Understanding Literal Thinkers, and How to be Understood By Them


Anal, hair-splitters, obnoxious, spiteful: we literal folk have heard all those descriptors and then some. Most people adapt to the nuances and idiomatic communication of their various social groups, and of their native aural language, without much effort at all. But, ask anybody who is trying to learn a second language, especially to use it at a conversational level, and the differences between connotative and denotative language rise to conscious consideration - and sometimes frustration. But, most non-literal folks, especially those ambitious enough to learn a second or third language, are up to and even thrive at the task of functional mastery. The "book" learning and "by the letter" thinking are just a means to a fluid and non-literal end. What is at first labored and awkward becomes, with exposure, attention, and time, "second nature" and habitual. Generally speaking, we humans are indeed hard and quick creatures of habit. And as social creatures, we are very prone to adapt similarly to a shared environment. The aural and linguistic atmosphere is one of those environments, or surely at least one of its vital components.

In almost any regional culture, there is at least one common language. For now, a statistical majority in America happen to have a history that endears and acculturates us to English. It's a pretty sure bet, however, that many or most native citizens of England would take exception to that, arguing that *they* speak English, and we in the States speak "American".

Some of the conversational, communicative and social habits that would so compel a more militant or purist Brit to draw that distinction (often emphatically so) and a disposition to which, incidentally, I hold great empathy - are the same that confound the helplessly literal person, thwarting or severely impeding and slowing down communication and understanding with and by him, often resulting in crossed-wires, hurt feelings, and an all-too-familiar confusion.

What leads to that confusion? Put very simply, the literal thinker is language's sucker, both perilously gullible to it and desperately affectionate for it. To a literal person, the phrase "I'll be there in a minute" is likely to be interpreted as sixty seconds, any flexibility or patience on the part of the (likely mature) literal thinker can be attributable to understanding (through painful life experience) that the person who said it may not be reasonably accountable to the strictest accuracy, that he or she may misjudge "a minute" by a few seconds here or there.

What the literal person is NOT naturally prepared or poised to consider, let alone understand, is that the phrase "in a minute" could mean "in a moment" - that moment being anywhere from half a minute to five or even more minutes.

That's a rather crude and inconsequential example, and doesn't readily lend itself to the most vivid or striking impression of the real pain and disconnection that is very real, and to which a blaming or finger-wagging etiology is all too often accused, but it is the easiest to express and thus to cite.

A literal person, that is, he who is quite helplessly and organically literally oriented, cannot read between the lines. And if such a person is reading this piece, please accept my apologies for using such a figurative cliché. I've taken the liberty of presuming that a reader of this piece is beyond high school, at least in reading fluency, and whether said facility has been acquired painfully, to which I can surely relate, or not, it has nonetheless been achieved.

By "achieved fluency" or mastery, I'm of course referring to the mechanics of reading - of learning how to process the visual symbols to form these things called words which have aural and oral counterparts. The evidence suggests that most biologically literal folks are likely to excel at and thrive in the reading and verbal environment.

Where we fall apart is in reading "what isn't there". That is the cruelest and hardest irony with which any otherwise usually very intelligent person so inclined has to grapple. It leads not only to a habit of being unassured and passivity, but of an internalized second-guessing and ANTI-intuition.

As children, we haven't yet learned this terrible lesson. We are awkward and very frank. We get very upset because people just don't seem to know how to speak (English)! They seem lazy and stupid - and cruel for their treatment of we who know how to say what we mean! They call us "obstinate" and "flip". They are impatient and dismissive and stubborn in their assumptions about we literal thinkers and our "attitude problems".

Of course, not all such children suffer this intolerance and closed-mindedness. I sure did. I'm not alone in that.

I was fortunate enough - but through some VERY trying, unfortunate, and at one point even dangerous times emotionally, I and other literal adults have, at great cost, learned how to avoid much of this awkwardness, embarrassment, and interpersonal conflict.

This is achieved by avoiding acting with any confidence or trust of self whatsoever. And that is not maladaptive or irrational under the circumstances. It is a survival mechanism. It wholly sucks to have to pull ourselves back so much and so hard, and ultimately so intuitively. But the alternative seems, and often is, much worse. By such integrated inhibition, we stay out of trouble.

But we also largely stay out of really living life. A fulfilling life for us is dependant upon eventually learning next how to conquer this avoidance tendency when it approaches the paralyzing fear that makes us prisoners of our own unassuredness. It's an acquired orientation of indecision and thus inaction, and it can and does have devastating consequences for this one life we are given.

Now, at the risk of pushing the button (sorry again, my literal brethren!) of those endeared to the putting on of airs that is the "bootsraps" b.s., the literal thinking person can only do so much by his own efforts to compensate for this disability. And children are practically helpless, and cannot be expected to take ANY responsibility for being burdened by this mindset.

The chasm that stretches like the expanding cosmos between the literal thinker and "everybody else" has to be bridged if we are to become wholly engaged members of our finite humanity. The path to awareness and understanding one's own literal thinking is devilishly complex, and quite often the unconquerable catch-22 that is "not knowing that we don't know".

I was in my late 20's before I realized that there was a difference between how I understand language, and how it is used by most everybody else. Oh, you learn to adapt - usually by hiding and other coyness and, as I said, avoidance. But this self-discovery is as of this day still tragically a chance event. A child who is identified as a literal thinker is one lucky soul indeed. In our faux-"get tough" society, we are first to look for blame rather than cause. Whether it be parents or teachers, law enforcement or bosses, we are charged with and lauded for cracking the whip and asking no questions later.

Yes, the world is a tough and confusing and often unfair place, even after, but ESPECIALLY before the acquired intra-personal insight - which event is truly like winning the lottery - that is the "aha moment" of hearing of this "literal thinking" and further recognizing oneself. The costs and consequences are myriad, and the sympathies are rare indeed.

Luckily, after the miraculous "aha!", the solution becomes quite simple. Note - I said "simple", not "easy". It boils down to self-advocacy. Disclosure at home, at school, in the workplace, and in the greater community as a whole is paramount to reducing the stress and confusion that accompanies the literal thinker like an undiluted flatulence. I'm keeping that analogy because the visceral response to it is exactly how we who think literally feel we are received.

We feel this way because it IS the predominant attitude, at least at first. But, the solution to this is indeed ridiculously simple. It requires no money. You don't need to visit the pharmacy or your doctor. You do not need to have a 4-year degree or your high school diploma to act on it and be so very helpful to a grateful minority.

Okay. Now to the big reveal. The solution to problems communicating with and understanding literal thinkers. Here is THE "holy grail" - the Rosetta Stone - the skeleton key - the Theory of Everything - the Final Solution - the Last Card - the Hail Mary pass - the answer key - - - the *ANSWER* to bridging this chasm, to closing this communication gap once and for all.

Are you ready? Here it is.....:

Say what you mean.

That's all. Say what you mean! Because to a literal thinker, anything falling short of that is deception. Yes.

We take non-literal carelessness as manipulation, lying, ignorance and, whenever there is an imbalance of power between the commicator and the "subserviant"/subordinate/supervised receiver of his message, and EVER more when there are expectations and consequences threatened for or attached to the failure to understand (in their NT minds - to "git 'er done"), the speaker who delivers anything but the clearest, absolutely unambiguous, singularly interprettable and LITERALLY subatomically (perhaps sub-syllabically is a good analogy) dead-on, bulls-eye precise message, is being unspeakably cruel and is wholly responsible for the miscommunication and whatever consequences result.

So, really, all ya gotta do is be honest. ***REALLY*** honest Doggedly, radically, obsessively, constantly, LITERALLY honest! Seriously? Yes. And this author, as one who is EVER an epitome of those so literal, this short paragraph is one long redundancy - because anything that is not dead-on-balls, right-in-the-bull's-eye, nuclear physicist/brain surgeon accurate - is WRONG WRONG WRONG! And when it is the result of the speaker taking for granted that anyone should understand what he's really saying - unless he IS REALLY, *LITERALLY*, saying *exactly* what he means, is a flat out lie.

"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth", to we literals, is 8 words too long - as it is completely redundant after "The truth".

So. Say what you mean. Be honest. It is SOOOOOOOO simple! It may not be EASY, but that's between you and your conscience, your will, and whatever deity you may worship or consult in matters of right and wrong.

In the meantime, we who think literally will just have to employ the ingenuity, tenacity, and ferocious refusal to accept artificial limits that has meant the difference between, literally, living and dying.

Or...ahem!...sinking or swimming. But we literals shouldn't have to sink.

Do the right thing. Be honest.


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Comments 2 comments

Donna R Sheposh 4 years ago

I am very thankful for this article...now I have understanding about a person that I took very personal...I thought #1 that she hated me and that I could not do anything right...I found her to be mean and rude and I caused me much distress... Now I know that I just have to change my way of communicating with her...not easy but simple.


Justine 6 years ago

My adopted 5 year old daughter (here two years from Ethiopia) is literal and I have only just figured out what 'her problem is'. Thank you for this post. I can now begin to understand her, rather than be frustrated with her. My 19 year old went through many years before we figured him out. He led a hard life. As did my brother. Now to figure out how to talk so they understand. Thanks again!

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