Monday, May 23, 2005


Being somewhat of a shrinking violet and (more importantly) not very good at picking up on social cues, I have developed a strange habit over the years that has become so ingrained that I'm no longer even aware that I use it unless pointed out to me or I jerk myself into consciousness for a few minutes. The habit or technique - if you want to call it that - is to be ambiguous. I'm not talking ambiguous in the sense of well maybe I do like something or maybe I don't. This is far more complex.

For the sake of illustration, let's say that that I'm writing a paper on some neuroscience topic and I need to interpret some data. The sentences I use tend to be of the sort that can be taken several different ways. From one perspective they could be viewed are arguing vociferously for a particular interpretation. Another way (depending on where the reader places the emphasis in the sentence), might be that I am hedging and uncertain about what the data mean.

I use this illustration to highlight my social inadequacies. I often find myself in a social interaction where someone asks my opinion of something, is cracking a joke or being serious. Unfortunately, I am quite incapable of reading body language, intonation or placing things in context, (so much of my life seems to be self-involved and wildly envisioning alternate interpretations of the world). Not wanting to look foolish or like an idiot my responses tend to be deliberately ambiguous. This leaves my actual intent dependent on the interactor's interpretation. If my comment offends and I am challenged I quickly offer an alternate meaning and get a better read on where a person is coming from and adapt my social style and things I talk about to fit my surroundings. This technique has saved my self-esteem more than once and, as I mentioned earlier is an automatic response when placed in unfamiliar or uncomfortable surroundings.

Unfortunately, it also can trip me up. At some level, I don't like making decisions or choices. It takes a lot of cognitive effort to do it right (from my perspective). Most things in life do not have simple answers and require careful, thoughtful analysis and so I choose to reserve that level of effort to a very few things in my life. Most other things do not get my detailed analysis and I feel that if I've not going to do it right I shouldn't do it at all. The use of ambiguity is my way of trying to fit in and let others make choices for me on those things that I do not consider worthy of my limited cognitive resources. The problem is, there are things should be important to me (retirement savings is currently high on my list) but are not included in that tiny list worthy of massive cognitive analysis.

Confession time. I've been in two PhD programs and both times fucked over. The commonality seems to be two-fold. First, both my advisors were psychopaths. Second, because of my social awkwardness and inability to understand social interactions very well, I was unable to recognize this problem in time to do anything about it. I mindlessly focused on my research with the unrealistic ideal that that was sufficient and I didn't have to suck up to people or pay much attention to my social relationship with my advisors. Each time it came back to bite me on the ass. Combine that with my family history of being stubborn and I think I figured out why I never completed either program.

Ambiguity - helpful and harmful. How's that for irony.

No comments: