Post-Mortem on a Misunderstood Post: Online Misunderstandings and How to Avoid Them

August 3, 2018

I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Given an Event A or a Factual Statement/Observation B, what are the ways in which people come to misunderstand the nature of that event or statement?

Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say.

To me, after solving a mystery or concluding an investigation one of the most important and useful questions to ask is: Why did people think it was something it wasn’t? Why did people get it wrong? In many cases where there’s written records we can fairly easily follow the chain of events and deconstruct the evolution of the idea.

By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication.

A few weeks ago on Facebook someone commented about what a disaster the Trump administration was for the environment, and as an example he specifically cited the EPA’s role in the Gold King mine spill, in which three million gallons of mine waste and tailings, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals, were accidentally released into the Animas river from an abandoned mine in southern Colorado.

I pointed out that Trump wasn’t president at the time of the Gold King spill in 2015. I remember the situation well, in part because it affected my home state of New Mexico and the matter was widely reported for months.

My brief comment was entirely innocuous: polite, factual, and neutral in tone. Yet, somewhat to my surprise, it was interpreted as somehow defending Trump or his disastrous environmental choices including appointing since-resigned Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. My comment was in no way any defense of Trump, nor an indictment of the EPA under Obama; no political message was intended at all. I was simply correcting a minor factual error, just as I would if someone referenced Sydney as the capital of Australia, or thought that Breaking Bad was set and filmed in Phoenix.

I had no agenda, no ulterior motive for the mention, other than to not let misinformation go uncorrected if I could spend ten seconds and type a response. As a writer I appreciate people pointing out my mistakes and errors, not only because I don’t want to misinform people but because I care about getting things right. But the interaction brought into sharp focus how many assumptions people bring to discussions, and especially ones of a political nature. The assumption seemed to be that anyone who points out a mistake is arguing for “the other side,” whatever that happens to be in the context—instead of, you know, just pointing out an error while not trying to make a point about any larger counter-argument.

Online Dynamics

Trying to unpack exchanges is often a frustrating and unwieldy experience. In many Facebook threads, for example, so many people are chiming in that it’s often impossible to analyze and correct misunderstandings in real time. I recently came across an example on social media, and because it only involved about a half-dozen comments, it was amenable to a brief analysis.

It began with a news article quoting Henry Cavill, an actor who plays Superman (as far as I know; I’m not a fan of his and haven’t seen any of his films). He made a comment in an interview that “I think a woman should be wooed and chased, but maybe I’m old-fashioned for thinking that.” Several of his other comments seemed problematic, including his apparent concern that he might be thought a rapist if he went up to a woman and began talking to her.

One poster, “M,” wrote “‘Chasing a woman’ implies she’s running away from you. Think about why she feels the need to run away from you instead of trying to hunt her down.” I read the comment and replied, “I don’t think he meant it literally… I’ve heard the phrase ‘chasing girls’ spoken by both men and women and they’ve always meant it figuratively, more like flirting or dating, etc.”

I am a longtime writer and editor, so I probably notice misuse of language more often than most people. When people say they are “literally dying” after eating hot wings, for example, I might ask, “You’re literally dying? Should I call an ambulance?”—resulting in a playful flip of a middle finger showing that even in the throes of literal death they have a sense of humor. I’m reminded of this classic exchange between the members of Spinal Tap:

David St. Hubbins: We say, “Love your brother.” We don’t say it really, but—

Nigel Tufnel: We don’t literally say it.

St. Hubbins: No, we don’t say it.

Tufnel: We don’t really, literally mean it.

I try not to be pedantic, but on occasion I do gently correct people when they’re wrong. In casual conversation, for example, I rarely bother to point out the difference between further (extent) and farther (distance), but now and then I might point out an error—regardless of the context or subject matter. This was such a time. When I asked “You think Cavill meant he literally had women running away from him? I guess it’s possible, I’m just saying it’s much more likely to be a figure of speech,” M replied, “Nope. Didn’t say that.”

I looked back up at his comment, and that is exactly what he said: “chasing a woman implies she’s running away from you. Think about why she feels the need to run away.” He was clearly and explicitly referring to a literal interpretation of the phrase: someone actually, literally “running away.”

People often use the words “chase” and “pursue” in the figurative sense: People “pursue” a career in theater or a degree in economics, for example, or “chase” dreams or a relationship. The idiomatic usage does not imply that what is being pursued or chased (a career, for example, or a wife or husband) is necessarily trying to get away or avoid the person doing the chasing or pursuing. The figurative meaning is seeking out or making an attempt to achieve some specific status.

It’s only in the literal sense—not the figurative one—that those words imply any verb such as “running away.” M was simply wrong: Despite his denial, he was absolutely interpreting Cavill’s phrase literally instead of figuratively.

At that point the others posting seemed to acknowledge that I was correct: Cavill had used the phrase figuratively instead of literally (though no one admitted that the original post I replied to had mistakenly described a literal interpretation). One wrote, “A figure of speech that still promotes rape culture. Don’t use it. It’s creepy.” This is where a second error entered the discussion: That person (and others) seemed to think that I was defending Cavill, which I certainly was not. I never wrote or implied that the fact that Cavill was using the phrase figuratively instead of literally meant the usage was acceptable; that is an illogical inference and a (surely unintentional) straw man fallacy. My comment was narrowly and specifically directed at the commenter who wrongly interpreted the phrase literally. I’d have made an identical comment if M had stated that the phrase “women go crazy for actors” implied (literal) mental illness instead of (figurative) enthusiasm.

Another poster then reiterated the mistake in a comment presumably directed at me: “Maybe if you don’t know why this sort of thing is problematic you should research it for yourself rather than annoying those of us who have done our research.”

Yet I never claimed or suggested that the phrase wasn’t problematic; I offered no opinion about it. I was talking about literal versus figurative—not problematic versus non-problematic, and specifically about one person’s misinterpretation about a common phrase Cavill used, not about Cavill’s comments themselves (I tried to make that clear on the thread by responding to M’s comment itself).

At this point I recognized that trying to correct the errors and faulty assumptions would be futile; all three of those commenting had missed my point (despite apparently agreeing with me). Had I tried to explain the distinction between literal and figurative, it would have simply come across and condescending or changing the subject (though in my mind that was the subject). They were talking about Cavill’s comments, while I was talking about why M’s interpretation was literal instead of figurative, despite his denial. We were literally—yes, literally—talking about different things, while mistakenly assuming we understood each other’s comments. No wonder the conversation promptly went off the rails.

Like the person who wrongly interpreted my correction (about who was in charge of the EPA during the Gold King mine spill) as defending Trump, several people wrongly interpreted my correction of M as somehow defending Cavill or his comments or behavior—despite me having repeated my comments to clarify any misunderstandings. On my second comment I didn’t add “—so what’s the problem?” but instead reiterated the point of my comment (M’s interpretation as literal instead of figurative), which others agreed with.

The irony is that Cavill’s interview was problematic for reasons having nothing to do with whether the phrase was meant literally or figuratively. M chose, for whatever reason, to comment on—and misinterpret—an aspect of Cavill’s comments that was not in fact an issue; virtually everyone (except M, apparently) reading the phrase “chasing women” would correctly understand that Cavill was not implying that women are literally running away from him.

Indeed the actor soon apologized for using the phrase and other comments: “I just wanted to apologize for any confusion and misunderstanding that this [interview] may have created. Insensitivity was absolutely not my intention. In light of this I would just like to clarify and confirm to all that I have always and will continue to hold women in the highest of regard.”

When I first corrected M’s interpretation, I wasn’t trying to derail the conversation or start a fight, nor was I trolling anyone; I was merely trying to politely fix a factual error and keep the conversation on track, since M’s comment needlessly distracted from what Cavill actually said and meant. I had hoped he might respond with, “Yes, you’re right, he didn’t mean the phrase literally, implying that anyone was running away, but even figuratively it’s problematic,” and I’d have Liked the comment and we’d all have agreed and moved on. But no one wanted to back down, or admit they were wrong or misunderstood anything. Such is social media, of course, but it doesn’t mean we can’t see patterns and hopefully learn from them.

Keeping Convos On the Rails

It’s an interesting reminder of how much we bring to a conversation, how our expectations influence our interpretations. Here are few simple tips for avoiding misunderstandings, especially online where we are robbed of visual cues about the speaker’s intent or background.

1) If a phrase or comment is ambiguous, ask the person for clarification: “Do you mean…” or “Are you saying….” are excellent, respectful ways to be sure that you understand what’s being communicated, and so that follow-up responses are replying to the substance of a post, not a misunderstanding.

2) Clarify common definitions early in the conversation. If two people are using different definitions of “liberal,” or “feminist” and don’t realize it until fifteen minutes into an increasingly heated debate, everyone’s time has been wasted. Arguing over dictionary definitions is rarely useful, but providing a concise definition central to the discussion helps everyone understand each other. Others in the discussion may or may not share or accept that definition, but at least some clarity will be achieved.

3) Look for common ground, not differences. Everyone comes to a topic and situation with a different life experience and frame of reference. As Bill Nye noted, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Be open to the idea that you might learn something from others, instead of adopting a hostile or adversarial approach. When possible try to take other people’s words at face value—what they actually say and mean instead of what you think they’re saying, or think they mean.

4) Try to be charitable to others, instead of interpreting ambiguity in the worst possible way. The person you’re responding to may not use English as a first language, for example, or they may sincerely misunderstand what a word or phrase means.

Of course these tips are easier said than done in the midst of a quick internet exchange. I highly recommend Deborah Tannen’s book The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, for insight into effective communication. You can read the first chapter here.