Communications and actions have two main interpretations: social and objective.
Objective interpretations look at the literal meaning. They use rational and scientific analysis. They try to avoid logical errors. They aim to account for all the evidence and contradict none. They don’t judge the truth of ideas by the attributes of the person who thought of or communicated the idea.
Social interpretations consider the speaker or actor in relation to other people. What is he trying to do to or get from others? How does the action/communication affect the status of the actor and others? Is someone being needy or reactive? Is someone showing weakness? Is someone socially attacking someone else? Is someone becoming more or less connected with something high or low status (e.g. tribe allegiance signals).
Social interpretations are allowed to focus on some evidence and ignore or contradict other evidence. They can be illogical and unscientific. Some evidence is impolite to use or mention. Some conclusions are jumped to on a basis like “since the social meaning of that action/communication is so strong and obvious, you must have done it intentionally and chosen that social meaning on purpose, no matter what you say about a misunderstanding or that you were focusing on an objective goal.”
Example (try to read hyper literally, and look at this really logically, in order to understand Sue’s perspective):
Joe: I don’t understand what you said.
Sue: What are you planning to do about that?
Joe: I just asked you to explain.
Sue: You didn’t make a request or ask a question.
Joe: I just did. wtf!
Joe is focused on the social world while Sue is in objective, logical mode. Joe expects that, when he speaks, Sue will guess what he wants from her and why he said it. Joe takes this for granted so much that he doesn’t notice the difference between him asking for something explicitly or via hints – he uses hints and thinks he asked. Sue thinks Joe’s statements provide information and that it isn’t her job to read Joe’s mind. Mind reading always runs into a bunch of ambiguity that’s hard to make guesses about, and the whole point of a conversation is for people to communicate their ideas themselves.
The conversation can easily get worse. Let’s continue it:
Joe: “I don’t understand what you said.”
This is actually somewhat unrealistic. People like Joe often won’t quote at all or will misquote. Often they ambiguously explain which message like “the statement we’re talking about” or “the message that starts with ‘I’”. Sometimes they say that asking for quotes is unreasonable or unnecessary, or they stop replying. But let’s not get distracted by those problems.
Sue: Is that an imperative or interrogative sentence?
Sue: What are the verb and grammatical subject?
Joe: “do understand” and “I”.
These are atypically accurate and patient grammar answers by Joe. Things could have gotten a lot worse here. They’re atypical because they’re objective-mode answers, not social-mode answers.
The social-mode meaning of “Is that an imperative or interrogative sentence?” is that Sue is acting like a teacher and putting Joe in an inferior student role. Sue asks the questions and Joe has the role of being questioned. Sue can initiate things of her choice and Joe has to react to Sue’s whims. She’s pushing this kind of framing on the situation. So typically someone like Joe will avoid answering the question in order to deny and push back against that framing. He’ll try to get Sue answering his questions or otherwise establish social power over her. He’ll avoid compliance on purpose. He might say something especially sophisticated to try to prove how grown up he is. He’ll think Sue is calling him dumb by asking him a fairly basic grammar question about the sort of thing he was supposed to have learned in school over 10 years ago.
Sue: So isn’t it a declarative statement about yourself?
Joe: You knew what I meant.
This doesn’t answer Sue’s question. It’s also asking for mind reading. It’s the sort of thing that only works with similar people. It’s a reasonable guess about most people from Joe’s subculture (they knew what he wanted and are being difficult on purpose), though there’s evidence throughout that Sue has a pretty different perspective on the world than Joe and genuinely found it problematic to assume instead of relying on communication. Joe’s attitude makes conversation very hard with people very different from himself. It’s bad at engaging with other frameworks or points of view.
Asking multiple questions in a row amplifies the teacher/student dynamic. That increases the pressure on Joe to break out of it. Sue isn’t thinking about the social meaning of what she says, so she doesn’t control it, but Joe keeps looking for it and reacting to it. If Sue were to consider the social meaning of each of her statements before saying it, she’d find it much harder to converse. Like if asking clarifying questions is socially aggressive (both in a “you answer to me” sense and a “you were unclear” accusation sense), what should she do to fix it? You can’t just skip clarifying questions in general. And how many are needed is out of her control. Sue can try to minimize the number of clarifying questions Joe needs to ask her, but it’s up to Joe to minimize how many Sue needs to ask him.
Sue: I thought I did. I thought you were providing information about the state of your understanding.
Joe: I was asking for help.
Sue: But that isn’t what your words mean. Why don’t you use standard English to say what you mean?
Joe feels highly insulted. But from an objective perspective, it’s a reasonable thing to be wondering and talking about. Joe literally says X and then acts like he’d communicated Y. Why not just say what he means?
Joe: Why don’t you just put two and two together?
Joe doesn’t ask the question, asks a counter-question that’s socially insulting to Sue (it implies she’s being dumber than like a 4 year old who can’t add 2+2 correctly)
Sue: There are dozens of reasonable ways to proceed given the information you provided. That’s why I asked which one you were planning.
Even with such an insulting question that wasn’t meant to be answered, Sue still takes it at face value and tries to explain the answer.
Joe: Why won’t you just tell me what you meant?
Sue: You haven’t asked me to.
Again Sue immediately answers Joe’s question. She’s responsive and still operating with good will. She doesn’t care about who is reacting to who and how it looks for social power. And Joe’s tilted (since Sue’s first or second message in the example dialog) but Sue isn’t.
Joe: I just did.
Joe: Right now. I just asked.
Joe: “Why won’t you just tell me what you meant?”
Sue: I answered that question.
This is similar to how the dialog started. Things haven’t been sorted out. Even though Sue explained her perspective earlier, Joe still isn’t taking it into account and adjusting his communications and expectations. Sue, meanwhile, doesn’t know what to change to make things work better. She knows she’s logically right. She thinks Joe ought to try discussing in a way that isn’t logically wrong and that it’s easier to have conversations which build on that foundation. If Joe doesn’t have the skill to do that, he should try to learn it and ask for help instead of trying to have a conversation he’s incapable of handling productively.
Joe: After all this, I can’t get any answers out of you. Goodbye forever.
Objectively, Sue did answer all of Joe’s questions and was responsive to all direct, explicit requests. But Sue kept ignoring the social world meanings of both Joe’s and her own words.
In the social world, direct requests are often too pushy. People often phrase statements as questions to weaken them (“That is a dog?” which is expressing some uncertainty and making it easier for the person to disagree or confirm) and questions as statements (“I wonder if that’s a dog.” which is asking if the other person thinks it’s a dog).
Sue: I don’t understand why people come to discussion forums when they clearly don’t have a basic grasp of English and logic, and they also aren’t aiming to learn those things. What they’re doing will never work.
Joe: wtf! Leave me alone.
Sue: I did. I didn’t expect you to return. I’m just post morteming my discussion and hoping someone else may have insight. This has nothing to do with you.
Joe: You’re flaming me and attacking my reputation.
Sue: I’m just analyzing public evidence. If I made an error you can point it out. I’m not trying to flame; I’m aiming for accuracy. If you don’t want people to think about what you say, don’t post it. If you want to look good when analyzed, improve your skill level. Now leave me in peace. I’ve got several more thoughts to post.
Joe: You have no right! I didn’t sign up to be treated this way!
Sue: People thinking about and discussing things you said is exactly what you signed up for when you posted them.
Joe: [Leaves and holds a long-lasting grudge.]
Sue: When he said “You knew what I meant.” I was tolerant, lenient and generous by letting him change topics in the middle of my grammar point. Right as I was getting to a conclusion he ignored my question, seemingly because he knew he was about to lose the debate. I wasn’t rewarded for being so helpful. He didn’t reciprocate with good will towards me. Maybe I would have been better off repeating my question until he answered it, or pointing out that he wasn’t answering.
Sue: I don’t understand how, after a long conversation about how he hadn’t made a particular request, he still didn’t get it enough to realize he still hadn’t actually made that request. Which new statement did he think constituted a request to explain something to him?
Sue: Does anyone understand why most people are like this? I have such good will but it never seems to be enough. On my initiative, I asked about his plans, thinking perhaps to help with them. My reward was that he derailed the conversation. And as usual he doesn’t want to discuss what went wrong. He did begin the process of clearing up misunderstandings, but he was creating new misunderstandings faster than we could resolve stuff. Why won’t people just calm down and use English in a simple, correct way? Why do they rush through conversations and make huge messes and then give up?
Sue: What is life like for such a person? Do none of his conversations work? What happens when two Joes talk? Is it pure chaos or does it seem to work, somehow? Maybe if they both say and want sufficiently stereotyped things they can stay on the same page with almost no communication, merely by assuming stereotypes.
Sue: Why is no one else talking? Is this a dead forum? Does no one here care about trying to understand how to have rational conversations with typical people? Don’t you guys run into problems like these and want to figure out what to do about them? Or are you all similar to Joe and hiding it with your silence?
Joe: [Reads all this and intensifies his grudge.]
It could easily go worse than this more quickly. But I wanted to draw it out a bit and show the ongoing perspective clashes.
The other people on the forum are more attuned to the social world than Sue.
Sue doesn’t think that attuning to the social world more herself will actually result in intellectual progress on topics like science, epistemology, AGI, etc. People need to think objectively to contribute to those topics anyway.
Routinely, people’s social status is inaccurate in some way. Then the truth threatens the status. What could Sue do when talking to people who need to admit weakness and try to learn some stuff but who prefer to dishonestly pretend to be better than they are and who don’t want Sue to speak the truth? What’s to be done with such people besides detecting and ignoring them (and maybe criticizing them if they’re public figures)?
Lots of people try to debate sorta like Sue but they aren’t actually very good at logic themselves. Joe has experience with that. He’s dealt with people who are mostly focused on social, and screw up logic, but they do some Sue stuff as an act. He assumes Sue is like that too. He doesn’t actually have the skill to judge whether Sue got anything wrong or not. But Joe thinks he does. So what happens is Joe will misunderstand something, think Sue made a mistake, and conclude that Sue isn’t as logical as she thinks she is. From Joe’s pov, Sue seems to be about as good at logic as Joe or worse – because whenever she uses superior skill there’s a good chance that Joe doesn’t get it, and when Joe doesn’t get it there’s a good chance that he attributes the error to Sue. (These things are not a matter of random chance. But if you look at many similar events, you’ll find sometimes it goes one way and sometimes the other. And it’s too hard to analyze the detailed causality.)
Most real discussions have a lot of intentional social by both parties. This is a stylized example that turns up the contrast between characters. Actually what sort of social counts as “intentional” is a tricky question. Most of it is automated in childhood. Most social by adults is done without conscious intention at the time they do it. So “I wasn’t trying to social you” is no defense – in the past you learned how to do that kind of social to people and practiced it until it was second nature. You’re responsible for that! This explains part of why people have trouble turning it off. And it explains why people assume that most social is intentional in the sense of there was an intent in the past when the person learned to do it. They aren’t doing it now randomly or accidentally. The main excuse is “autism” which is the most standard term for a person who didn’t learn, practice and automate a bunch of social dynamics (or somehow managed to stop and change), so then they might actually honestly not be playing the social game.
This is all complicated by the social rules of evidence. Lots of social dynamics are deniable even when everyone knows they were done on purpose. You did them right and people approve, so you’re allowed to get away with them rather than be called out for the social manipulations (if the call out is sufficiently socially savvy it can often work, but just a blunt, direct logic-focused callout doesn’t work). So it’s common that everyone knows social happened and it wasn’t an accident, but everyone pretends not to know.