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On the temptations of hyperbole [Jul. 30th, 2006|11:56 am]
Wade
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[Current Location |London, ON]
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In which Wade discusses one of his most problematic and troublesome personality flaws - hyperbole.

I have a tendency towards specific forms of hyperbole. Which is a fact I am not at all happy about, because not only does it misrepresent the truth, it often has a significantly detrimental effect on my overall ability to communicate effectively with others.

Thankfully, my tendency towards hyperbole does not extend to any exaggeration of my own abilities, talents, etc. Usually I downplay myself, because I feel it is better to be under-estimated than to be over-estimated. Not out of a sense of modesty, but because pompous, braggerly behavior just isn't appealing. I'm comfortable with myself, and don't feel any real need to toot my own horn.

However, my tendency towards hyperbole does extend into other territory. When telling stories about my or other peoples past experiences, I must continually fight the temptation to "fudge the numbers" slightly, "just to make the story a little more interesting". A minor point in my favor is that I am more likely to exaggerate numbers (positively) when talking about the adventures and experiences of others than my own, but it really is something I'd rather not do at all. As an example, I might be telling a story about how long I or a friend stayed awake on a particular occasion. And even if the actual number is sufficiently impressive, there is the urge to pad it just a little bit more. Really a terrible quality for me to have, given that I prefer reality to fantasy and wouldn't want other people fudging numbers when they told me something. Another minor point in my defense is that I most emphatically do not fudge numbers in a statistical or scientific context. If I am reporting some "scientifically sound" result, I am very concientious about reporting exactly the numbers provided by the study. It is only for things that I think of as "not particularily important, but maybe somewhat interesting", that I have this tendency to inflate for dramatic effect.

Much, much more troubling is a completely different form of hyperbole. When I am discussing my views or opinions on topics, I have a terribly objectionable and never-to-be-sufficiently-damned tendency to choose "extreme descriptors". For example, suppose we are discussing some topic, and the possible opinions one can hold about the topic lie on a continuum between two (or more) extremese. Internally, I have a good idea of where I place myself on that continuum. But when I present my opinions, I tend to unconciously use language that makes it sound like my opinion is closer to one of the extremes or the other. This is especially problematic with respect to words like "sometimes", "usually", "often" and "always". If, internally, I think that one of those words applies best, I seem to have this ridiculously stupid unconcious tendency to use the "next most extreme" word instead.

Naturally, using words that do not accurately represent my internal views is absurdly stupid. And of course this tendency often leads to a discussion/debate falling apart because the other participant(s) hear what I say, not what I think. Intellectually, I know this form of hyperbole is profoundly counter-productive, but it is a difficult issue to address because I really don't make these moves towards more extreme language conciously.

I have thought about this personality flaw a great deal. I've traced its roots to a similar tendency on the part of my father (although his form of hyperbole has manifested externally in a somewhat different manner than mine). I've acknowledged that just because I was influenced in my childhood towards a particular pattern of behavior in no ways means it isn't my responsibility to address and fix it now. And if I remember to conciously monitor, and carefully choose the descriptor that most accurately describes my internal opinion, I can do so. But unfortunately, the more involved and enthused I am about the discussion, the easiest it is to forget to maintain the monitor, at which point I revert to my default programming and discrepancies between what I think and what I say start appearing.

The problems this form of hyperbole causes are further exacerbated by my preferred style of debate. I do not think of debate as something that one person or the other "wins". Internally, I think of it as a colloborative venture in which we together aspire towards either "the actual answer" (for topics that have an "answer", like the proof of a mathematical theorem, the 3D structure of a protein, whether the universe is expanding or not, etc.) or "the best compromise" (for topics without any one answer, like capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, etc.). Unfortunately, although that is my preferred internal attitude towards discussions, my external presentation is quite different. Because I want to get at "the truth", I argue my position strongly, expecting the other participants to argue theirs just as strongly. There is at least some merit in every perspective, and having someone strongly arguing the merits of their position allows me to decide whether my position needs to be altered, or whether there are flaws in their argument, etc. However, because I tend to argue my position quite strongly, it understandably comes across as me being too entrenched, unwilling to listen to alternative viewpoints, etc.

Meta-communication really can help this situation a great deal. If, before having a discussion about things, we discuss our preferred ways of doing so, we accurately define the terms that we are using, etc. etc., then many of the above problems go away. But there is a profound difference between the theory of meta-communication and its implementation. First, discussions about opinions usually evolve organically from less contentious discussion, and there is no clear delimiter between "casual conversation" and "debate", and thus nothing to trigger the need for the meta-conversation. Second, and more important, most people really aren't responsive to meta-communication of this sort. It requires effort, for one. And I suspect that to many, it comes across as "too geeky", "too serious" for the level of dialog they want to have. Some people like smalltalk, and although smalltalk usually evolves into more serious discussions, they don't really want to have those discussions. Some people are uncomfortable expressing or asserting their opinions. Most people do not like having their opinions attacked. All of this is very understandable. And interacts poorly with my conversational style (I find smalltalk unappealing, and much prefer truly stimulating conversations). And, back to the main purpose of this article, my tendency to use "extreme descriptors" makes everything much worse. So much so that often the discussion devolves into a clarification of the difference between what I believe internally, and what my words conveyed to the other person.

Part of my "extreme descriptor" problem is related to another trait. I cannot say this trait is good or bad, because it is both: my confidence in the veracity or soundness of my own opinions. I happen to (false modesty aside) be an intelligent person. I have valid, well-thought out reasons for believing the things I do (or at least I believe I have such reasons). If someone asks me my opinion on something, I can provide detailed discussion on why I hold that opinion. So when someone expresses an opinion that differs from mine, I want to know what their reasons for holding that opinion are. And I am sometimes puzzled by people who seem to hold opinions without the ability to explain why they hold them. Now, I realize that there are a number of possible explanations for this, some understandable, some objectionable. Some people just don't like what they perceive as confrontational dialog, don't like being put on the spot, or just aren't feeling like discussing it at the time. These are all completely understandable. But so many people (and I conciously considered this descriptor - I don't believe it is an "extreme descriptor") seem to hold opinions and have beliefs without having any reasons. And I simply cannot wrap my head around this idea - it is utterly foreign to the way I experience the world. I believe in things because there are reasons to believe in them. If someone believes in pink unicorns, I want to know why they do. If they cannot, it actually offends me (I know it shouldn't, but it does). And when I am irritated, I often use "extremist descriptors" as this strange means of venting my irritation (I will be exploring my techniques for dealing with internal irritation in another post sometime).

Ok, so I'm going to stop for now, but I do feel there is more yet unaddressed. I'll have to revisit and update this article some other time.

Wade

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Comments:
From: deeevamp
2006-07-30 07:42 pm (UTC)
Throughout my life I have learned to tune my story telling to be as truthful as possible. However I often will subconsciously exaggerate something. I realized recently that this was not because I am a braggart. My stories and my life already look like something out of a fictional novel, they are interesting as they are. However I sometimes exaggerate because I see that the person is not getting it. As in the vibe I am desperately trying to lay out with the story.

I need them to understand that something is important. Whatever happened to me was very big and it scarred me or something. They need to understand that so I will say something that would shock them into my state of mind at the time. Very in a this isn't exactly what really happened at that moment but it's what it felt like, do you understand how big this was for me? way.

Interesting you should bring this up. I had just recently been pondering such things.
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[User Picture]From: metawade
2006-07-30 09:47 pm (UTC)
Hi D!

Ah, excellent point! I suspect that certainly contributes to my tendency to inflate in some situations as well. Now that you've pointed it out, I can hope that I'll be able to identify it when next it happens. And instead of chosing more extreme descriptors, I could just go on a small side tangent (people in my real life are used to this tendency of mine :-) with a little meta-conversation indicating "this is important - it might not sound like it, but rather than me exaggerating it, I just want to point out that it was/is significant to me". The problem is, although I love meta-communication, most people just don't seem to feel comfortable with it. A pity.

Wade

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