On mind-reading

I feel that explicit communication of preferences and emotions is frequently oversimplified as an ideal habit. Obviously, clear and open communication is invaluable in most intentional social situations, but it’s also a common (and less frequently addressed) failure mode to not place enough value on needing to explicate as little as possible because you’re being understood more effortlessly, on an intuitive level.

The subcultures I vaguely identify and interact with tend to be especially fond of explicit communication over mind-reading. This could be because many people roughly in this category (nerdy, analytic, thing-oriented) would seem to be somewhat below average at intuitively reading other people, which could make it more difficult to see how well mind-reading works when it works, and in some cases because empathy and related concepts are disvalued as a result of this (and even seen as fundamentally opposed to systemizing and rationality). Dichotomies such as the empathising/systemising divide in Baron-Cohen’s work on autism contribute to these attitudes, and I’m guessing it’s not implausible that there’s something to this divide in how the human brain works, but these thinking styles being inherently neurofunctionally antithetical to each other to the extent that empathizing should deserve its irrational reputation isn’t something I would bet a lot of money on (except on the scale of individual situations, perhaps).

However, in many social environments I hang out in both online and in person, the culture has developed a firm appreciation of explicit communication while half-ignoring that explicit communication sometimes is actually genuinely worse than the nonverbal, gut-level understanding it enhances and replaces, that it certainly takes more effort from one or both of the parties in many situations, and that many people would probably benefit from cultivating and trusting their skills in intuitive empathy more than from being told that communicating every preference explicitly is the only good way to build and maintain healthy relationships (and expecting anything else is ridiculous and just causes silly problems to irrational people who expect some sort of magical mind-reading from others).

This doesn’t mean that all functional relationships require high levels of empathy, of course, and ideally the more empathetic people should of course accommodate those who require more verbal information about other people’s internal states. But in close relationships especially, you may run into a major compatibility issue where one person expects their intuitive signals to be understood because empathizing is a fundamental and important aspect of how they think, and the other person kind of scoffs at this and genuinely believes that the more empathetic party is demanding impossible, supernatural levels of mind-reading – again, because this is how their thinking generally, kind of fundamentally works. And this may not always be solved just by increasing explicit communication, because it in turn will quickly exhaust the person who possibly has spent most of their life not needing to describe their basic emotions and preferences to other people, and this is a form of labor that really really drains their energy. (I have on a few occasions been super exhausted by people who have wanted to have this great and healthy explicit communication thing with me, and I haven’t seen what the root of the problem was until years later, because of course explicit communication in every situation is the most important mark of a healthy relationship, and it would be silly to expect anyone to read my mind, right?)

In conclusion, the way discussing every issue explicitly is valued over everything else prevents many people from seeing that a close relationship they are trying to build with someone might just never work as well as it would with someone else because of this difference. Lots of explicit communication is not always a sign that your relationship is great or even functional; it isn’t what’s valuable in itself, being able and willing to respect each other’s preferences is. Lacking this, looking at the relationship and going “yup, gotta increase verbal communication” is sometimes a patch to fix something that wouldn’t have to be broken in the first place. Similarly, trying to improve your empathy levels to fix this may also not work out depending on the extent to which empathy is part of your congenital personality (and I’m sure many (most?) subcultures also demand exhausting accommodations from the people who would prefer very explicit emotional sharing – it’s just not something I run into as often as I see the anti-empathy sentiment described here). I’m not sure I have a good solution, but respecting other thinking styles and even trying them out to the extent that you can will probably not hurt, as unsatisfying and insufficient as it may sound.

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