Meta Talk: The Art of Reading Between the Lines

A couch potato father while watching TV admonished his son, “Ajay, it is high time you should start with your home-work. Watching TV will do you no good.”

S: Dad, do you mean what you say.?

F: Certainly, I say what I mean.

S: Does it mean that I see  what I eat is the same as I eat what I see?

Meta-Talk ( based on Meta-Talk : Guide to Hidden Meanings in Conversations by Gerard Nierenberg & Henry H Calero) connotes the hidden or the real meaning behind what we communicate; also called as reading between the lines. Cliché are the worn-out words or phrases which are normally used when people are either lazy or not imaginative in conveying the right meaning. Some examples of the divergence between what people say and what they mean are discussed below:

False Modesty: A friend of mine, a HR manager is a regular at the conference, training circuit. He ensures to take his pictures during the events, like being at the lectern, receiving bouquets, or in a panel discussion. The linkedin post invariably starts with the phrase: I have been humbled by receiving the certificate, bouquet, getting the best performance rating etc. The other day I saw a speaker at a raised platform, stretching his arms to the fullest, shouting at the top of his voice and saying, “I am not boasting but, in my humble opinion etc?” Rest assured these phrases indicate that they are simply bragging about themselves. That is false modesty.

Incidentally & BTW: These words are used to introduce a statement. The intent may be to convey just by chance I happen to think. They are generally used by shy people not sure of themselves. However as a cliché, both words may indicate that the speaker wants to say something very important catching the listener off-guard. E.g. Husband says, “Incidentally I have to go to Delhi for an urgent meeting.” Or a lady telling a friend, “ BTW do you know Shruti is opting for a divorce.”

Alternatively  the words can be also used to mislead the listener in believing  the message to be unimportant or of a routine nature.

Sales manager saying to his executive, “BTW Suresh, the credit for this Rs. 50L order shall be going to Ramesh as he has generated the lead.”

I’ll Do my best/I’ll Try: Patient,” Doctor, what are my chances?” Dr “ I’ll do my best.” Meaning there is no hope.

Manager: “You have reached hardly 50% of your target. I want you to meet your targets come what may.”

Executive: “ I’ll do my best.” This may  mean the executive cannot do anything better. When he says I’ll try, it indicates que sera sera. (whatever will be,will be) Both the manager and the subordinate after the meeting feel they have discharged their duties to the best of their abilities.

We and they: Generally these words look quite simple. But sometimes the meta talk may reveal the biases and prejudices we carry about a community. Sudhir Toro, a friend of mine is a liberal thinker. Once while discussing the Bangla Desi migrants issue, he put up whats app post about how Bangla Desh is performing well in terms of economic indicators like unemployment rate, GDP growth etc. Considering the data, the migrant issue might have been blown out of proportion. A group member responded ‘So why don’t you go there?’ Can you see the metatalk in the word there?

‘Why do they oppose CAA and NRC? We are vegetarians but they eat anything. They are not supposed to drink water from our wells.’ Can you see the alienation between we and they?

Using We instead of I: The General Manager tells the assistant manager during the performance appraisal, “We have decided that you do not have the desired skill set for promoting you to the next level.” By using we, the GM has achieved the following purposes.

  1. Apportion the responsibility: The GM would like to soften the blow by saying the decision was taken primarily by the MD but in consultation with the GM
  2. Increasing the distance: The distance between the appraisee and decision maker has increased thus preventing the former in reaching the latter.

Only: According to Sigmund Freud, there are several repressed thoughts and images in the subconscious mind (be it sexual or otherwise) which may try to force their way in the conscious mind. Denial of the entry is achieved by using different processes, one of them being the word only. E.g. if a person were to have a worst nightmare which he may not like to enter his conscious mind, he will say, “It was only a dream.”

A slick salesman selling a beautiful dress may  say, “ Ma’am, it costs only Rs. 2,995,  “conveying a message it is NOT EXPENSIVE.

Adrian and John  were two devout Christians who had missed observing the fast on Good Friday,  the most solemn religious fasting day for the Christians.  When asked for atonement, the pastor asked, “ Adrian, what do you like the most?” “Sharing the marital bed with my wife.” Said Adrian. “In that case, sleep in the other bedroom for the next four weeks” said the pastor. When asked a similar question, John replied, “Pastor, it is smoking my favourite cigar”, Pastor said ,” In that case refrain from  smoking cigars for the next four weeks.”

Some days later, Adrian’s wife enters his bedroom. Startled Adrian says,” Honey, it’s ONLY the third day. We have still a long way to go.” To which the wife replies, “ Adrian, I came here ONLY to tell you that John is smoking a cigar.”  You may notice the degree of denial in the above. What they said and what they meant or the intent  was different.

But: But is a conjunction used to connect two or more clauses.  However it may negate the original meaning. E.g. an executive telling his manager, ”Sorry, I could not reach the office in time, but I was stuck in traffic.” Son telling his father, “I want to go to the gym daily but it is quite far”. Or a waiter telling the customer, “Sorry for the delay in serving you, but there are too may orders.”

By using but, the apology rather than sounding authentic now looks fake and a justification. What is justified as a reason may be perceived as an excuse. One suggestion is to use and instead of but. Better still, say sorry and give no justification.

Dr Sandor Feldman in his work Mannerisms in Speech and Gestures says that people often consciously or unconsciously conceal what they genuinely want to say using Meta-Talk.

So next time whenever you are using words like only, incidentally, BTW, but, or phrases like in my humble opinion, I am not boasting etc. be careful, you are actually conveying  something different than what is being said!

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘ What you are shouts so loudly in my ears, I cannot hear what you say.’

Rajan Parulekar, rajan@paradigm-info.com,

 

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