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The Literal Person

The literal person says what he means and means what he says. Who could have predicted that this would cause problems in today’s society?

A literal person is fighting an uphill battle these days.  People refuse to take him by his word.  Everyone is so trained to interpret every utterance and endow every gesture with hidden meaning that a simple statement is no longer taken at face value.  Psychobabble and double speak have become all the rage.  Everyone is an expert at what you meant, intended to say, or implied.  People read so much between the lines, they forget to simply read the words on the line.

A few years back the circular rationale of “No means no” was all the rage.  Forget for a moment that one cannot define the meaning of a word with the same word, the sheer need for having to state that “no” does not imply permission will tell you just how far literal interpretation has decayed.  

For a literal person, a person who means exactly what he states, this figurative over-interpretation is sheer hell.  First he examines his statements that failed to have the intended effect.  Was the word choice ambiguous?  Could his statement have been misinterpreted?  Was the recipient unable to hear the words?  Is there a language barrier?  Was the pronunciation flawed?

The literal person then resorts to whittling down his language to succinct, no, concise, no; to simple and clear words, direct statements, short sentences.  This leeches beauty from language, and a literal person often has great appreciation for terminology, syntax, the delights of allegory and metaphor, the subtlety of modifiers, the joys of rhythm and even rhyme.  Puns are to be avoided, for they require interpretation.  The literal person still believes that the fault lies with him, not the listeners.

But the approach is unsuccessful.  A short, direct sentence is interpreted as “something is wrong with the speaker”.  The literal person is now accused of being grumpy, unhappy, bossy, bitchy, or demanding.  ”He is ordering people around, who does he think he is?” 

The literal person feels beleaguered and misunderstood.  How can he get his message across?  Finally he avoids communication and prefers doing things himself.  Naturally that is fodder for further interpretation.  

Chances are you cross paths with a literal person now and then.  Try to take them at their word, and refrain from further interpretation.  If you do exactly what they said, respond only to the topic they initiated, and take their statements at face value, a literal person will respond with delight and happiness.  He will say so, because that is what a literal person does.  If you misunderstood the situation and you were dealing with yet another figurative speaker that requires extensive interpretation to understand, you can always pretend to be a literal person yourself.  

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User Comments
  1. BruceW

    On December 10, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    What you describe is a classic aspect of people with Asperger’s or a mild autism. But there are also some people who are very literal and who are quite aware of being so – it’s just their preferred way of speech. I’m such a person. It doesn’t stop me from using figuritive language and irony when I’m playing about, but when I am trying to get a real message across please listen to my actual words and interpret them to mean just what I say.
    It’s one reason I prefer written communication: it gives me time to choose my words with the care I want.

  2. lxdollarsxl

    On December 14, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    people do presume at times and dont listen

  3. Calare

    On December 14, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Bruce, I am another person who gets frustrated when people do not take me at my word. Agree with you on the written word.

    I am not so literal that I don’t enjoy the playful side of language, but when I am trying to get a point across, it is usually exactly what I said. It puzzles me how a simple statement can be misinterpreted so many times.

    Of course, now I am afraid I have Asperger’s.

  4. Calare

    On December 14, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    lxdollarsxl – listening is a skill I need to hone as well. But others should listen to me! ;)

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