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Why perfectly nice people say things they don't mean

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
Why perfectly nice people say things they don't mean
Photo by Magdalena Kula Manchee / Unsplash

This is a totally baffling thing to deal with if you have a fairly literal/logical communication style, so I hope this helps. I don't mean people who are lying to you, I mean people who say "We should grab coffee!" or "Let me know if I can help out" and then don't follow through.

If you've ever struggled with the fact that people say "how are you?" but don't actually want an answer, you'll know what I mean (although you've probably figured out a way to manage "how are you" by now, however weird and rude it feels to bypass such a direct question).

What is going on here is a thing called a phatic expression. It's speech that has a social action but the words themselves don't have meaning. "How are you?" just means "Hi". "We should grab coffee!" for some people, means "it's nice to see you!" It's a verbal Like button. They're not lying, and you shouldn't feel insecure - they are quite sincerely saying "it's nice to see you", they're just using... totally different words to say it. Look it's still baffling, I can navigate it now, but I wish they would just use the words that actually mean the message they want to communicate.

Where this gets brutal (and I'm going beyond the linguistic meaning of phatic expressions and into my own theories), is that people express present-tense emotions using future-planning language. So some people say "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help?" and what they mean is "the thing you just told me is really sad, and I am feeling, in the present tense, a strong emotion of caring about you. I have given n0 thought to whether I will have the time or energy available to help in the coming weeks".

(For the record, this hasn't happened to me much because I tend to have overly literal friends, but I've seen it happen to others and it is WAY worse for them than if no one had offered help at all). And again, they're not lying, they're sincerely expressing the emotion they feel and there is no intent to deceive you. But obviously this is a huge problem for the person who needs help, especially if the person is depressed, and it took a lot of guts for them to actually reach out and ask for help, and you flaked, after having offered.

So I would ask people to please, when you're feeling a strong emotion and desire to help, to think about whether you are actually able and willing to follow through. Even though maybe that feels less genuine because you're stifling your first kind impulse.

SO much of baffling human interaction makes sense when you view it as a snapshot of the person's current emotional state rather than a plan for future action. It's about the equivalent of someone saying "I'd love to see the Alhambra". You wouldn't see them a week later and be like, "have you booked your flight to Spain yet??" You'd know they were just expressing a feeling.

(But also: if someone has shown you that their words do mean future plans not just current emotions, then trust them - it's just some people who communicate this way.)

Lastly and most brutally: I am pretty certain that a decent proportion of the people who say "Will you marry me?" are saying "I am feeling an unbelievably intense swelling of love and emotion for you" and not "I have thought seriously about what I want my life to look like over the next few decades, and how yours might mesh with mine, and I think we should build a life together". So that obviously... causes problems. Problems that can be sorted out easily by saying "what does marriage mean to you, in practical terms?" but gosh, that is a question you should ask each other if you don't already know.

- This last point, lest I sound too preachy: I asked someone to marry me when I was 19. (Or maybe I just said "we should get married.") He told me he didn't even accept the question, because I clearly hadn't thought it through. He was right. I loved him very intensely and sincerely but I also thought it would be enjoyably transgressive for a leftie-feminist type to get married really young. I say that with full awareness of how obnoxious it is. 19-year-olds are the worst; sorry if you're currently 19. There, I think that's most of my embarrassing secrets confessed, now I can run for Parliament without fear of blackmail.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #55 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


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