by Zoe Pollock
George Wilkinson examines a new study. People were paired up and asked to repeat ambiguous phrases and to switch up their intonations to impart different meanings. The good news? People are good at guessing what you mean by how you say it. The bad news? Your spouse doesn't understand you any better than a stranger:
They thought their spouses “got it” for 6 out of 10 phrases, when in fact the spouses averaged the same as strangers, at around 4 out of 10.
The scientists who designed this study chose the conditions to illustrate the flip side of a developed intimacy. The habits of ellipsis and allusion can become counterproductive when the topic falls outside of the shared sphere, or, as in this experiment, context is removed to the point of real ambiguity (in real life, think of emails or text messages; or, speaking near a running faucet). Speakers presume that they’re being clear; and a listener, may use their own take on the shared relationship to mistakenly believe they don’t need clarification. Preventing this sort of miscue is the basis for an entire cottage industry of counselors and marriage therapists.
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