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May 14, 2022

Misreading intentions

Human conflict almost always starts with misreading the other’s intentions. The ability to infer intentions from behavior is a gift that comes to humans with their particular kind of sociality. We evolved to guess what the other person might be thinking. However, as it is often the case, an advanced ability comes with side effects, when it is in overdrive. Humans in general do not tolerate uncertainty very well; even less so in relational context. It is difficult to us to observe another person’s behavior and think: I do not know why she did that. I do not understand how he really feels about me. The temptation is always to create a coherent story. A very curt email means he is dismissing me. An objection means she is angry at me. Critical feedback means they are biased against me. Those kinds of explanations pop into our minds quite naturally. And once the misreading of intentions happens, every new interaction tends to reinforce the initial erroneous hypothesis, because every new interaction is colored by the initial misreading.

Anthropologists specifically train to avoid over-interpreting their subject’s behavior. They learn to assume that within a different cultural lens, the meaning of every behavior may be very different than one the researcher naturally assumes while using his or her own cultural lens. However, when people come together to work at a place like university, they do not act as anthropologists. They overestimate cultural coherence of their group, and routinely overinterpret each other’s actions. In the Academia, people get mad at each other all the time. In my humble estimate, at least 90% of these conflicts are absolutely baseless. Those involved share values and beliefs, but simply misread each other’s intentions. I also cannot help noticing, that such conflicts are more common towards the end of the Spring semester, when people are tired, and are subconsciously looking to attribute their fatigue to someone else. Their relational imagination is fried, and more generous interpretations of other people behavior is more difficult to achieve.

What helps is personal contact at the very onset of a conflict. Go to the other person as soon as possible, and talk about intentions. A face-to-face interaction involves more universal, more culturally-neutral means of communication, such as body language, facial expression, and the tone of voice. Face-to-face contact is a routine relational hygiene. Another good habit is to simply learn to suppress the over-active imagination, and ignore behaviors that may be interpreted as hostile.

It is especially damaging to assume that if you feel that someone’s behavior is offensive, it is therefore offensive. This kind of over-trusting one’s own feelings leads to disastrous consequences for all involved. Our feelings lie to us all the time, in the same way our rational minds may deceive us. To assume that you are incapable of making a mistake is a self-destructing trait. It closes the feedback loop from other people, and claims too much righteousness. People who go in that direction for a long time lose all ability to adjust, to learn, and ultimately, to relate to other people. If you think you always know what other people mean, you cannot work and live among human beings.

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