Mistaking inquiry for request

© March 2011 Paul Cooijmans


There exist a class of people who consistently mistake literal, objective, neutral communication for value judgment, request, emotional "expression", complaint, advice, or opinion. Who take an inquiry for a request, an observation for a judgment, a statement for a complaint; who confuse "ask whether" with "ask for". A number of examples are in order to display this phenomenon:


Example 1

Person A: Are you going to the party tonight?

Person B: Oh, I am so very sorry but you will have to find someone else to accompany you.

Example 2

Person A: Mary makes almost twice as many mistakes in her work as does John in his.

Person B: What gives you the right to criticize her?! Do you know what troubles she may have at home? Better look at yourself before you burn someone down to the ground! Besides, your words betray that you are biased, you sexist! Chauvinist pig!

Example 3

Person B: My parents were rich, and I grew up in a large mansion surrounded by gardens and forests that belonged to us. And you?

Person A: I come from a lower class social background.

Person B: Why, that is nothing to be ashamed of! There is nothing wrong with simple, humble people; surely you are not less than I because of your background?! You must become more confident and proud of what you are!

Example 4

Person B: Look how thin his legs have become!

Person A: Yes, he must have lost a lot of muscle mass through lack of physical exercise while being bedridden for three months.

Person B: What?! Are you suggesting an old sick man with a broken back should run ten kilometre every day or something? Are you saying it's his own fault he has become a shadow of himself?! Just wait until you are old and lame, you sadist!

Explanation to the examples

Explanation to Example 1

Person A is asking for an objective piece of information, to wit whether or not Person B is going to the party. Person B however takes it as a request to go to the party. In other words, A is asking whether (B will go to the party), B is interpreting an asking for (the act of going to the party). Deceptively innocent, a misunderstanding like this reveals much about the nature of Person B.

Explanation to Example 2

Person A is making an objective observation, which would have been the same if made by a robot, a machine, or any other rational person. Person B however takes it as a judgment, negative criticism, lack of empathy, hatred, and prejudice. This is one of the more harmful forms of "reading between the lines".

Explanation to Example 3

Person A is giving an objective, neutral, factually correct answer to a question. Person B is reading shame, self-pity, complaint, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence into it, while none of those are present on the side of the utterer. A factual statement is taken for a complaint, an outcry.

Explanation to Example 4

Person A is again making an objective, neutral, factually correct analytical observation. Person B is falsely interpreting it as unasked advice and victim-blaming.

General explanatory remarks

In each of the examples, Person B is doing grave injustice to Person A. The latter is the one who is truly communicating verbally; the first is functioning on a more primitive, concrete, pre-verbal level.


Analyzing examples like these, it becomes obvious that the behaviour of "Person B" is rooted in a number of personality features, including cognitive shortcomings. It will be attempted to describe these:

Inability to abstract

Person B can not abstract, and therefore can not comprehend (to Person B) novel utterances of verbal communication, and can also not form and utter novel instances of verbal communication oneself. Person B uses language in a concrete, reactive, reflex-like way; responds to given types of situations that have occurred before with pre-built "chunks" of words, cliches, without being able to abstract and understand those situations in detail on every occasion, and without being able to build new tailor-made utterances from elements below the level of cliches.

It is typical for these concrete (non-abstracting) people to speak in idiomatic expressions and, when asked what those mean, not be able to abstract and re-verbalize them into literal, non-pictorial, non-idiomatic language. Instead, they will only offer other idiomatic expressions of more or less similar meaning.

When faced with a (to them) novel utterance, they will off-handly categorize it into a situation type they already know, and react using the corresponding cliche, thus projecting an experience from their past onto the present situation and onto the present addressed. This off-hand categorization process may by themselves and others be incorrectly interpreted as "intuition", as "empathy", as "psychic", or as reading "body language", "non-verbal signals", or "between the lines".

Their limitations also necessitate them to use "in-group" expressions when talking to individuals who do not belong to their group. They are not able to abstract and re-verbalize those into proper non-idiomatic language, and blame the other's lack of comprehension when not understood (they can not imagine that others may not know the same expressions that they do, but self-obviously act as if others have the same mind content as they have). And, when attempting to write prose or poetry, the result tends to be a sad succession of existing expressions, cliches, and other language constructions they have come across here and there. They can not see a difference between "imitated" and "authentic", if only since the latter is no option for them altogether.

Finally, inability to abstract impairs true rational judgment, thus forcing one to react from prejudice (pre-judgment). This in fact provides the Person B type of person with a sizeable advantage, as prejudice offers a lot more fire power, speed, and agility in social situations than does true judgment. So, although the unsuspecting reader may not have guessed it yet, it is the Person A type of person, not the Person B type of person, who has a problem, a handicap, a "challenge", as one says.

Narrowing mammalian phenomena

Person B is conformist, socialized, and susceptible to conditioning and suggestion (but not to rational argumentation). Person B tends to project one's mental-emotional state onto the other, without recognizing that the other has a mental state of the other's own which exists independently of that of Person B. That is, Person B is not fully aware of the distinction between "I" and "the other", just as a young child may not be fully aware of the distinction between the one uncle and the other, and treat them as one and the same person. Said projection is what is often assumed to be "non-verbal communication". The state of being sketched here may actually appear to be functional, among a group of B-type conformists who have all been indoctrinated, socialized, under the same rule and scheme (so, it actually appears to function in virtually all known societies).

Mammalian people like this are in their behaviour driven either by emotion or by conditioned programs, implanted and formed by suggestion and conformism. Their going about tends to be of an automated, reactive nature, and that they ever experience intentionality is no foregone conclusion at all.

Transitions between types

An interesting question is that regarding the possibility of a Person B becoming a Person A, or vice versa. Let us start with the latter, which is by all means the easiest:

The A to B transition

The following causes seem to transform A-types into B-types:

Degenerative brain diseases

Diseases that destroy ratio and the self, the "I", slowly erase the Person A personality type. This includes all forms of dementia and of chronic or recurring psychosis.

Recreational drug use

There exists a wide array of recreational drugs, the frequent use of which destroys A-type characteristics efficiently, and generally at a much earlier age than do degenerative brain diseases. This may be a reason why movements striving for totalitarian rule tend to promote the use and availability of recreational drugs. B-type persons can more easily be conditioned and conformed into docile voting cattle, while A-types on the other hand are the natural enemies of totalitarian systems, attached to ratio, truth, and logic as they - A-types - are.


Forms of deep meditation, often rooted in the Far East, aim to destroy the "I" and ratio, and to break down the barriers between "I" and "the other", so essentially to return to a pre-human stage. For some this does seem to work toward becoming a Person B. Sometimes, meditation is accompanied by a being occupied with "spirituality" or mysticism, and this then further amplifies its effect. Paradoxically, the seemingly individual-oriented popular forms of spirituality and mysticism - often requiring one to adopt a new name - are much more B-forming than are organized mass religions like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, which strange enough are relatively more likely to allow A-types among their adherents.


Many forms of therapy have been devised for who can not cope well with modern society: assertiveness training for shy people, confidence-boosting workshops, "positive thinking" peptalks, methods for re-programming one's brain, et cetera. The broad tendency thereof is to develop B-type features and suppress A-type features.

Education, media, peers

Upbringing, schooling, the media, and social environment on the whole are by and large geared toward producing B-types. Possible A-types without exceptionally strong resistance to socialization and suggestion will turn into Bs before reaching adulthood.

The B to A transition

Since being a Person A demands ratio, only B-types with sufficient mental ability - which in turn requires a high-quality brain - come in vogue as potential As. That leaves a very few, which are nevertheless extremely harmful through this misdirection of their otherwise valuable talent. It may therefore be worthwhile to consider this subset of Person Bs closer and ponder how they might be awoken.

Features specific for potential A-types

Because the intrinsic qualities of these misguided mammals pull them toward ratio and autonomy, their indoctrination could only succeed if it (1) disabled their rationality for purposes that would go against certain key dogmas (taboos), and (2) implanted a delusion of being "different", against the grain, non-conformist, a unique individual. The indoctrination and socialization process must therefore have been powerful and intricate, and their natural resistance to it low, or it would have failed and they would have grown up to be Person As. By way of caricature, one may imagine a large hall filled with 1970s "punks", all dressed and looking largely the same, yet all believing they are die-hard rebels, outcasts, and public enemies, at the same time blind to their own rigid adherence to a narrow subculture.

Awakening of potential A-types

To not give false hope, it is stated right away that initiating a B to A transition from the outside is most likely impossible. The only option lies in the brainwashed individual picking up a fascination, becoming innerly driven to study a particular field of knowledge. This must be a field that on first sight concerns none of the implanted taboo subjects, that seems safe with regard to keeping the dogmas intact. But somewhere, as one advances, the field must contain or border on knowledge that overturns some of the conditioned programs, so that, as in an ambush, the person's desire for knowledge becomes discordant with one's automated behavioural schemes.

At that point, the reactive B-type mechanisms - that dictate to abandon ratio and thus resolve the crisis - are caught at their weakest link, and the love for truth may in some cases break the chain and start a waking up to rationality and self-awareness. One should, however, not set one's hopes too high; successful transformations are rare and far between. Actually, the best advice would be: give up.