Thursday, July 1, 2010

Drawing Inferences or Reading the Subtext


All this week, students visiting the Writing Center who are taking English 110 this summer have been working on a tutorial about drawing inferences from literature. They do a series of exercises and then must pass a short quiz in which they read a passage (a couple of paragraphs from Colette) and have to analyze the characters. The quiz basically tests them on their ability to read beyond the obvious and literal meaning. They consider the author's word choices, what's said, what isn't said, to arrive at some conclusions about the characters.

In other words, we are trying to get them to read between the lines, think about the subtext, and try to figure out what's REALLY going on beyond the surface meaning.

It reminded me of how we apply these principles (or don't, unwisely) in our daily lives. Every time we encounter someone new, or deal with someone we may not know well, we are challenged to size them up. Some people, alas, are just crazy, ridden by anxieties or resentments or delusions, and they approach the world from that place. Others are simply cruel, mean-spirited, selfish, liars, and so on. The people we like are the trustworthy ones, the ones who mean well, who come at you from a place of respect and kindness.

Thus, the challenge lies in figuring out where the other person is coming from. So lately I've been relying more on subtexts and inferences, asking myself things like, "Why would they say that? Why is that detail significant? What are they really revealing to me?"

Maybe this is also on my mind because I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, in which he describes how we make, in certain situations, snap judgments that usually turn out to be pretty accurate. How many times have we slapped a hand to our foreheads and said, "Damn, I should've gone with my first impression!" because we gave someone a chance when our guts told us not to? HOW do we sense these things? A part of it is just inferences, subtext.

So three examples pop into mind.

Say Jane Smith in Sacramento always seems to have to boast (or manages to drop into the conversation this information) whenever she's having sex with someone. What does this tell us? Is she trying to make us jealous? Possibly, in which case she's acting like an adolescent. But one thing's for sure, she wouldn't even bring it up unless sex isn't a normal part of her life. Either way, I'm not impressed.

Or, John Brown adamantly tells you to NOT start dating Jimmy Handsome because "he's just a player who only wants to fuck with your head." You decide to not heed his advice and find out Jimmy is actually a very sweet man. Then, months later, you find out that John Brown totally screwed over a friend of yours with his incessant game-playing and cheating. Moral of the story: SOMETIMES it's true that, when somebody accuses somebody else of a certain agenda or motivation, what they're really doing is revealing to you what THEY might do in the same situation.

Last example along these lines. Say you confide to someone something extremely difficult and personal, let's just say child sexual abuse since I blogged on this topic the other day. The usual response would be horror, sympathy, and anger at your abuser. But what this person does is doubt you. They suggest you're exaggerating or just making it up altogether in order to get attention. Now, you know you've told the truth, so what does their response say about them? You got it: THEY would be the kind of person to tell a whopper of a tale like that.

This is what I mean about drawing inferences. It's not like you sit around and ponder them all day long, but it's something we continually are called on to do whenever we engage someone else. I'm finding it much easier to do as a sober person. When I was drunk all the time, it was simple to pull the wool over my eyes because I was unable to be attentive to stuff like this. I took some people at face value whom I should NOT have taken at face value.

The good news is, once you've gotten to know someone and trust your instincts about them, you're generally dead on. You don't need to hesitate at all; you can take them instantly for their word.

The other good news is, once the "questionable folks" figure out that you're good at sizing other people up, they tend to stay away from you.

This is not a cosmic revelation by any means, but just some pondering today about human nature.

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