Reading between the lines (and all around them)

Reading between lines does not come easily to me.? Part of it is my sheer inability to comprehend anything but the spoken word, and then living in the US doesn’t? help either.? I say what I mean, and I think others say what they mean.

Occasionally, my Indian genes will tell me that there could be another meaning for the? same sentence, and then I’d feel very proud of myself for having deciphered the code.

But a recent conversation made me think about how many different meanings the same sentence can have.? It also taught me how clueless I am when it comes to the art of communication.

I was talking with V on Skype when he challenged me to solve a puzzle.

“It’s a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. X. “, V said.

Mrs. X asked Mr. X a simple question – “Do you want rotis for dinner?”

Mr. X replies:? “If you ask me, I will have to refuse.”

“What you have to do”, V said, “is to decipher what Mr. X really meant. You have two chances!”

I pondered deep and long.? Maybe, I thought, Mr.? X? really doesn’t like rotis – maybe he prefers rice.?? Maybe they are easier to chew or digest or whatever.

So I said “He is really saying that given a choice, he would prefer not to have rotis”.

“No, that’s not what he is saying”, V said. “Next chance.”

“Then it must be the practice of politely saying “No” even when you mean “Yes””, I said.? “Maybe he really wants the rotis, but Mrs. X has to press him to eat them.”

But this didn’t seem right even to me.?? One does this with guests, or aunts, but not with one’s own wife, right?

V agreed. ? “What he was really saying was this – if you are asking me if I want rotis, it means you probably haven’t made enough rotis, and you are really asking me as an afterthought.

If you really wanted me to eat rotis, you’d straightaway bring the rotis and offer them to me.? Of course, I may refuse even then,? but that will be different.”

I get it now.? How much thought has gone into a simple sentence!

I guess I should segue this into an analysis on the differences between Eastern and Western civilizations, or complex social norms, or whatever.?? Me,? I am just glad I am not Mrs. X 🙂

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34 thoughts on “Reading between the lines (and all around them)

  1. Just few days back one of my colleague who hails from Bundelkhand was telling me about this custom. Its regarded as an insult to ask if someone needs some more food.

    p.s. thanks for dropping by my blog.

  2. How did you manage to have the combined feedback, in your blog. Is there some widget or tool available? I use blogger, and dont have any. Any pointer please!

  3. maxdavinci: Yes, on the all good things..I do feel for your poor future wife 😉

    Reema: I guess you are just supposed to heap it on their plate and watch them struggle, then? 😉 It’s also bad manners to waste food, right? So you have to finish the whole lot while your hostess is, no doubt sniggering 😦
    P.S. You are welcome 😀

    km: You mean you still haven’t noticed that your webcam is permanently switched on ? 😉

    Ramesh: I hate to say this, but I don’t understand either of your comments. Are you just posting spam comments?

    Adithya: I don’t blame you 🙂 Mr. X was thinking at least three chess moves ahead!

  4. Lekhni,
    Your example had me flummoxed, and English is my native language! The reason you had such difficulty is because this two-sentence communication is NOT communication.

    Our job as listeners is not to have to “intuit” what the speaker means. And in our job as speakers (or writers) it is to provide real communication. This means that everyone, except for spies and other intelligence agents, plus dis-information specialists, needs to say what we mean openly and clearly so there is no doubt in the listener’s mind what is being said.

    To do otherwise is to INVITE misunderstanding, and to create a “gotcha!” situation where the speaker holds all the power and the listener is in a no-win situation.

    In instances where one must read between the lines, which is a kind of game, it is usually among people who understand all the rules. I avoid people who DON’T say what they mean — not anyone I wish to associate with. Sorry.

    It’s not your shortcoming, Lekhni. It’s theirs.

  5. Thank your stars you are not part of my family. The actual conversation always happens at another level while the sentences themselves may not seem to suggest any of that. My maternal side specialises in that and they are quite proud of it.

  6. Lekhni:

    “I guess I should segue this into an analysis on the differences between Eastern and Western civilizations, or complex social norms, or whatever.”

    Or just call it ‘poor communication skills’, because that is what it appears to be, to an outsider.

    I have noticed that long-married couples communicate in shorthand and there could be a + or a – reason behind that.

    One reason is (something also shown in research) the shared context and a high degree of ‘tuning’ into the other person’s articulated and latent needs. A positive sign all round. I have a friend whose conversations with her husband often go like this: “Listen, please go there and get me that.” Exactly those words. And he goes ‘there’ (wherever it is, well – he knows where it is) and gets her ‘that’ (whatever it may be and again, he knows).

    The negative one is when husband and wife deliberately obfuscate their sentences so as to trip the other one up, esp in front of others. If I started counting the long-married couples I know who bicker in this underhanded fashion, I shall run out of phalanges on my two hands.

    Whatever it is, I think this sort of ‘hidden meaning’ communication is meant only for the addressee and the rest can only guess. Or write posts about it 🙂

  7. So much thought and subtext behind so few words! I would be quite at sea trying to decipher it, especially without accompanying body language and tone.
    I used to be bad at reading between lines once upon a time, but have since improved; the advantage of getting older and wiser, I suppose. On the other hand, I’ve lost the simple satisfaction of just taking what every relative or friend says quite literally-that is so liberating in some ways.

  8. Deb Gallardo: I agree with you, in general there is a certain element of power play, conscious or not, on the part of someone who thinks the other person should intuitively understand what they are saying.

    But the funny thing is, that wasn’t really the intention in this case. Mr. X, in his mind, was actually being very considerate towards Mrs. X in thinking three steps ahead 🙂 I guess there is some element of a cultural issue involved here, but it is also a lot more of a generational issue.

    The even funnier part is, Mrs. X got the actual message 🙂 So I guess there was communication, because she was the only intended recipient! No one could figure out what Mr. X meant, though!

    Usha: I am thanking my stars! I can imagine how that scene would go – it would be hilarious! I would be that person who is saying things that are so out of sync with the others, you’d wonder if it’s the same conversation at all.

    La Vida Loca: Yeah, I hear you 🙂

    BlueMist: Binary answers? I suppose, not until the day when we shall all start dealing with robots and androids in everyday life 😉

    Shefaly: You are right, this is probably one of those examples of long-married couples understanding each other perfectly even when no one around them can figure out a word of it 😀 Mrs. X got it perfectly, and she was the one who “translated” what Mr. X actually meant 🙂 There was no deliberate obfuscation involved, it’s just the way he apparently said it, as a matter of course, which makes this so funny.

    Sujatha: Even with accompanying body language and tone, all I would have been able to make out, had I been there, would be that it was not said in anger 🙂 I still wouldn’t get the meaning 😦
    I also wish, like you, that everyone around me would just speak literally. Unfortunately, we humans (whether in India or the US or anywhere else) seem to excel in saying everything except what we mean. We are even taught to do it, since it’s polite, it’s politically correct and so on. Sometimes, polite words just mask nasty thoughts 😦

    lallopallo: Yes, isn’t it?

  9. Oh Dear!!! By the time Mrs X would have deciphered the meaning, the food would have all gone cold. 🙂
    As Amitabh Sir said – English is s Phunny language.

  10. Amit: That is certainly true 😀 And the rest of the people at dinner would have torn their hair out trying to figure it out!

    snippetsnscribbles: I know exactly how you feel:)

  11. Since I don’t know what rotis is/are, one reaction I had to this was to remember a storybook I read to my daughter when she was little. It was called Hedgehog for Breakfast, and was about a young fox whose mother sends him to fetch Mrs. Hedgehog for breakfast. He thinks they will be “cooking and serving” Mrs. Hedgehog AS their breakfast. He brings her home, puts her in a roasting pan with water and into the oven, which she assumes is for a lovely hot bath. Fortunately Mother comes home before the young fox makes any faux pas with their breakfast guest. Pretty funny.

    So I wondered at the time if rotis were a person or food. Now I know. LOL

    Deb Gallardo

  12. Deb Gallardo: That’s a lovely story 🙂 Just shows the perils of miscommunication beautifully.
    Rotis are nothing so exotic, they are just flatbread !

  13. Dont I have some other work to do other than spam? I have my own real estate biz and I dont spend my employers time on blogging.

    I was giving an opinion on how to read fast, reading between lines.

    Also I have asked on how to aggregate comments in the blog?

    This is not Martian language to understand.

  14. hey, that was something to write about… Communication goof ups are very common! I have been married for quite sometime now and we hardly need to say sometimes. Only our eyes speak when we are in presence of guests. No reading between the lines, as there are no lines to read between! 🙂 🙂

    And, if you dont mind, i am adding you to my blog roll! 🙂

  15. This one completely beat me. I remain dead to such subtle interlocuism!

    Jokes apart, I do not think this has anything to do with east or west, but about husband and wife. Picture this:

    Mr. A enters the house, Mrs. A does not say anything only a one second look. Mr. A becomes defensive and apologetically says he completely forgot to pick-up clothes from the dry cleaner on his way back. Now remove the description and read the same thing again.
    Mr A enters the house, Mrs A looks at him, Mr A apologises!!

  16. Lekhni

    May interest you to know that research into causes of distress following divorce in long-married couples shows that the couple often have a shared memory, not shared memories, but shared memory as in shared hard disk. After divorce they are forced to remember, individually, many pertinent details which causes a great deal of stress.

    I think long-married couples are a fascinating study in many things. 🙂

    My elder sibling used to laugh at people who said long-married couples start to look like each other. Nearly 21 years of marriage later, the sibling and the spouse look like each other. Ha ha! Not just this, the friend I mentioned in the earlier comment has known her husband since they were in their pre-teens. Their entire family looks like one another. Spooky!

  17. the meanings and the statement V put to you and you answered – they were really nice and the real one was deep.

    Life would have been simpler had there been people who meant what they said and said what they meant. They say life is too short to be serious – I have believed otherwise somehow.

  18. umm…am I the only one apart from KM who got that*? Although, I didn’t assume the first part of the explanation (you haven’t made enough, therefore you’re asking me). To me, it simply read as, “If you even have to ask, then it’s already too late, and now I’m offended, and I dont want any, thangyewbherrymuch”.

    * And does that mean KM and I have been commenting and reading each other’s blog so much that we’re now like a couple?

  19. Ramesh: I am glad you are not a spammer, but I hope you realize that both your comments were way off target, and unrelated to the blog post. We are not talking about reading newspapers quickly here. Nor can I understand why a discussion on Word Press plugins would help if you are using blogger.
    Nevertheless, it’s good to know you weren’t actually spamming me.

    Sakhi: That is nice 🙂 “Aankhon hi aankhon me ishaara” and all that stuff 🙂 It’s much more common for the wife to use her eyes and the husband to say “What?” in an irritated manner 😉

    Rajesh Kumar: Ah! the power of guilt 😉 Most likely, the wife was not even giving him any looks 😀 Just kidding, I know the scenario you describe. And without a narrator/ voice over describing the background, it would look very funny indeed 🙂 In this case too, the wife could sense what was going on in Mr. X’s mind (I can only attribute her explanation to telepathy as I cannot see Mr. X’s actual words making any sense 😉 )

    Shefaly: I can understand the shared hard disk part – everything from knowing where the sugar is to handling the finances is usually divided up between the couple, so I guess it’s harder for the surviving spouse 😦 There are no gender roles either, quite often it’s the wife who handles the finances.
    Looking like each other – I agree it does happen, and I wonder why. I can imagine shared diets leading to both spouses putting on weight, their faces presumably filling in and so on. But I agree that sometimes it does go beyond even this.

    Prasoon: Yes, life would have been simpler. But we humans have far too powerful brains – we’d have figured out another way to complicate things 😉

    ??! Your initial reading was pretty much right on the mark 😀 Although, to be fair to Mr. X, it could either be (a) it’s too late and you’ve already finished making rotis, so let me be thoughtful and not ask you to start making more, or (b) I am offended you are asking me this late. I am not sure which it was.

    KM would think he has a lot of people snooping around his house 😉 But does completely agreeing with someone make you a couple? I would have thought constantly bickering might indicate marriage 😉

  20. Thanks for accepting me, as a non spammer. You can know more about me here… http://www.linkedin.com/pub/9/5a4/525

    My post, did have relevance “literally”, obviously it was meant as a pun, (second one was a tech question as I didnt have your email id) and I am married for 10 years, and I do understand how a wife, concludes, so words are not needed.

    A friend of mine, who is still a bachelor @ 40, but who has many lady friends (I am not questioning him on moral grounds), says each woman is unique. Some are moderate, some control, some accept, some are mixture….

    I dont blog on general lines, but my comments are the only way to express.

  21. Lekhni:

    I think that looking-alike business is more about how in empathy, people adopt similar mannerisms often mirroring the spouse. That empathy can have many sources. While I am no fan of identically dressed couples, but learning to appreciate similar things in art, culture, humour etc may also contribute to a heightened sense of empathy. And for couples from very different backgrounds, a similarity in expression – linguistic, facial, body language etc – also comes to being after several years of being together.

    I think it is a broader, stretchier even definition of ‘alike’ at work 🙂

  22. The looking alike thing is MOSTLY from mannerisms. If you watch master impersonators, they seem to look like the people they are imitating, but that’s impossible to change facial features. What they change are body language, gestures, mannerisms, subtle little things that the average person takes in as a whole but doesn’t see them individually. It’s that eye which sees what the rest of us only feel that can zero in on the details.

    I just observed a mother, grown daughter and granddaughter. It was uncanny how often they used the same mannerisms, yet they don’t “look” that much alike. And yet…they did.

    The way we are made and how we develop is a continual fascination for me. We are “fearfully and wondrously made.”

    Deb Gallardo

  23. Ramesh: You are welcome to ask me any tech questions, i’ll be glad to help, though all I know right know is a little about WordPress, I have no idea about blogger though I am sure there are many others who can help you. My email id is on the sidebar, near the top.
    As for women, yes, of course each woman is a unique individual, just like men are. Stereotypes only work in jokes, not in real life!

    Shefaly: Similarity in expression and mannerisms – yes, I have noticed that many times (and who knows, I may be guilty of that too!) I can see how that would happen – one would tend to adopt an expression if one has been hearing it quite often every day. So, while it’s bad enough that as we get older, we turn into copies of our parents, it’s worse that we also turn into copies of our spouses 😮

    Deb Gallardo: That’s very true, you can “seem” like a person if you copy all their mannerisms and look somewhat like them 🙂
    On the family with shared mannerisms – I agree that even little children will often copy their elders, and of course, adults, with long years of shared interaction, copy each other’s mannerisms too.

    But then, sometimes mannerisms do go beyond copying into genetics – how else do you explain children who develop the exact mannerism that a great uncle has (even though they’ve never met), perhaps the same way they cross their feet or flick their hair back? We inherit a lot more than we realize 🙂

  24. cute — i have another one
    mrs x asked mr. x – do you think that i can handle the drive to Pune (its a 4 hour drive)
    mr x said you won’t know until you try…

    there was world war 3 😦
    men and women – especially in a relationship – should come with user manuals !

  25. if i were X i wud mean- i really dont wnat to make rotis for dinner but if u want it badly i will make for u but i rather u refuse
    if i really wanted to give X rotis- i wud hav said- i am making rotis for dinner. period

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