On Being Misconstrued

By | 2012/07/04

If you write, you will sometimes be misconstrued. If you read, you will sometimes misconstrue what you read. These things are part of the human condition.

If you speak, you will often be misconstrued, and if you listen you will often misconstrue. These things are even more certain. But the beauty of conversation is that you can rapidly realize the you have misconstrued or been misconstrued and correct or seek correction until you and your interlocutor arrive at a common understanding.

It is not that simple when you write. I was misconstrued recently, by Joe Pairman, in an article in the CIDM e-newsletter. Based on his reading of several post in this blog and other writings, Joe accused me of misunderstanding minimalism in three ways. (The substance of what he has to say is worth reading, despite it being inspired by a misconstruction of my opinions.)

Now, Joe is a careful reader and an honest writer. He provided links to all the articles of mine that he criticized so that his readers could judge for themselves (and I got a substantial blip in my visit count on the blog posts in question as a result). Nontheless, Joe has completely misconstrued my meaning, or, in some cases, he had read far more into passing reference to minimalism than I ever intended.

I protested his misreading rather vigorously in a comment on Google+. In reply he apologized for the misreading and provided a mild defense of his reading of my words. Privately he extended a further apology, and I accepted it, and we are now perhaps better friends than we were before the whole incident, and certainly better understand each other’s positions on minimalism.

But the question remains, who was responsible for Joe misconstruing me in this way? Was I careless in how I expressed my views, in the particular words I chose to express certain ideas, or was Joe reading something into the text that simply wasn’t there on the page. Or does the blame lie in human nature, in the limits of our language and the construction of our brains. The truth is probably that is was some of each.

There are several things that interest me about this whole incident — things which perhaps cast as general light on what it means to write, to read, and to communicate on the Web.

1. It is hard to know if this incident was bad for me or good for me overall. My refutation of Joe’s misreading did not appear in the CIDM e-newsletter, which does not support comments, so many who read his article will not have seen my response. People might be led to believe I don’t understand minimalism, and that could be bad for me. On the other hand, because Joe linked to all my articles he cited, a significant number of people read my blog and other articles that may not have read me before. Maybe I retained some of those readers, which would be good for me.

2. As in a conversation, I did detect that I had been misconstrued, and Joe did discover that he had misconstrued me, and, as in conversation, we then talked it out until we reached a common understanding. But unlike a conversation, parts of that exchange became, and remain, part of the public record of the Web. And because not all the parts of that exchange are linked to each other, people in the future may come across parts of the exchange and not know that the rest of it exists, leaving them with an incomplete picture. The Web is a media with the immediacy of a conversation, but the persistence and scope of a publication. We have not really learned how to deal with this yet.

3. The CIDM e-newsletter should be comment enabled. Everything published on the web should be comment enabled.

4. It is impossible to write quickly and publish frequently (as in a blog) and also anticipate and forestall any kind of possible misconstruction of your words. It is also unbelievably tedious to write and to read any document structured to avoid any possibility of being misconstrued. Read any legal document or technical standard and you will see what I mean. That which cannot be misconstrued often cannot be understood.

5. Precisely because it is so hard to write in a way that avoids all possibility of being misconstrued, it is also hard to avoid misconstruing others. We all look at the world through the lens of our own interests, perspectives, and pet peeves. We process what we read according to the tracks laid down in our own heads, and it can take great discipline one our part, and great effort on the writer’s part, to knock us off our familiar track and engage our minds fully on the track the author is attempting to lay down. Once we believe we are on the trail of an error on the author’s part, our focus tends to narrow further. Confirmation bias takes over and we begin to see only those parts of the author’s words that seem to confirm the opinion we have already formed. It is really really hard not to do this. (I can say this with assurance, for I have misconstrued many people in my time, and been ruefully and painfully disabused of my mistake at least some of the time.)

6. The approach that the schools typically take to teaching students to read critically is quite wrong. They teach students to be skeptical, and even cynical, about the works they are reading. What they should be teaching them is to be skeptical of their own interpretation of the author’s words. They should be teaching them about the danger of misconstruing other people’s meaning, and teaching them to question their first impressions of what the writer has said, especially if they find the author’s words shocking or misguided. Imagine how the complexion of election campaigns would change if the practitioners of gotcha journalism would adopt this discipline instead!

7. Paper allowed the words of authors to reach readers over great distance, but it did not abolish that distance. The Web brings authors and readers into intimate contact. The Web, like Jeopardy, invites us to make our responses in the form of a question. This is probably part of how we need to learn to write for the Web.

Do you think I have said something monstrously silly or outrageous in this post? Maybe I have. Maybe you have misconstrued my meaning. Fortunately there is a comment field right below this text, so you can ask me to explain or defend. Please do.


10 thoughts on “On Being Misconstrued

  1. Patrick Gribben

    I really liked this
    “That which cannot be misconstrued often cannot be understood.” because it sums up the dilemma of those writing highly technical documentation. Also, it is gnomic and highly Twitterable.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Patrick. On the dilemma of writing highly technical documentation, I do think there is a trend among tech writers to set themselves ever loftier and more unattainable goals. We cannot produce documentation that will instantly turn novices into experts. Human brains don’t work that way. Expertise is developed through a layering of experience, reading, conversation, and apprenticeship, and documentation can only make a contribution to this process. It cannot replace it.

      The attempt to discover a magic bullet of documentation that will turn novices instantly to experts may do much practical harm. It can lead writers to pursue exotic and expensive solutions that may not actually perform as well as a few simple well chosen words in contributing what documentation can contribute to the reader’s development.

  2. Pamela Clark

    +1 to Patrick’s comment. That is exactly the statement which resonated with me. I look forward to each of your posts, Mark.
    You have a knack for expressing principles or aspects of the bigger picture that I really appreciate. For example, you wrote “The Web is a media with the immediacy of a conversation, but the persistence and scope of a publication. We have not really learned how to deal with this yet.”
    This is a really cogent observation, which I think many of us understand to some degree, but don’t necessarily think about in those terms. For example, I have friends and family who are on FB, some who enjoy and use it, others who feel pressured to “be on FB”, but who resent FB’s gathering and persistence of what goes on there. Others who were so entirely freaked out about people from their distant pasts quickly finding and friending them on FB, that they avoid the medium entirely. Still, the idea that every comment, status post, or “Like” that has ever been emitted will live forever (or FB’s definition of forever) is at least food for some thought about the virtual footprint we are making.
    As for tech doc/comm aspects, I suspect that responses to this dilemma will evolve over time. One thing that could be improved is something of a pet peeve of mine. I wish that every blog post, article, and such that I find on the web, had at least a date indicating when it was written. I hate finding things and having no idea how current the information might be.

    Your point #6 is also interesting – teaching people to be skeptical of their own interpretation of what they read (and hear) is rather progressive. I don’t disagree. I’ll have to ask my son whether he had any hints of that kind of thinking in his recent college experience, he being much closer to the official education experience than myself. Food for thought and hopefully conversation, indeed.

    1. K.Vee.Shanker.

      I second your comment on point#6.

    2. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Pamela. Insofar as life is a process of living down the follies of one’s past, as it often seems to be, Facebook certainly seems to make things more difficult. Should we shun it in consequence? I’m not sure. Perhaps the creation of a permanent record of our lives (over which we, hopefully, have at least some measure of control) may prove in the long run to be beneficial, and perhaps, when all our follies are recorded, we will kinder in how we judge and forgive the follies of others. The paranoia of the gotcha! era certainly does not seem to have done much to improve our civic, economic, or social lives.

  3. K.Vee.Shanker.

    Hi Mark,

    In misconstruing others’ content, be it orally or on page, you can take it that I’m your close associate. I’ve caught myself several times on that fortunately before the damage. Many times, when I want to attack the person, I force myself to read back, which saved me many times. Some times, postponing such outbursts also helps. Even if I have construed the content correctly, I’m not so wild in my remarks the next day.

  4. Julie Phelps

    Hi Mark,
    This was well presented and I appreciate seeing it all laid out as logically as you did. In the earlier days of posting content online I fell victim (not sure I was actually victimized) to being misconstrued. Both my feelings and my ego were hurt. Of course, I needed to learn my way past such reactions.
    Once I considered the delivery of my message, I could understand how a small group of people may have honestly misconstrued my points and intention. I therefore became more cautious in my presentations. Such caution is not really the essence or beauty of a blog, but it was advisable in the role as company representative that I was in. I was posting to a forum for one of the company products. The forum had some volatile personalities who spent a great deal of time nit-picking and stirring the pot. Their presence was not and is not unusual; such minorities easily disrupt the fun of the majority unless managed very well.
    The lesson I learned was to write, step away, return to read through the words again, edit, then post. I honed my writing style.
    One thing I never considered until now is this part of your above post: “What they should be teaching them is to be skeptical of their own interpretation of the author’s words.”
    I will apply that line of thought to my own reading from now on, for all the obvious reasons.
    Thank you for the big THUNK! up the head!

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Julie. Thanks for the comment.

      I think one of the things about working online rather than on paper is that you find out much more readily, and much more quickly, when you are being misconstrued. That’s a healthy thing, I guess, but it can certainly be disconcerting when it happens. Certainly, it can discipline you to be careful about the more obvious ways in which your words could be misconstrued, though you will never be able to eliminate all possibility of misconstruction.

      The nit pickers and pot stirrers will always be with us, of course. I have learned that it is usually best to leave them alone unless your more mainstream readers start agreeing with them. That’s when you know that the nit pickers may have a real point that deserves consideration.

  5. Alex Knappe

    Being misconstrued is based on the nature of information transportation. As an analogy you could view the true meaning of a piece of information as the content of a lockbox. The lockbox would be the formal container of transportation, be it speech, written text or anything else. The lock itself would then be the actual expression within that container, be it words, spoken or written, or be it pictographs or anything else.
    Now there’s the sender of that lockbox, putting content into it, closing and locking it.
    On the other side you’ll have the recipient. He’s got several means of getting to the content of the box: Open the lock or shake the lockbox and guess what’s inside.
    As a sender you also have got several means of ease the task for the recipient: Include a key for the lock, Add a pack list for the content (so the recipient knows what inside without even having to try the lock) or use a lock that isn’t hard to brake by force.
    If you, as a sender, instead use the outmost strongest lock you possibly could find for that lockbox, your recipient will either have to guess what’s inside, or give up and never find out what’s inside.
    For personal information to a known recipient, a retina scanner as a lock is suitable, but for information, that is thought for the public with an unknown recipient, anymore than a paper seal needs a key or pack list to be sent along with the information.
    As long as this isn’t the case, the recipients will have to guess – and guessing always leads to misinterpretation. And as a tech writer that is the least you want to have.

  6. Pingback: How Do You Gamify Writing? | I'd Rather Be Writing

Leave a Reply