The science of second-guessing

(Posted by Mark)

Advertisers like to state about their products that they are ‘the thing you can rely on’ or comment that ‘if only everything in life was as reliable as Brand X’. It’s part of the way that they play upon the unreliability of so many aspects of our life, feeding into our insecurities about dependability and inconstancy, hoping that we will recognise their product as a way of enhancing our otherwise topsy-turvy, late again, broken down humdrum. Of course, Troubled Diva readers are far too canny to be duped by such messages, but issues of inconsistency and reliability are why we spend time (or waste time, depending on your particular viewpoint) on the science of second-guessing.

Is it true?
Interpreting what people say and what people mean is, to put an honest face on it, bloody difficult. Firstly, you need to establish whether they are wilfully lying to you, whether they are lying to you by omission, or whether they have dressed up the message in obscure, arcane or masked language. If they are outright lying to you then you have the option of corroboration, unless they are expressing a personal opinion. The old “it’s not you, it’s me” line is particularly apposite here, for the varying shades of meaning and duplicity it can cover. Translating what the other is saying is akin to revealing a Potemkin village.

When Catherine the Great toured her empire, she wished to see things in the best possible light, despite her advancing years and failing eyesight. In order to ensure that the Empress was presented with a positive view of her domain, her chief minister Potemkin ordered that elaborately constructed and beautifully crafted fake villages be built in the Ukraine and Crimea for the Imperial visit. Thus, when Catherine toured these places she was shielded from the poverty, drudgery and desperation of the average peasant, instead seeing happy, clean and well-dressed subjects outside their warm, safe homes. Once the tour was over, these villages, like film sets, were struck and normal life was resumed. Seeing past the façade of guarded conversation is very much like taking a closer look at the Potemkin village to reveal the stagecraft behind.

Body language considerations come into play as well. The most interesting time to interpret body language is when you believe that someone is lying. And, as with all good things, the best way to interpret this is through the use of monkeys. The ‘speak no evil’ monkey tells us that when someone is speaking with their fingers to their mouth, or using their hand to block the sounds, they are lying. The ‘hear no evil’ monkey tells us that the liar will somehow protect their ears, by covering them with the hand or directly blocking the earhole with their finger. The ‘see no evil’ monkey tells us that when lying, the person will rub their eyes when talking. There are a lot of other characteristics, but we don’t have enough monkeys for them.

Is it sure?
Of course, second-guessing at a meaning is not only necessary when the other person is lying. They may well be truthful, but unclear in their own mind as to what message they are trying to convey and by speaking their unorganised or unstructured thoughts, they will help themselves to decide. In this case, you are attempting to get to the root of their feelings, not necessarily their words: opening a small window into their minds to work out the real meaning rather than how they are expressing it. This is extremely intricate because you are sifting through a disorganisation of potentially conflicting or self-contradictory opinions and statements, as well as emotions which ebb and shift while they are trying to form a coherent, unified approach to the situation. To get to the determinate point may well take many narrow, bending roads.

Perhaps this is why an oft-repeated phrase in arguments or when having the dreaded ‘deep and meaningful’ conversation is “I don’t know”. The questions which you ask or are asked may well be ones you can prepare for or ones which directly address the thinking you have done on the issue, but there are always those particular posers which leave you answerless. Then it is the turn of the questioner to second-guess whether you are answerless because you haven’t thought about it, because you are trying to work out a way of making it sound better, or whether you are devising a way to leave certain things out.

Is it complete?
Whether they are telling you the truth or not, they are probably not telling you everything, so you’ll need to be alert to omissions. “This is pretty much everything,” you will be told. What this means is that it is not everything. There is the possibility that this is a stylistic tic of spoken language which this person has adopted and that they do mean everything, in fact. There is also the possibility that they are covering themselves in case certain factors or consequences occur, in which case they will legitimately be able to point back at the conversation to defend themselves with “Well, I did say ‘pretty much’, I didn’t mean everything”. You’ll have to decide which of the two you believe.

There are also situations where you can only hear half the story. When A splits up with B and you only hear one viewpoint, it’s fairly safe to say that you can second-guess some of what really went on, but until you’ve heard about or directly spoken to the other side to get their perspective, you are still a long way from completing the picture. Even when you have both sides, the variety in how certain incidents are recalled, how they each expressed themselves, what actions took place in what order may all be wildly changed. Whether this is done for self-serving or self-protecting reasons is what you have to work out for yourself, as well as trying to adopt a middle view and then seeing what they’re missing out and why.

Also, you can second-guess meanings through the detail of the language: the more vague the wording, the more likely that real reasons and key motivations are missing. You can probably make your own list, but ‘sort of’, ‘kind of’, ‘partly’, ‘appears to’ are all genuine contenders for a Top Ten of words and phrases which mask the deeper, underlying meaning, and getting past them appears to be sort of partly tricky. You see what I did there? Second-guess me, go on.

Is it them?
What you believe and what you want to believe are two completely separate things and you should be careful not to colour your second-guessing with wishful thinking, as this is likely to lead you into areas that the other person hasn’t even mentioned. What you thought was the case and what you wanted the situation to be should not be merged because then you are speaking to the other person on completely different levels and your estimates of what they really mean will be way, way off. Such conversational disconnects provide us with the basis for most sitcoms where, along with mistaken identity, amusing consequences tend to follow. In real life, these disconnects are not often as funny, more often they are disappointing and emotionally charged.

These are just a few of the elements in the science of second-guessing, which resembles an elaborately choreographed verbal dance between people, occuping many different strata of meaning: emotional, social, familial, financial, rational. I’ve deliberately avoided mention of solutions and results in second-guessing because they vary depending on what you are trying to get at, and also because your second-guessing may well have no fixed results. Trying to calculate the motivations of others is frustrating precisely because some statements or actions are motiveless. Even when there are motives, the chances are that you will only second-guess correctly a small percentage of the real reasons. But it’s still better than taking everything at face value, right?

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