Are You Reading Too Much Into Things?

Do you remember your high school literature class? The teacher told you to read a poem by Shakespeare or Langston Hughes and made you pick apart every word in every line to try and dissect the author’s intent. The key to this exercise is that by looking at the authors choice of words, their characteristics, arrangement, and meaning we can better understand, not only what the author was trying to communicate, but why. Though arduous, the task can prove to be some what helpful provided we attribute a relative mastery to these authors’ command of the language.

Someone with a great command over language can communicate complex emotions by using much more that words at their face value. The problem is that the average person may not have the same expertise with language as Shakespeare. It makes sense to harp on the words of a master author, especially when chaperoned by someone with an English degree, but otherwise all of Shakespeare’s complexity might be lost on us.

Let’s stay in high school for a moment. Do you recall writing and receiving letters from your crush? The adolescent love detective inside us combs through these letters as if conducting a forensic investigation.  If they put hears over the “i” them it means they might like you, but maybe that is just how they write their “i”s to everyone?  We do this now as well.

We read into emails from our coworkers, and we read into Facebook messages. We break apart comments from our ex-significant other on our Instagram pictures, and of course text messages. There is never enough information on the page or screen is there? Words alone are so mono-dimensional that we need this context and subtext, to create true depth of meaning and valuable communication.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Does any of this help?”  If most of us do not have degrees in English and are not trained to analyze the complex messages of written word could we be misinterpreting the message that a person is sending us? On the other side of the coin, if we are not masters of language ourselves, are we accurately sending the messages we want to communicate?

There used to be set rules for language that we all had to follow. A large part of these rules where grammar and punctuation. That helped relay pace and tone. These are the things our english teacher tried to instill in us. But at the same time we were learning an entirely different set of rules on the playground or outside of the classroom. How can we be sure these rules are standardized to minimize miscommunication? Or does that even matter.

If your co-worker sends you an email in all caps you’ll assume they are freaking out and may respond with “ALL CAPS? Are you mad?” but it all too often they were simply working on a spreadsheet and forgot to take off the caps lock. We didn’t learn that yelling equals caps lock from our english teacher. That intensity is communicated because of the harsh emphasis on each letter. But that is what bold is supposed to be for. Except you can’t use bold in a text message so we have switched to using caps, which has translated over to computing as well.

With the rules, as loose as they are, does it really help us to dissect other people’s messages when we don’t know what set of rules they were trying to follow, if any at all? It is far more likely that person is making a hunch about what you will understand based on what they are writing and there is an increasing amount of slack in these rules which means the margin for error is much higher. You could be not only reading in to a subtext and getting the wrong message, but the subtext you are searching for may not even be there.

We make assumptions this way about what the message “really” is that may be contrary to what is on the page. This is especially the case when we re-read something that was only drafted once before sent. Instead of making assumptions about the content of the message, ask yourself about the type of message it is and consider how much thought may have been put into its composition. Then, only invest as much time reading into a message as you can reasonably assume was put into writing it in the first place.

Until someone takes the time to ask, and verify intent we can get caught in a vicious cycle. This is of course easier said than done in the heat of the moment but if we practice verifying intent in casual communication we are more likely to do so when is really counts.