 position. But if the ad calls for a somewhat exaggerated set of qualifications, the percentage of borderline qualified applicants with any relevant skills or experience at all will be much higher.
All of this, of course, poses quite a challenge when it comes to ascertaining the true and full meaning of seemingly plain and simple language and calculating the degree of expected or permissible latitude of interpretation below or beyond which one is apt to draw fire or ridicule, either for having intentionally disregarded its overt content, or for boasting limited intelligence in the comprehension department.
Fact is, sometimes people mean what they say, and sometimes they don’t.
If we “interpret” their words, we risk censure for poor listening or comprehension skills.
If we take them literally, we risk coming across as attention-seeking smarty pants, or we may be charged with malicious compliance. Or we might miss out on valuable opportunities.
When attempting to read people’s minds between the lines, being aware of not knowing what we don’t know complicates matters tremendously.
Child. Ball. Street. Car.
Go figure it out.