Introspection

I’ve recently had some time to reflect on some things about myself. And I suspect my son James shares at least a portion of this personality trait with me.

It has long been known to my wife and close friends I am “different”. I don’t work well with incomplete rules. If you give me a set of rules or a process by which I can evaluate things I will do fine. But if something isn’t covered I will end up “stepping on someone’s toes”. A typical situation will go something like this:

My accuser, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

My defense will be, “Here are the rules, I didn’t break any of them.”

“Everyone knows you shouldn’t do that, you don’t need to be told.”

Things will deteriorate from there. I sometimes get offers to “help me”. But I don’t want their “help”. I want them to either enumerate things or give me a process by which I can unambiguously take the data and process it into a go/no-go decision. That discussion goes something like this:

“That’s just not possible come up with rules for everything.”

“You can’t punish me for breaking a rule you didn’t tell me about or even give me a hint about”.

“You should have known better.”

“How?”

“I can’t explain it! It’s just the way it is!”

“If you can’t even explain it then how do you expect me to know it? How is it that you know it? How do I know you aren’t just making things up as you go along?”

If I took them up on their offer to “help” me we would both soon be frustrated and angry. They with my constant pestering about “obvious” things. And me with their condescending attitude and having to constantly be asking for “permission”.

Surprising as it might be at first glance I believe this characteristic is closely related to another one articulated by my friend Eric. He describes me as “completely without guile”. To him this is “both refreshing and frightening”. It is refreshing because he can count on me to tell him precisely what I think without holding back or telling him what I think he wants to hear. It’s frightening because…well, because I will say precisely what I think without holding back. When I worked at Microsoft he had to “run interference” on some of the email I sent. A typical event would go something like this. He would come to my office and say,

“Your email caused quite a stir. My boss (or someone else in management) asked that I talk to you about it.”

“Which email?”

He would shudder and say, “Have you sent anything in the last 30 minutes?”

“Just a checkin email.”

“That’s probably okay. The one I’m talking about now was one you sent a couple hours ago.”

“And?”

“I’m not saying I disagree with what you said. It’s just that people aren’t comfortable with it being said.”

“Is there some way I could have known this before I sent it?”

His mouth will open and then slowly close as his eyes roll up towards the ceiling. He is thinking. He takes perhaps three or four seconds which is about the time it takes for him (he has an IQ of 165 and is an incredibly fast thinker) to search the entire Unabridged Oxford English dictionary in his mind for words to explain. There aren’t any. “No. For you, I don’t think you could have known. Just don’t send anything that might cause problems for a couple days until things cool down.”

“But checkin emails are okay?”

He starts to say “Yes” but stops as he realizes he would be creating a rule for which I would probably find an exception a few milliseconds later, and says, “Probably. Just be careful for a few days.”

“Are you unhappy with me?”

“I have far bigger problems than you. And having you throw hand grenades up and down the halls draws attention from all the havoc I create on my own. Just don’t do that too often.”

“Can you tell me what it was I did?”

[heavy sigh] “No. I don’t think I can.”

You might assume that with this apparently clueless personality that I am insensitive. That would be wrong. I am incredibly sensitive. I break into tears more frequently than some women. From “tear jerker” movies, to hearing of someone else’s pain, to being on the receiving end of minor slights, rejections, or insults–the tears start flowing with incredible ease. People at the Boomershoot 2005 dinner who listened to me telling about the loss of Adam Plumondore know what I’m talking about.

So what does all this mean? I’m not entirely sure but my guess is that I process information differently than most people. I know that I take and say things literally when others process or expect them to be processed “as they were intended”. I complain that people don’t listen to the words I say and find a way to misunderstand me. Others complain that I should know what they meant even though that’s not what they said.

I expect “the human experience” is far more subtle and nuanced than people realize. There are many things which are just an integral part of they way people think about things they are sort of in the position of a fish trying to describe water. They will tell me “the way things are” and I will think of a half dozen exceptions which they dismiss as being unimportant and I think are critical. They think I am “broken”, “defective”, or “handicapped” because I can’t understand. I think they are “obtuse”, “talking nonsense”, or “making things up as they go along”. I think it boils down to that, in a very real sense, I don’t share the same reality with a good share of the population. I wish there were some drugs they could take to cure them of their delusions.

5 thoughts on “Introspection

  1. Perhaps this theory“>http://www.mit.edu:8001/people/jcb/tact.html”>theory can help explain some of the above.

  2. Excellent! (The unmangled link is http://www.mit.edu:8001/people/jcb/tact.html)

    But that is incomplete and a bit off topic in my case. It goes beyond tact. It has to do with rules and finding exceptions to them. It has to do with precision and lack thereof in communication. It has to do with seeing the CORRECT bigger picture in the presence of the imprecise communication. I has to do with people insisting I MUST mean something other than what I said because it matches THEIR view of reality. It has to do with me seeing unresolvable ambiguity when they see a clear coherent picture.

  3. WOW, you Microsoft boss was awesome, wish I worked for souch an honest person.

    My last manager said I had “candor” issues, as I am a highscool dropout I assumed he meant I was abrasive, then when I looked it up and saw I was being too honest, well let’s just say I was unhappy.

    He is no longer my manager, my new manager understands me much better, but still has to smooth ruffled feathers sometimes.

  4. No need to get overly analytical about it, Joe. You’re just different. Really really different. But in a good way.

  5. >It has long been known to my wife and close friends I am “different”.

    Many others suspect as much. From the web sites to the bumper stickers on your pick-up, you’re at least one standard deviation out.

    > I don’t work well with incomplete rules. If you give me a set of rules or a process by which I can evaluate things I will do fine.

    Then you don’t work well and won’t do fine. Insert vague Godel reference here. Sorry.

    >My defense will be, “Here are the rules, I didn’t break any of them.”

    Most people will interpret this as gamesmanship. Especially if they see a pattern of it. Most people find gamesmanship annoying and signifying disrespect.

    In a healthy, voluntary, hierarchical organization, managers rely on employees using a combination of consideration and good judgment so that everyone can spend time on something other than formulating or following a detailed set of rules. This requires mutual empathy and respect.

    >”You can’t punish me for breaking a rule you didn’t tell me about or even give me a hint about”.

    >”You should have known better.”

    >”How?”

    >”I can’t explain it! It’s just the way it is!”

    I wouldn’t normally discourage someone for speaking truth to power, but DON’T DO THIS. Making your boss feel foolish is not a winning strategy. It demonstrates neither empathy nor respect. If your boss is worthy of neither, get a new job. If you must have this job, choke it down. Hierarchy 101. If your boss is worthy of empathy and respect show some of each.

    “I didn’t realize that it would be a problem. I certainly didn’t mean to cause you any grief.”

    “You should have known better.”

    “I didn’t see anything covering this in the employee handbook. From now on, I’ll run stuff like this by you first.”

    Acknowledge what you did had a regrettable effect on your boss. Offer a way to solve the problem that values your boss’s greater responsibility and authority within the organization.

    > He describes me as “completely without guile”.

    You can derive a certain amount of pride from this. Judging from this post though, you’re paying a price for living without rhetoric. Rhetoric involves crafting an argument that is tuned to its audience. Eric responds well to your bluntness. Using the same ethos everywhere gets you in trouble.

    >I know that I take and say things literally when others process or expect them to be processed “as they were intended”.

    Along the lines of the ‘tact filter’, I think there is an expectation by many speakers for the listener to do some of the work, to use empathy and imagination to map from the speaker’s space to the listener’s. Literal-minded people expect an objective, normalized presentation.

    You and I are on opposite sides of social linguistic equilibrium. You’re too literal and I’m too ironic. Normal people expect a ‘different’ balance and are put off by our extremes.

    There was a point a ways back where I realized that due to excessive literalness, I was jumping all over any story a friend of mine would tell. I’d correct exaggerations, clarify facts, and come up with exceptions all over the place. I realized that in doing so all the time, I was being an asshole. I still do this, but now I know that it’s wrong. Or counter-productive. Or non-productive. There’s a time and place to be very precise and to demand that of others. The rest of the time, I’ll just let it wash over me, or run it through the appropriate transformation matrix to get something close to normalized.

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