Many years ago, on the first day of class in the graduate-level course on Abnormal Psychology, our instructor held up the then-current version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and said,
“Always remember…you never know what flick is playing in someone else’s head.”
Words of wisdom: much goes awry because we forget that simple fact.
Honestly, don’t you ever wonder if some people are actually going out of their way to deliberately misinterpret what is said?
Have you never sat in slack-jawed wonder at the psychological gymnastics required to wrest a particular interpretation from something that meant nothing of the kind, as you witnessed someone gallop away, flush with a gross (and possibly deliberate) misunderstanding?
Sometimes, there may be bad intentions, or at least the intention, all along, to make some point, whether or not it makes any sense in context. We see this often in every level of politics. Commentator Smith had a well-rehearsed point to be made during the allotted few minutes on-air and by golly, Smith is going to find a way to interject it even if it makes no sense in context. Smith hopes that the point thus calculatingly made is so clever, so memorable, that it will be the “take-away” point for most listeners, even though, within the transcript, it seems arbitrary at best.
Among the well-intentioned, the problem may sometimes be a lack of clarity…more often, I think, it is a lack of clarification.
In family therapy and family systems theory, we refer to a metacommunication concept called “Report and Command.” The “report” is what someone actually says. The “command” is the meaning of that statement to them. It is the hidden expectation. In a final exam question for a family therapy course, I give the following example:
Matthew states, “Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore.” From a metacommunication perspective, “Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore,” is the report. The command portion might be:
- “I feel hurt because she doesn’t care to do this for me anymore.”
- “…And she should make my favorite meal.”
- “because she knows I’m supposed to watch my cholesterol.”
- There is no command in this communication
Students are expected to pick an answer and defend it briefly. There are multiple “right” answers. It is telling that, given the statement, “Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore,” more than half the students regularly assume that the command – the hidden meaning – is b, “And she should…” rather than the plaintive option, a, or even the matter-of-fact and somewhat complimentary c. The choice of b, of going negative, tells them, and me, a lot about how they make assumptions about what people might mean, and points out the risk of assuming rather than clarifying the deeper meaning of even seemingly mundane remarks. Here, then, if Matthew is passively expressing hurt at his wife’s apparent disinterest in nurturing him, and Susan instead “hears” a chauvinistic, boorish demand that she slave over a hot stove, well, I may have an appointment open, week from Tuesday, at 6 PM.
Another recent example: a friend observed a parent telling a child engrossed in a video game that the child’s sporting event was to begin in 10 minutes. To only the parent’s surprise, this barely nudged a response from the child. The parent actually said, “Hey, your race starts in 10 minutes.” The parent believes he communicated, “Hey, dude, we gotta get going NOW so you can be in position for the race in less than 10 minutes.” Dad made a vague observation about time that meant nothing to a child and the child took it literally: Dad is updating me on the passage of time. I leave to your imagination the subsequent exercise in frustration for Daddy and his swimmer.
Some people claim they don’t have a lot of expectations. Nonsense. Of course they do. They expect the lights to go on when they flip a switch, though for the most part they know not how it happens. They expect politicians to magically create more jobs and higher wages. They expect their spouse to read their mind when they make that little throat-clearing noise and bulge their eyeballs at dinner with extended family or friends. They expect their loved ones to know what they might want for their birthday. We all have lots of other day-to-day subtle expectations, without which we couldn’t get through the business of living. There really isn’t time in a day to treat every iota of experience as a new and undiscovered country. Some things have to be on autopilot (which implies expectations, however buried they may be).
If you are happily married, you expect your spouse to come home; you expect compassion; you expect at least well-feigned interest in much of what you say. You probably have a reasonable expectation that certain tasks will be done and that you will be warned before in-laws or ne’er-do-well friends, down on their luck, take up residence on the couch. If, to your surprise, perpetually unreliable Cousin Pete has been invited for an extended and slovenly stay, you might reasonably say to your spouse, through gritted teeth in a whisper in the kitchen, “I had no idea your Cousin Peter was coming to visit,” (report) with the unsaid (command), “…and I am perfectly right to expect that you would have asked before letting him set foot in our house.” “But honey,” your spouse might say, “Pete’s family.”
Ah, the family card. Now we move from Reports and Commands to Rules.
Everyone has rules. Some rules are overt: my husband has asserted that I am not permitted to give up chocolate for Lent. This is one of a few rules in our house. Have I mentioned his strong survival instinct?
Most rules are not even verbalized; they are taken for granted, as if a law of nature. In the example of your spouse’s unwelcome cousin Pete, “family are allowed to be here without either of us consulting the other,” is apparently the inviter’s rule. You might be thinking, “Yeah, well, maybe a nice family member but not stinky, rude, mooching Cousin Pete,” or, “for dinner, maybe, but to sleep on my couch for some indefinite period of time, no!,” but, you see, that is an entirely different rule.
A lot of clashes arise because people have not clarified their expectations and their rules, both to themselves and to others; and because they speak in terms that they believe are perfectly clear when actually they are not clear at all. Next time you find yourself in a gross misunderstanding with someone you love, perhaps it would be worth revisiting whether you actually communicated what you thought in the privacy of your head…and to ask more questions about what someone means before you assume that what you heard is what they intended you to understand.
Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC
Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.