Fill in the blank:
“What are you doing ___________(here)?”
at the European Parliament
on the planet
It always sounds a bit pompous to respond factually, “doing research for my dissertation,” or, alternatively, “trying to contribute to a more peaceable world.” One needs regular doses of humor to balance out the serious nature of both motivations.
Fortunately I have friends who regularly remind me of the wide range of sensible and insensible interpretations people can draw from particular actions, both recognizing and teasing me simultaneously. For instance, just Friday I received a joke about self-referential interpretation, and was informed that my sudden bursts of energy are like air being released from a balloon. Not bad, I thought, imagining the rapid diffusion of air into the atmosphere as the spread of ‘good stuff’. But no, she was referring to the propulsive effect on the balloon itself careening unpredictably in the manner of a ricochet on unseen updrafts, low-hanging fruit, unexpected corners and sudden potholes! (For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction?)
In social situations, I sometimes exaggerate the fact that people usually impose their own meanings on communicative behavior. If I want to join a conversation that is underway (or return to one from which I zoned out temporarily), I’ll listen briefly for a few key words and then make something up, as if I know exactly what they’re talking about but which I’m sure is rather far from what they actually mean. People who know me well will realize that I’m poking fun, whereas the responses of new acquaintances varies: some catch the joke, most clarify with an explanation, and a few give me a look suggesting they think I am off my rocker. (Always a possibility!)
I’ve heard it attributed to Freud that we tend to assume that other people understand what we say because we understand ourselves; a nice bit of projection that I often observe. Sometimes I even catch myself – the clue for me is when I have an emotional response that clearly does not match the circumstance, such as being asked for clarification, or when I interpret that the response indicates non-comprehension (wasn’t I just perfectly clear?!) or otherwise going in a direction which I did not anticipate (Huh? How does that follow?!). That little emotional buzz is a cue to pay more attention to the meaning-making process. Most of the time I have no problem with being asked for clarification, and most of the time I am not discombobulated by a response that falls outside of expectation (or desire). These interlocutory phenomena keep life interesting and demonstrate the substance of what I study: that communication itself is a fluid process, with meanings in perpetual motion because of real differences between individuals and our respective orientations to the moment(s) of interaction.
The range of factors composing a person’s “orientation” to a given communicative action or event is probably finite, but they can never be completely categorized – there are so many influences interacting with consciousness, habit, and perception. For instance:
… you need to fart.
The music is really loud, so you time your farts with the beat.
After a couple of songs,
you start to feel better as you approach your stop.
As you are leaving the tram,
people are really staring you down, and that’s when you remember:
you’ve been listening to your ipod.