How Well Do You Know Someone?

In the blog it may have come across that I am not a great fan of assumption and supposition, this is true. Neither am I a fan of using what “they” say as an inviolable source of reference. Nevertheless, all of these are common methods of building a story about someone. We form opinions based on shitty data. Further the internet, bless its unfailing accuracy, isn’t all that reliable. I’ll hypothesise that we don’t know people as well as we think we do. They may add to this by hiding behind a façade of unreliable shininess. I was talking with God the other day and he said that the planetary number count of angels is on the extremely low side, and that superheroes are actually fictional. Well that told me!

Now we may think we know who or what we are dealing with and be so far off the mark. We could stumble across the blog of someone we thought we knew and in stalking them and spying on them, find out a whole different side to them we hadn’t imagined. If they were aware that we might be stalking them, they might start to mess with us. What to believe? I know, let’s ask “they”, they will know, they always do. We are back to square one.

The only way to get to know someone well is to spend a lot of time with them and in a variety of circumstances. That way you have personal experience. Even so, they may still surprise us by doing something we hadn’t considered them capable of. One of the people who came to see me in a pastoral care role told me that they could not see how this boring git, who lectured chemical kinetics, could be any use. That is until we got talking. As it turned out I was helpful, and we have had a good laugh about this, subsequently. This is a minor example. But I’ll guess we have all had a few surprises in respect of the behaviours of others, some pleasant some less so.

I am a fan of finding out, but that takes time.

Having cued this up:

Have I ever been convinced that I knew someone only to be proven wrong?

If so, does that suggest that my convictions generally are not as sound as they seem?

Might this warn me about premature conclusion and pre-judging?

Is there anything in this world as reliable as direct, current, personal experience?

Those Disconnects

When I woke up this morning, this theme of missing the point, losing the plot and otherwise getting the wrong end of the stick, was in my consciousness. This theme underpins human communication. I’ll wager that every single one of us has gotten the wrong end of the stick at least once and that each of us have been misunderstood. There can be massive disconnects between what we think is going on and what is, there is often an assumed understanding.

In the blog I have mentioned non-contending, which some might consider wimpy. It is anything but. It can cause consternation especially when someone outdoes themselves in the asshole stakes. Once someone has done this, it is difficult to save a situation, largely because of wanting to save face. It is not the intention of non-contending to cause embarrassment, it does occasionally happen as a by-product. Many are so thick-skinned that they fail to notice. If you noticed I am building a scenario where someone wants to show off and win an argument, the other is non-contending. There are two radically different attitudes. Now imagine that you have read this blog. You might have noted that I am talking about non-contending. Should we meet face to face, we might have a “discussion”. You might want to win said putative discussion. At one level you have some memory that I mentioned non-contending. But in the heat of the moment it would never occur that I might actually be practising non-contending. Here is a disconnect. As a consequence, you might behave as if I was motivated in the same manner you are {in this imaginary scenario}. What chance in hell would there be for us to communicate effectively?

These disconnects, of varying flavour, happen every day. They are all around us. We miss each other by miles like ships passing on a foggy night, we can be unaware of what has happened. There may be an assumption of communication when little or none has taken place. How we think we have come across, may be entirely inaccurate. The messages we think we are sending do not arrive. How others perceive us is down to them, and it may be the opposite of what we might wish. Others might see something we are trying to hide or something which simply isn’t there.

When I wasn’t living in my cave there was a time when I interacted with people who were overly keen to impress. About 90% of the time their efforts had the opposite effect. What works for / on others, does not necessarily work on me. I probably came across as boring and with nothing exciting to say. In these situations, both parties walked away having miscommunicated. We missed each other like ships passing in the night. There was no connection, there was a disconnect.

I have raised here this notion of assumed understanding and cued it up. You may assume by now that assumption is a favourite topic of mine, it is a root of human folly.

The Mind of Another

If someone looks a bit like us, dresses a bit like us and talks a bit like us, there is a kind of assumption that they may think like us, well a bit anyway. The truth is we may never know what is going on in the mind of another. Many have bought a Prisoner T-shirt at Portmeirion, I am wearing one now. The extent to which the sentiment of the T-shirt is embodied, varies. I have earned this T-shirt. I did not simply buy it. We all make assumptions everyday of our lives, some are better than others. Many are “experts” on where someone else is coming from, but without knowing their influences. Needless to say, that vocalised expertise may not be all that good. When I was much younger, I was an avid watcher of Kung Fu, something which my parents scoffed at. It spoke to me and not to them, they would talk over it and this pissed me off. As it turned out, it had a hint of prophecy for me. Some of the things we are drawn to in childhood, can play out later in life, thematically if not verbatim.

It is a common “parlour game” to speculate on the motivations of others. I have, over the years, sat in many meetings and I am prepared to bet that few had little if any idea of my motivations or what was going on in Alan-world. These days my mind is largely silent so even that is unexpected. I do not try to be secretive, but to explain all the connections would take a very long time, which most people do not have. Insofar as I can tell, many is the time when people have thought that I am “on the same page” as them, when I am not in the same book or even in the same section of the library. People assume nevertheless.

“Use don’t know mind”, is the recommendation of Zen master Seung Sahn and this goes a long way to erasing preconceptions. Couple this with; “A warrior has nothing to defend” and you are on your way to understanding yourself and relating to people in a deeper more meaningful way. It takes a little time and effort. Which is better, to know it all already or to explore?

Have a think about it, do you really and have you ever, known accurately what is going on in the mind of another? Even the people we think we know have things we are unaware of. I personally have been surprised on many occasions by the things people do and how they behave. In some cases, I have been shocked. People do change in life, sometimes for the better but not always. If you are a control junkie, you may seek to control everything, sometimes it can be better to let things evolve and have a few surprises along the way. If you want to find out, then asking is better than assuming. Any scientist knows that one needs to check data. Our detectors can need recalibrating from time to time, and noise or mind-stuff, limits their accuracy.

The only safe assumption is that we can never fully know the mind of another. This is a good place to start.

Contextual Mismatches

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Blaise Pascal

I suspect that it is not uncommon for people to assume that others with similar educational backgrounds, similar accents, equivalent ages and roughly similar clothes have shared world-versions, broadly common aspirations and at least partially shared life experience. This is the starting point, perhaps, of communication. The context within which we may move. If someone is radically different in any of the above, we might be a little more circumspect in our assumed understanding. In the rational world this basis assumption kind of makes sense, it is where we might start. We may assume that there is a match of context according to our presumably shared world-version.

Yet within the set of people with whom we share so much, experience can diverge markedly. At first glance we do not know who has had a breakdown, cancer or a substance problem. We may not know the extremity of their political or religious viewpoints, yet. Because they look and talk like us, the presumption of some similarity goes first. It doesn’t take too much thought to see that the basis assumption will be in many cases wrong. The degree may vary. There may in fact be little common ground at all. Yet this common ground is what people seek. If it isn’t there, we bend observations so as to assimilate it.

Although there may be some erudition to what I am saying, I’ll hazard a guess that my world-version differs markedly from the norm. Though to look at me in Caffè Nero there would be no obvious sign.

To do a gedanken, a thought experiment of sorts, we might consider two scenarios. In the about section there is a very brief bio. Imagine you were, for whatever reason, to meet me.

  1. I tip up in my customary black jeans, jumper and fleece. There is a faint hint of tobacco smoke about me. I cough slightly and greet you.
  2. I tip up in full Buddhist robes, with my hair freshly cut if not fully shaved. I greet you.

By setting the scene for this all I have altered is my dress, yet this alone has set a context for our initial encounter. In this scenario I would still be me. In case 1) unless you were dressed in robes, there would be no apparent contextual mismatch a priori. In case 2) if you were dressed in civvies there would. If you have some prior knowledge of me then the sight of me in robes could cause the immediate and instantaneous birth of kittens, metaphorically speaking.

How might the conversation go in each of these scenarios? Imagine….

What I am getting at is that we may be largely unaware of how markedly world-versions differ between individuals. Yet we assume more commonality than there may be. Is it any wonder that communication, through this veil of assumption and prejudice is so poor, that there are many misunderstandings? Well not really.

Whenever there is a large contextual mismatch poor communication is rife. This is largely because we are trying to fit things into our own world-version rather than explore that of another being. The problem with open-minded exploration is that it takes time. The prize however is deep relationship and greater understanding. Virtually every being on the planet offers us something new, some new knowledge.

If we start from the hypothesis that there may be some contextual mismatch where our understanding may be imperfect and our assumptions not good, then maybe we as a species can improve and advance. If we assume that everyone has to be like us, not only will we be disappointed, but we might blame others for not fitting exactly to the parameters of our world-version. It is not their fault that our world-versions are limited and concrete. If you think about it only a little, if we were all the same the clone-world would be a very boring place to live. Contextual mismatch adds variety and spice to life.