Monday, November 21, 2011

People Are Lousy At Describing Behavior.

Yeah. You probably are, too. In my lazier moments, so am I, even though I should know better. When the question is "What happened?" or "What did she do?" or "How did he react?", here's how people usually describe behavior:

She got upset.

He lost it.

She couldn't keep it together.

He got mad.

Does this sound familiar? I hear it everyday, from really smart people. When I ask, "So, what happens when you tell him he can't go over to his friend's house?" I get, "Oh, he gets really upset. He has a fit."

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The funny thing is, it could stop there. I could nod my head and assume I know exactly what they're talking about. We all know what a fit is, right?

Right?!?

The problem is that while I'm picturing the kid, all red-faced and screaming obscenities, throwing cutlery, jumping up and down, and kicking the family dog... his parents might be picturing him weeping inconsolably while rocking in the corner. Those two things look really different! But the word "fit" could be applied to both of them. See, "descriptions" of behavior usually aren't describing behavior. They are merely summing up and labeling, a kind of linguistic shorthand we all use. 

Most of my job is getting people to paint the picture of behavior for me, because I'm sitting in my office and don't actually get to see things go down (not usually, at least). I need to know the specifics--I need people to SHOW me, not TELL me.

Yes! There it is! Showing vs. telling is not just relevant to writing. It's essential to my effectiveness as a psychologist, and to anyone who wants to really figure out why people do what they do. We have to get the description of the behavior ... but also, the context, the environment, the relationships, the sequence of events. For me, if I only get the "telling" version of things, if I don't dig deeper, I'm going to fail.

I think this happens a lot in human communication--Person A says something, and Person B assumes he understands what A is saying. He pictures it in his head, and he responds to A based on that picture. But of course, A has a completely different picture in her head and is reacting with it in mind. Glorious miscommunication in action.

Now, tell me. Have you ever had a miscommunication like this? Have you ever assumed you knew what someone meant, only to find out the two of you were picturing something completely different? How does this kind of showing vs. telling language affect your life? And how about your writing life?

And yes! It's Monday, which means you should visit Laura to read her Mental Health Monday post. Do it. Or else I'll have a fit.

26 comments:

  1. Yes, I hear people do this all the time, but it didn't occur how maddening it must be in your profession!

    In my case, I try to draw out descriptions from my fifth graders in their writing. It's an uphill battle, as they replace one idiom for another.

    Sad that the general population has lost their talent for description. We used to communicate through letter writing, before the telephone became common. People used to do a better job of this, right?

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  2. Yup. I'm working on taking out comments by my POV character on the mood of other characters and instead letting the reader see how a character's feelings are affecting their behaviour.

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  3. "See, 'descriptions' of behavior usually aren't describing behavior. They are merely summing up and labeling, a kind of linguistic shorthand we all use." LOVE THESE TWO LINES! Fantastic post, and a great reminder that I need to do a better job describing/showing my character's emotions sometimes.

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  4. Oh you're right, Sarah. I'm better at describing in my writing than I am in real life. But then in real life, no one really cares about a description on my kids' behavior. At least I don't think they are. And I just find it easier to write about.

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  5. This made my day because for the first time I've really been working on Show vs. Tell. I never relaized how much I tell! My editor has taught me what to look for and where to add description. The biggest words I replace are 'it' and 'that'. What's it? What's that? Is what she'll start with and I'll find myself going back to the drawing board and really SHOWING her the emotion of the reader.

    I also noticed I don't set up properly!!! Example: A voice nudged me awake.

    My editor swoops in and says "Jen, a voice can't nudge someone awake, but a hand can!"

    Her method works and I'm eternally grateful!

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  6. Great post Sarah! You know, we all strive to show vs. tell because we know it's the way we should be writing, but much of the time we don't slow down to realize how it changes the reader's perception of what they are reading to do so. Excellent!

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  7. love this! i was actually nanoing and came to this scene, and was starting to type it, and then that thought you mentioned about stories kinda being like the space between two characters snuck into my head, and i realized when this one character uses a certain word she thinks one thing, and the character she's talking to thinks another completely, and it made for a really funny conversation. so, now i'm on the lookout for this kind of thing... more than before at least. thanks sarah!

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  8. Ooh, ooh!! You hit it so on the head! The beginning of your post brought to mind the times I've broken up squabbles between my four kids. When I ask those same questions you typed, the answer I receive are so vague that I can't figure out what really happened. Tough to teach lessons to them when the information is so unclear.

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  9. For creatures that are so advanced because of their ability to communicate, humans are surprisingly limited at the same time.

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  10. This has to be the best show vs. tell post I've seen! Awesome.

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  11. This is wonderful, Sarah. I love it. Next time I'm writing behavior I'm going to pretend I'm talking to you and having to describe what actually happened. The shorthand is soooo short-sighted! Your post also made me think of how the most compelling, most appreciated speakers are people who present word pictures to their audiences. Great food for thought. Thanks.

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  12. Wow did you bring me right back to my family therapy days--LOL! Made of awesome!

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  13. You nailed it, Sarah.

    As for miscommunications: all the time. In fact, just got off the phone after apologizing to my wife for a miscommunication. The two of us will be reading your post at the dinner table tonight.

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  14. What an excellent point, and one I hadn't considered. I remember my daughter asking me if she could go to a boy's party. I pictured ... well, she's 15. Turned out it was Pizza and DVD's :-)

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  15. argh, you're so right. I had to work on my behavior vocabulary. But also my smell vocabulary. I'm just bad at describing smells past "good" and "bad." :D LOL!

    Have a great week, girl~ :o) <3

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  16. Nice one to remember when writing too. great post!

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  17. As far as fits goes, around here there is the "hissy fit" and the "I'm 12 fit" and by far the most dangerous, the "I-have-too-much-homework fit."
    *sigh*

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  18. You have described exactly the problem with text messages! I'm forever telling my daughter to CALL the person when there is a problem (usually her boyfriend, LOL) because a text message leaves too much up to interpretation and doesn't give enough valuable info. She texts, "Are we hanging out tonight?" He responds, "I'm going to Shawn's this afternoon." Well, she thinks that means they aren't hanging out. He thinks he's telling her they can hang out when he's finished hanging with Shawn. What a mess! Communication is becoming a lost art.

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  19. I love this post! The first time I went to see my therapist, she asked me how a specific thing made me feel, and my answer was "weird."

    She looked at me and clear as day her face said, "Duh." Then, very kindly, she asked me to be more specific. How many times have I asked that of my writing students! Now I'm much more aware of how I describe my feelings, in all instances, not just in therapy. I'm working on it in my writing but it's HARD.

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  20. That's why, "this is what I'm hearing you say," is such an important part of conversation.

    Not so good in fiction, though.

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  21. This is also pretty prevalent in email communication too. Can't tell you how often I thought one thing but the writer/sender meant another.

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  22. Hi Sarah! I'm so happy to have found your blog, and your background is so unique. A great post... I look forward to more!

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  23. Great to discover your blog through Lydia's! We have much in common - I went to grad school for counseling psych and I also love unapologetically fantastical YA :)

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  24. LOVE this! And thanks for the shout out.

    BTW, one of my favorite responses to my question of if a patient has suicidal thoughts:

    "Not really."

    WTF!?!?!?!?!? Ugh.

    Always have to follow up on that one.

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  25. Great post! I'll remember to think those responses through a bit more in my writing.

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