How to communicate with people who insist that everyone communicates in multi-layered and manipulative ways?


(Please note that this is mostly a discussion of things that have happened offline recently. If you read this, you’re not likely to know anyone involved.)

I’m not sure what to do in situations where the purpose of someone talking to me is not to communicate, but to do something else.

I’m not talking about the relatively common phenomenon where someone with trouble understanding language might not use language for the standard way or the standard reasons. Autistic people often have that problem, I’ve had that problem, it’s different from what I’m about to discuss.

I’m talking about people who seem to have no trouble understanding words, but who introduce far too many levels of meaning and manipulation into what should be the process of communication.

I’m also not talking only about non-autistic people, nor universally about non-autistic people. I figured I had to add this because frequently when autistic people talk about something they don’t like in someone else’s communication, it becomes an “autistic vs. NT” thing whether they say it explicitly or someone else reads it in. This isn’t. I’ve seen autistic people do similar things, and the vast majority of non-autistic people don’t think like this.

I’m also not talking about people who do this only very occasionally when under a lot of stress, nor am I talking about situations in which it’s perfectly legitimate to assume that a lot of indirect communication is going on.

I’m talking about people where it’s their habitual communication style to… well, one person I know offline described the communication of someone else offline as having several “layers”, similar to the following (they described it a little differently, I’m adjusting it to a different person I’ve met recently):

  • The literal meaning of what it is that they are saying.
  • The implication of what it is that they are saying.
  • What their actual thinking is (often different than either of those).
  • What they want other people to read into what they are saying.
  • What actions they want other people to go through after hearing what they are saying.
  • What hierarchical status they want to maintain for themselves and the person they are speaking to.

And then, the person assumes that no matter who they are talking to, all of these different layers to communication exist for that person as well. They can’t seem to understand that most of the world doesn’t operate on this extreme a level of manipulation or hidden meanings. Yes, there are unspoken assumptions behind all communication just because of the nature of language, and the impossibility of speaking in Entish (I always thought Entish must be endlessly recursive). But most people don’t constantly try to deliberately twist the purpose of communication into a pretzel to get people to do what they want.

It’s difficult for me to come up with exact examples of conversations that have worked that way. I can remember many such conversations, but what I can’t seem to do is make up conversations based on them. The reason I can’t, is that I am horrible at reading those hidden layers of manipulation into innocent statements. So it’s difficult for me to come up with a plausible reading of those things.

That’s one of the reasons those conversations are so frustrating to me — I cannot anticipate what someone like this will think of my statements, nor can I adjust my statements to convey the right hidden meanings. I know someone else who doesn’t like conversations like this either, but she can at least match the other person’s passive-aggressive tone, and people like this often leave her alone — at least to her face — because she out-argues them in their own language.

It’s also difficult when it’s really necessary to talk to someone like this, or to ask them questions. For instance, if someone like this is doing it on the job, there’s often no way to get around having to interact with them.

There is no possible way to make a straightforward statement around someone like this. They will read into it several layers of implied meaning, most of them manipulative, many having to do with where you position yourself on a social hierarchy, and many of them to do with your wanting something out of them.

One conversation I had with someone who wasn’t always this way but was this way more often than was comfortable, went like this. I’ll call them Barbara (the person with the sometimes-unpleasant communication style) and Cindy (a mutual friend of ours). Beware: drama ahead.

Barbara was talking about how Cindy was a kind and generous person, and had helped her in a number of ways.

I completely agreed with Barbara, and said she’d helped me out a lot too. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing unusual about this statement. It complimented a mutual friend, it said what a generous person she was, and it agreed totally with Barbara. I couldn’t conceivably see any hidden meanings in it, and so I was stunned by what Barbara did in response.

She became visibly irritated. She acted as if what I had said was somehow related to how I thought Barbara must think of me. And she grudgingly told me that of course she liked me a lot too, not just Cindy. I can’t remember her exact wording, but she really seriously believed that my statement in that regard had somehow mysteriously been a commentary on me thinking that Barbara did not like me very much.

And in reality, Barbara didn’t like me very much. But I had no reason to comment on this at that or any other time — I rarely talked to Barbara at all, and didn’t mind that she didn’t like me, especially because she was the sort of person that made me automatically wary anyway. But she would never admit it to me — she would only tell friends of mine that she didn’t like me, in fact that at times she hated me.

So somehow, when we were talking about both of us liking a mutual friend, she interpreted my statements that were clearly and directly about our friend, and entirely complimentary, as having a hidden meaning about whether she herself liked me.

If I thought really hard, I could come up with at least a tenuous chain of circumstances connecting all this. Because Barbara had actually attempted to manipulate things to separate Cindy from me. It hadn’t worked, and had backfired into losing some amount of trust from both of us. So I guess in some really roundabout manner a person could read into my liking Cindy, that I somehow knew Barbara didn’t like me and wanted her approval of me. But I only figured that part out today, years after all these events had come and gone. Because that wasn’t even a part of my motivation, wasn’t even in my mind.

I suppose that’s a simple example because the conversation involved was very short, and did not get into the layers of complexity that conversations with people like this can reach if the conversations are drawn out over a long time. They also become more complex from my end because over time things can shift around, so that one moment I am picking up the tone and dropping the words, and another I am picking up the words and dropping the tone, and that all makes keeping up with even the literal content of conversations like that challenging.

More recently I had one of those conversations, offline, with someone. I was communicating solely in order to give and receive information to make sure something was going to happen that was supposed to happen. I had non-autistic witnesses who said that I was in no way what would ordinarily be construed as rude or hostile.

However, this person read deliberate hostility into my every comment and proceeded to engage in an impressive flurry of passive-aggressive nastiness. She managed to convey that there was no reason that I needed the information and no reason to even speak to someone who communicates as slowly as I do (I was having someone read my computer screen to her), to interrupt me frequently when she knew I was typing responses to her, to assert her dominance and superiority on a regular basis, and to treat me like a waste of time and space. She also told me at one point that a conversation I was trying to clarify (that I’d had with someone else) had happened right in front of her, so she knew everything there was to know about that conversation (even though if she did she’d have to have been listening in on my end) and had no need to discuss its content. And even attempting to discuss its content was an act of hostility as far as she was concerned. She also engaged in a whole lot of non sequiturs — saying things about other people that had nothing at all to do with the situation at hand, but that she was trying to use to manipulate us into dropping the conversation altogether.

The person who was there reading the computer screen was stunned and appalled at her way of communicating. But it turns out she’s like that to most people, at least most people she sees as beneath her most of the time.

It’s impossible to have an exchange of literal information with someone like this. I can say “I really mean exactly what I say, I’m not implying anything else, I’m just trying to exchange facts with each other so we’re clear on what to do about something, this is a purely practical conversation and I don’t mean anything good or bad about anyone in the course of it.” And I can say that more concisely, or more elaborately. But when I say it, people like this will even read into those statements something that wasn’t there, and will continue to refuse to just talk about the information.

Another amazing thing about conversations with people who do this, is that once they have decided that I have hidden and sinister meanings behind my words, then there is nothing I can say that won’t be put through that filter. If I pay someone like this a compliment, they seem not to even notice: They even assume there’s an insult hidden behind the compliment! If I agree with the person, then there must be an insult hidden within the agreement! It becomes absolutely impossible to convince someone I’m not insulting them right and left, because the insults are there to them whether they see it or not.

And I’ve noticed that when that particular pattern of “there must be a hidden layer of meaning to everything I say, and usually a bad one” occurs in someone who isn’t just wary because of prior bad social experiences… it’s usually someone who manipulates people all the time. It’s usually someone who’s incredibly passive-aggressive, and who mostly communicates in ways tailored to manipulating other people rather than to simply exchange information or reinforce social bonding. Sometimes it’s manipulating people into actions, other times it’s simply attempting to manipulate everyone they know into liking them. But it’s always that sort of communication on way too many layers and expecting everyone else to do the same.

I don’t communicate on that many layers, at least not layers of that kind. I haven’t the foggiest idea how to communicate with people who do. Whether they’re autistic or not, their communication style is impossible for me to predict or decipher, and I have absolutely no clue how to say things in ways that they’ll understand the meaning rather than making up five or six layers of complication into it. I can’t even figure out how to say things in ways where they’ll take the imaginary layers as positive rather than negative. It’s just a complete mystery to me.

If anyone else has clues on how to communicate with people like this, please let me know.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

39 responses »

  1. There is an old saying your can’t please all of the people all of the time…Truth be told there are some people whom you can never please…
    who will never be open to communicating with you, and will always twist and manipulate your words and meanings to suit their own needs and pI hope in here somewhere urposes. Advice I have seen ranges from don’t play the game…stay clear….don’t try to psychoanalyze or outsmart this person…Protect yourself by staying clear of them if possible…If communication is necessary perhaps have an intermediary to act for you. Except that they are who they are and that nothing you say will change them and their goal often is to use your words against you…If this person is a part of your daily life that is not a desirable arrangement.

    One book I read a long time ago was “The Games People Play” which had advice on how not to be sucked into various games.There is also good advice about avoiding manipulative people in “The Sociopath Next Door”…pages 156-162.

    I myself have been around people who’s layers of meaning are so thick I feel like I am swirling in the Bermuda Triangle without a compass.
    I have used short responses like shields and sometimes short pointed factual responses like spears…Others who have witnessed this have often been incensed by the person’s passive aggression.

    Sometimes you can call a spade a spade…”You seem to not want to take the time to talk to me. Do you have someone else there who can do that as this is important.”

    I don’t think there is one pat answer. But you do have to protect yourself and use caution.

    I prefer dealing with people who are straightforward in their meanings and are not manipulative…For sure manipulative people can be dangerous…and dealing with them takes up untold energy and time with often no fruitful results for you and for them they take any encounter and turn your own words against you.

    If you are dealing with them in a group setting have them clarify their meaning before the group.
    When people get accusatory it is often to avoid the original question or subject. It is a distraction to now put the attention on you.
    Put it back on the subject…For instance if you had someone who is feeding your cat and you don’t think the cat is being fed enough…Let’s say you ask about the frequency of the cat getting fed and they lash out at you that you don’t like them and think they aren’t doing a good job. You could say something like my intent has no hidden meanings or hostility so regardless of what you may think I intend we still need to answer the original question of how many times a day will the cat will be fed. Can you please respond to that question.

    There is one person I know who has such a distorted filter that I don’t tell her anything of importance as I know it will get twisted..There are others I know who are so manipulative I can’t think of any reason to be around them except at the few social occasions we both meet and I keep my responses to them few and general.

    I am sure others have had encounters like yours
    and will have more ideas…I hope something in here is helpful…

  2. In my experience, there’s really no way to communicate with people like this. The problem is “Barbara’s,” not yours. Once I know that a person has all these purely personal filters, I avoid them as much as possible or keep conversations limited to the most basic communication requirements. It has nothing to do with being either autistic or NT, more to do with unacknowledged psychological problems.

  3. I [i]am[/i] a person like this, and I would love to be able to explain it, but I’m not sure I can.

    Even though I find your blog to be fascinating reading and hold no ill will towards you, I almost never leave comments. The reason is because the few times I have, I’ve walked away feeling like you’ve made some deep, wounding insult to me. Logically I know of course you haven’t. But it leaves me unable to communicate further without creating drama.

  4. Sorry, I can’t help. I have relationships like this that I don’t know how to fix, so I just try to avoid these people.

    Possibly the same thing, possibly a related phenomenon: “Ask” people vs “Guess” people. Some people think it’s ok to say things directly; other people think that’s inconsiderate of their feelings. I’m an Ask person, and you are an Ask person, and both of us can get into trouble when we’re trying to work with a Guess person.

    See this AskMetafilter thread:

    Sorry I can’t be more help.

  5. Over the past ten years, I have developed a genuine phobia about dealing with people who regularly infer “meanings” which are contrary or unrelated to my thoughts, feelings and intentions. In at least one case, this has cost me the ability to interact with a person who would otherwise be a close and valued friend.

    Nowhere is such “communication” so potentially disastrous to the individual as in the “helping” professions. When the “perspective taking” employed by authorities is so deftly enlisted in the service of their own ego-defenses …


  6. Easy. Don’t talk to Barbara. That’s what I do with those people. It isn’t worth the time. And assume, for example, that Barbara is my ex-boss, Nancy. I had to talk to her. I chose not to listen when she talked.

  7. These examples have a lot of similarity to some of the material in “People of the Lie” by Scott Peck. I would recommend parts of this book but not all of it. Peck gets into some Christian Fundamentalist stuff toward the end of the book.

    Also, I have to agree strongly with you about how hard this type of communication is to react to. I can understand it rationally but that is not much help when in the midst of the conversation when a good and rapid intuitive response is called for. Very, very occasionally, the blank stare that comes on my face has gotten interpreted as something akin to some sort of coup de grace. The conversation has ended with others feeling that I gave the perfect response and the offender has retreated. Very rare, unfortunately.

  8. Mom: While some of these people could be the sort of functional sociopaths described in that book, many don’t seem that way. They just seem… well… like something else, they often do have consciences for example.

    Pyraxis: I’m not sure you’re like the people I’m talking about. When I’ve read your writing, it’s made more sense to me than communication from people like that. It’s just somehow when we actually communicate directly to each other that stuff gets muddled up.

    (I really hate that sometimes. When I read someone’s writing and really like them for what they write, but somehow whenever we interact something clashes between us. It’s frustrating. I don’t think it’s your fault, or mine, it’s just some weird Thing that happens, and you’re not the first.)

    I wasn’t really intending the category to mean all people who read things into things (because that encompasses a lot of people who don’t have this manipulative communication style — including for instance people who are very sensitive for reasons that have nothing to do with that). Not even all people who see insults when they’re not there. Some of that is just ordinary communication differences, and I know that there’s something about my writing that totally repels some people even though others can’t see for the life of them what’s wrong with it.

    Interactions with you haven’t struck me the way interactions with people like this have. They’ve struck me as unfortunate due to some sort of clash in communication styles. But they’ve never struck me as you having a particularly manipulative style of communication.

    It actually has bothered me in the past that I have had trouble communicating with you, because your writing very much has interested me and I haven’t meant to insult you. You haven’t known this though, I’ve never known how to make it explicit.

    And I don’t think I’d be as interested in communicating with you or reading your writing, if you were as passive-aggressive as the people I’ve had to deal with.

    Anyway I’m really sorry about whatever part of my communication style is the problem there, because I don’t want to repel people from communicating with me, I’ve never meant to insult you, and I’ve always liked you at least as far as I’ve known you online. I wish I knew how to say things that wouldn’t sound like a deep insult to you, because I really don’t mean anything I’ve said to you that way.

    A lot of people read things into things that aren’t there — that’s just part of life. All people have to read at least some things into things, or else communication wouldn’t take place, since words only form a bare skeleton of what’s going to be said. So I wasn’t talking about people who happen to find what I write to be insulting, I was talking about people where it seems like every form of communication they engage in is manipulative or passive-aggressive. You have never struck me that way at all.

    Everyone who said to avoid people like this: I do avoid people who do this. In most of the situations I deal with them in, then, the people are unavoidable, and sometimes in control of aspects of my life that mean that I have to find some way to communicate with them. I’m not really interested in pleasing them as much as I am in being able to deal with them in some other way.

  9. “A lot of people read things into things that aren’t there — that’s just part of life.”

    Yeah, my mom and my two sisters and me have all done some of this stuff, but rarely is it so manipulative or constant, as some people have made this their usual sort of interaction-style. To see the kind of thing going on here, one probably needs only to spend some time at a junior high school, or my mom’s work.

  10. Thanks for answering. You are probably right that I’m not one of the passive-aggressive people you were writing about. However I do think the thing that stands between us communicating directly has something to do with what you have described here.

    That was why I answered: because if I could figure out why these huge insults were appearing out of nowhere, I could shed some light on what it takes to communicate with a person who reads manipulation into everything and rankles at it. I have had some success at communicating with these people. I suspect part of the difference between your interactions with me and with them is that I recognized that the woundedness was disproportionate to the situation and cut communication, and they do not.

  11. Yeah — another difference between you and them, is you don’t seem to have that problem with everyone you meet. Most of the people I’m talking about, get that way with everyone, even people you probably wouldn’t find insulting.

    And… yeah. With you I find myself sad that I can’t communicate well with you. With these other people I just want to get away from them, and often find that most other people I know have the same reaction to them.

  12. What I think is going on here is someone who has not been able to get what they want through direct means- so they a) come up with byzantine ways to manipulate you into something satisfying, and b), are alienated from other people because they feel non-existent obligations that they then counter with their own. Think I was one of these people once, before my diagnosis gave me that direct link. No idea how to deal with someone like that; they gotta find that direct link that may have been hidden from them and which they may now be hiding from themselves in order to justify their increasingly insane behaviour.

  13. You know… I almost wonder something. I’m thinking of our prior interaction where I sounded really dismissive about an experience you’d described in a way that had a lot of deep meaning and significance to you.

    Could there be a major difference between (a) the people I was talking about who read manipulative meanings into everything, and (b) you, who might (I don’t really know) be someone who looks for deeper meanings in everything?

    That’s just a complete guess on my part but I thought I’d throw it out there in case I’m onto something. It seems like a possibility though — which would be really very different reasons for viewing my writing as unpleasant.

    It’s also quite possible that I was ruder than I thought I was at the time. I’ve relearned since then that it’s very easy to do harmful things without noticing.

    i also find it very hard to put into words what I was thinking the one time I remember offending you. I can still vividly remember the actual thoughts, then I remember deleting them and sticking with something simpler because it was too hard to write what I was thinking.

  14. About people who act like you’re describing: it isn’t that their minds are so complex; it’s just that they’re deeply mistrustful of everyone who comes their way and rely on manipulation as a means of survival. One can’t get along with these people unless they are more powerful, and even then it isn’t like you can forge a real relationship with such people. And when they start a conversation and say something you can agree with just to “drop the bomb” that you mean the opposite/that you are a terrible person/so they can laugh at you, I call that “fishing.”

    I have known too many people like this to count, and they make life really, really difficult.

  15. I’m hoping you get some helpful replies to this post myself, as I’ve often wondered the same thing regarding how to communicate with people who “read into” everything in the ways and contexts you’ve described. In general I try to take the “avoid such people” approach, but as we’ve both apparently found, there are some situations wherein one can’t avoid interacting with them, sometimes with regard to important things. :/

    I had a fairly major communication issue with someone a while back offline over the matter of whether or not it was somehow “self-deprecating” to refer to myself as “disabled” in any context, and whether or not my wanting to find alternate ways of doing certain things somehow constituted “running away from opportunities to grow”. That time it wasn’t really a case of my being accused of manipulation so much as any statement I made being interpreted as meaning a whole lot about how I saw myself that it really didn’t.

    Basically I felt backed into a corner — it was as if I either had to deny being disabled and do everything possible to “pass” and do everything in standard ways because of my supposed intelligence (or something like that), OR, in acknowledging areas of disability, express a desire to “fix” or “overcome” them. It was like the other person could only see me as either scared/insufficiently motivated or somehow complacent and uninterested in “becoming a better person”.

    We’ve (that is, me and this person have) since reached a bit more communicative common ground and I am glad of this, but it has taken a while, and it has also taken this person actually being witness to both my areas of high competence (and dedication) and the areas I am affected by disability in. It wasn’t really any of my long written explanations (at least, I don’t think it was) that eventually helped things get better — it was mostly demonstrative stuff that didn’t require anything in the way of trying to describe myself or my skill set using language.

    Anyway, the point I’m getting at here is that sometimes it seems there are people whose vocabularies differ so widely (and for whom certain words and even whole subject areas differ as far as the connotations they have) that the more language exchanged, the less actual communication seems to occur.

    (Though, I know there are some people for whom actions are interpreted in the same “reading things that aren’t really there” manner as words are (I had a chemistry teacher like that, who assumed that my going to the restroom during the final exam meant I was “cheating”, and spent the second half of the test period sitting five inches from my desk staring at me and my test paper — needless to say, that didn’t help my performance any.).)

    I have no clue if I’ve said anything here you haven’t already heard or thought of, and my guess is that I haven’t, but I will say for the record that I find your writing incredibly clear and easy to understand, and to me you come across as tremendously sincere. I don’t perceive in your writing anything like the “layers” you’ve described people assuming exist in some interactions — frankly I’m not great at remembering that some people use a lot of layers to begin with, especially not in realtime communications, but I can occasionally detect when someone is trying to say something with their words other than what the words seem to be saying.

    (There’s someone online I used to interact with fairly regularly that I haven’t talked to in ages now because all his communications are couched in this weird…smarminess, for lack of a better word. The best comparison I can make is to some of what I’ve read of Peter Singer’s writing, though this person definitely isn’t Peter Singer.)

  16. Yes, I (also autistic) have problems with such things myself; I don’t like to have highly veiled, indirect conversations with people; I would prefer people said what they meant… Unfortunately, my mother was one of the people you speak of; not only did she speak to me in a confusing, obfuscating web of meanings and insinuations quite far from the truth, she also constantly see malicious attacks upon herself inside my innocent, direct statements and observations, thus greatly discouraging me from speaking at all at a young age.

    I find I am very adept at understanding complex meanings in the abstract sense–but that simply has nothing to do with how I receive communications from other people.

  17. I think the interaction that time on WrongPlanet was at some level beyond words. I have thoughts about it that I am unable to translate also.

    Actually I’m surprised that you remember it at all; I’d thought it was significant only to me. I don’t think there was any rudeness, though, beyond what you said about sounding dismissive.

    I do look for deeper meaning in most everything, but I have a hard time figuring out what people mean when they say manipulative. To me, all human interaction is manipulative in some way. I have spent a long time trying to figure out why people condemn some forms but not others.

    If I found your writing insulting because I could not accept the deeper meaning I thought I saw, that has similarities to a person who reads manipulation into it because they believe erroneously that you are out to harm them. In both cases there is hurt. I am curious how you define the difference.

    I disagree with Lucy that one cannot form a “real” relationship with such people. I find the idea somewhat offensive that one form of relationship is more “real” than another.

  18. Pyraxis: I think it was memorable to me because you mentioned it once on my blog. Before that, I’d forgotten about it.

    Looking for a deeper meaning seems to me to be about just being interested in finding out to the best of one’s ability what is real.

    The situation I am describing seems more to me like projection: Thinking other people do things a certain way, because one does things that way oneself. So it doesn’t seem as much to be about actively looking for those hidden agendas because of thinking something has a deeper meaning, but rather automatically looking for hidden agendas because one often has hidden agendas oneself and one assumes that everyone else is like that as well.

    By manipulation I mean something along the lines of doing things with the sole purpose of controlling (not just influencing) what other people do, especially for reasons that are ethically questionable and highly selfish (and not like, immediate life and death situations, or other situations where such things are the only ways to survive).

    For instance, I once received services from an agency that had a very manipulative person in administration (actually a few very manipulative people). She would work very hard to gain the trust of staff. She would learn everything she could about them in this manner. Then she would find out potentially embarrassing things about them.

    If she wanted to fire them, she would blackmail them with that potentially embarrassing information. If that didn’t work, she would lie and make up incidents that did not actually happen in order to get them fired. Sometimes she would also do things like deliberately provoke clients into meltdowns or other very distressed states and then claim those meltdowns were the result of staff, who were then fired (while other people knew exactly what she was doing).

    She also promoted people that clients found abusive and reported as such. She once also set things up so that a client who couldn’t read or write appeared to be sending awful emails about a staff person she wanted to fire. (I knew both the client and the staff person, they were very happy with each other.) She lied to him by telling him the staff person didn’t want anything to do with him, and lied to the staff person by telling him the client didn’t want anything to do with her.

    In another instance, she told me she would let a certain staff person work for me, and told that staff person the same thing. She acted just as if she was leading up to it. The staff person meanwhile continued to work for the agency for other clients. Then, during a meeting that also involved my case manager from a different agency, everyone was set for this person to start working for me. I mentioned this fact, and this woman said, “Oh, didn’t you know? That person no longer works for the agency.”

    Well, the person was there in the room and she said “Since when?” or words to that effect. My case manager ended up giving her the card of a good lawyer, in case she wanted to sue for unlawful termination. But the more manipulative person made life such hell for this person that she just left without a fuss to avoid having to deal with the manipulative person anymore.

    (Most of the clients and staff had already fled this agency by that point. Everyone knew it was bad news. I was one of the people pulled in by them desperately attempting to find more clients after everyone had left during the change of management. I left pretty fast too, because I began to realize my safety was at risk.)

    Anyway, that’s an example of a manipulative person. She was very high in the power hierarchy, she basically had no excuse in the world to behave this way towards people, but she did towards everyone she met.

    So that’s what I mean when I say manipulative — people like her. And I think that her manipulation is worse than, say, giving someone flowers because you hope they’ll like you (which does attempt to influence them but still allows them free choice), or the secretive actions of a a person in a position where outward displays of rebellion could result in torture or death but where they’ve got to do something (which is just a matter of survival and regaining a minimally tolerable amount of power).

    She also was doing abusive and illegal things and covering them up with all those lies and other manipulations.

    People who do that habitually and in the manner and circumstances she does, strike me as doing something very different than things ordinary people do to attempt to influence each other to some degree.

    It’s basically a combination of a matter of degree, extent, and circumstances that makes the difference.

    For example, hitting someone (or similar force) is hitting someone.

    However, there is a difference between the following circumstances in which hitting someone can happen:

    A playful and lighthearted punch on the shoulder.
    A use of force to break someone’s bone so it will set properly in a medical context, or using force that would otherwise be considered injurious to allow access to vital organs for a life-saving operation, and other things like that.
    Hitting someone in defense of your own life or someone else’s.
    Hitting someone to fend off a rapist.
    Hitting someone to keep them from attacking you in general.
    Hitting someone because you’re just mad at them.
    Hitting someone because you want to kill them.
    Hitting someone because you have a kind of seizure that make your arms fly out at full speed (mine used to do that, which is how I know about that one).
    Hitting someone as part of your martial arts training.
    Hitting someone as part of a boxing match.
    Hitting someone as part of a choreographed fight for dramatic purposes.


    There’s also a difference between hitting someone once, and walking down the street looking for people to pick fistfights with on a daily basis because you’re a bully and you like to beat people up.

    So you could argue that on some level all of those things are the same. But then on some other level, they’re quite different. Similarly, attempting to influence and control people is heavily dependent on context, on how often it happens, and on why it’s happening and who’s doing it and so forth.

    And when I call someone manipulative in this context, I specifically mean, the kind of person who does the equivalent of running around looking for (unwilling) people to pick fistfights with on a daily basis. Only instead of fistfights, they prefer to lie and make other covert attempts to control everyone, and even to cause other people to fight so they can watch the drama as their own version of entertainment.

    (Another highly manipulative person I remember from years ago, used to tell me lies about someone else, and the other person lies about me, in order to get us mad at each other and watch us bicker. Until we found out and got pissed off at her instead. She found this entertaining: her only purpose in manipulating us was to watch us fight for her own amusement. And again this turned out to be a person who was like this with everyone, not just when the two of us were around.)

    So… that’s what I mean, and I think what most people mean, when they say someone has a manipulative personality: Pointlessly, covertly, deliberately, and extremely controlling of others on a regular basis when it serves no good purpose and hurts a lot of people.

    (I think I even had it defined that way to me at one point in the past when I’d asked someone else what precisely ‘manipulative’ referred to.)

    And to be more explicit about ‘pointless’, I mean that any good or so-called ‘good’ (just entertaining someone, for instance) it might seem to serve is outweighed by the amount of harm that comes ot other people. Wanting to be entertained is not a good enough reason to, for instance, get two people fighting by lying to them. (I actually can’t think up any good reason to do that, but one might exist in some rare circumstance I’m unaware of. Like, say, getting two people so distracted fighting each other that you can escape when they are trying to kill you, or something.)

    The bottom line being that in the context I’m describing it’s a highly destructive activity with nothing happening to justify or offset the level of destructiveness, and I’m talking about people who engage in this kind of thing almost constantly.

    Anyway, there’s more I want to say on a different topic than manipulation, but I’m going to send this since the comment has gotten long already, then I’ll continue.

  19. Wow, thanks. That explanation makes perfect sense and actually answers some other questions I had too. I never thought of looking at it as a parallel with physically hitting someone.

  20. Actually, I’m finding it really hard to figure out how to write about what I was thinking during that exchange a long time ago — still.

    Maybe sometime we could try to work some of it out through email or PMs or something? I’m going to be gone for a week and my brain may be toasted a little after that, but I’d still be interested in trying to talk about it if you are.

  21. Sure, you have my email address now presumably, attached to my comments. So anytime would be cool. I’m getting some idea of what’s happening on my end.

  22. Thank you for posting this. I have never had the words to describe this, but I do know that this is the way my mother (and quite possibly my father, as well, though I have not had as much contact with him, recently, and so cannot say for sure) communicates. Anything I say to her, she seems to think I mean something I do not mean and have not even thought of, and she is very good at getting offended by non-offensive things. (She is this way with lots of people, not just me.) I think she is this way because she had to be, growing up, in order to survive with her very abusive parents. But knowing that does not make it any easier for me to communicate with her.

  23. The list of contexts for hitting people omits the situation of paranoia:
    – Hitting someone in defense of your own life or someone else’s… when there is no objective threat, but your own paranoia leads you to believe there is.

    In this situation outside observers will perceive the hitting to be aggressive and purposeless, but the person perceives themselves to be acting in self-defence.

  24. Yes, I actually thought of putting the paranoia thing in there somewhere. Because it’s sort of related to what I described when I said, if someone’s had enough bad experiences to make them expect to be treated badly, or something. But I ended up oversimplifying it so I could finish the list. But yeah, that ought to be on there, and so ought a lot of things that look like one of the others but are not the same thing underneath. So thanks for mentioning it — and try to imagine more complicated scenarios into place since I haven’t written them all. :-)

  25. I’ve lived with several people like this. One in particular, who your post most strongly reminded me of, i strongly suspect had undiagnosed AD(H)D, but i’m not sure if that was relevant to the situation or not. She had, however, been taught from a very young age that non-verbal communication was to be privileged over verbal communication, and that if there was any apparent contradiction between what someone was saying in words and what someone was “saying” with their non-verbal communication, then it HAD to be the non-verbal communication that was “true” and the verbal communication that was “false”, even if what the person was saying was “I don’t consciously use non-verbal communication, so please listen to the words i’m actually saying and disregard my body language and tone of voice, otherwise i will never be able to have a meaningful conversation with you”. This statement, of course, to her by definition had to be a lie, and a way to manipulate her…

    “I really hate that sometimes. When I read someone’s writing and really like them for what they write, but somehow whenever we interact something clashes between us. It’s frustrating. I don’t think it’s your fault, or mine, it’s just some weird Thing that happens, and you’re not the first.)”

    I experience this a LOT as well. Especially, for some reason, in blog threads about feminism and/or sexuality. Which really frustrates me, because very often i come onto a thread with the intent of defending someone’s position and letting them know that someone is “on the same side”, only to find myself attacked by that very person as spreading unpleasant stereotypes, or something, when that absolutely wasn’t what i meant.

    I’ve experienced exactly what AnneC talks about a lot, too… tho that probably needs to be the subject of a whole blog post by me…

  26. “So… that’s what I mean, and I think what most people mean, when they say someone has a manipulative personality: Pointlessly, covertly, deliberately, and extremely controlling of others on a regular basis when it serves no good purpose and hurts a lot of people.”

    This is why I believe that there’s absolutely no reason to use the word “manipulative” in a mental-health context. It tends to go with “attention-seeking” as a word used to describe someone who’s in pain, and trying to get you to help them. Except both of those terms carry all the connotations of being selfish, greedy machiavellian, etc. Anyone who’s been called “manipulative” by a mental health professional (or had someone they care about called so) can attest that most of the time, the person using the word is doing so because they don’t understand what’s really going on with the person doing the “manipulating.”

  27. I am posting from the car so first time trying this. When those pros call patients manipulative it is almost always the pro being manipulative including by calling the patient that. It is often worse than misunderstanding. It is often a deliberate play on status and power. To call the pt manipulative discredits them. The super manipulative pro i talked about above was fond of calling all clients manipulative and she knew full well it was not true.

  28. I read in a popular psychology book about the differences between men and women that indirect speech is a female speciality, which women use to build relationships and rapport with others by avoiding aggression, confrontation and discord. Men prefer to be direct in their language.

  29. I was absolutely blown away by your incredibly insightful description of the “multi-layered” communication style of someone I dearly love. This is something I have been trying to explain to this person for nearly 30 years. I wish I could refer the person to your article (so much more articulate than my past attempts) except that the person would be very offended. I can understand the negativity you expressed, but I actually DO love and am loved by the person in question. While the difference in our communication styles (I mean what I say and seldom have levels to it; the other person appears to have the precise levels you described) has made our relationship less than perfect, there are other things about this person that makes my efforts worthwhile.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing — I thought I was the only one with this problem. (I have not been diagnosed with any “developmental disorder,” although one of my children has been, but I share many habits you have discussed in your blog, which people seem to be willing to igonre most of the time.)

  30. With my knowledge of, and interest in linguistics, I can see linguistic theory flowing through this post.

    The very interesting idea that “there are unspoken assumptions behind *all* communication just because of the nature of language” is new to me.

    Ents were able to speak in Entish.

  31. I remember when a linguist blew my mind by convincing me that all language, not just some language but all language, is inexact and the meaning ambiguous. But like a good Aspie my reaction had been to try and be more precise and more specific in my communications, in order to try and wrench as much ambiguity out of my communications. I would try to be as literal and non-metaphorical as possible because inherently ambiguous nature of language had to be tamed. I would take statements by others literally and expect that others would take me literally.

    After my realization that I was an Aspie a few years ago, and learning that there are all these other levels of meaning for most people, I suddenly feel blessed to have a better understanding of why I’m missing out on things, but still frustrated at how hard it is to get myself to understand all those other layers of meanings and to actually engage in interactions on those non-literal levels.

  32. Yes, Ents definitely spoke Entish as conceived by Tolkien.

    I always got stuck at the fact that if the name of a thing was actually a huge long story about the thing, then each word in the story must be a huge long story, and each word in that story must be a huge long story, and… if you took it as literally as I did, it’d be infinite, you could never get done saying in Entish what in English would be a single word.

    And thus, the Ents never seemed to speak what Entish was literally described as, but they did certainly appear to speak what Tolkien conceived Entish as.

    Not being a linguist, nor as thorough a Tolkien scholar as you — did Tolkien ever tackle the recursion problem? Did any of his readers ever ask that question somewhere where he answered it?

  33. Re. the ambiguity of language thing: I’m reminded of a quote from a Babylon 5 character named Delenn (who was not human, but another humanoid species), regarding human language:

    “No wonder you have such an eccentric culture: none of your words have their own meanings. You have to look up one word to understand another. It never ends.”

  34. Wow, I wish I had read this last week, when you first wrote it, as I went to the doctor with a close friend who has a chronic medical condition (and who engages in indirect, inflection/insinuation-laden type of communication on a regular basis, especially when stressed out) and almost had an interpersonal disaster.

    Basically, I was there for moral support, and I had some generally related but impersonally unrelated questions for the doctor about this friend’s condition. I just wanted to know some of the details about a certain surgical procedure I’d heard described different places, and I thought the doctor would be the best one to provide them. I couldn’t find the answers online, and I thought that would be a great time to pick the doctor’s brains and get some real insight into an intriguing subject for me.

    I waited till the end of the visit, then asked the doctor about this type of surgery… and I got some really interesting information back. Fascinating… I had no idea that the internal organs interacted that way… Way cool to find out (for me, anyway)!

    The only problem was, my friend became convinced that I was “setting her up” for surgery, and she’s highly surgery-phobic. I have spent the last few days trying to calm her down — and since I’m pretty nearly her only support during this medical situation, we’re both feeling like we’re on thin ice.

    She typically engages in this multi-layered talk that is full of inflection and innuendo and insinuation… I can’t follow her, half the time, and I tend to just smile and nod. But lately, my sensory issues have been just maddening, and my communication has been way off, so I just don’t have the patience to sort through the labyrinth that she creates around the simplest of sentences. I just can’t follow, and when I ask for clarification or I try to get clear, she says I’m attacking her and starts to yell.

    It’s just not good.

    The thing too, is that she doesn’t take my Asperger’s very seriously, and she’s one of these people who says I’m just not trying. I’m just not making an attempt. And she says I just am not aware of how mean I sound. I honestly don’t intend any such thing — I literally just want to get clear about things, but she interprets that as aggression.

    I’m at an impasse, here. It’s maddening. But there it is.

    I guess I’ll just have to get more sleep, and see if I can find some more reliable information about Asperger’s that she can hear. She’s also not open to “heady” info, so that complicates things even more.

    Maybe I can find a picture book or something…

    I really don’t know. I wish I could offer some more insight into how to deal with this, but I’m stumped.

  35. Pingback: Communication Issues with Non-AS folks « VisualVox-Notes from the Autistic Interior

  36. I don’t think of myself as being a Tolkien scholar. I am now in my local University library which has a good selection of books on Tolkien studies.

    Mary E. Zimmer in ‘Creating and Re-creating Worlds with Words: The Religion and Magic of Language in the Lord of the Rings’ in ‘Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader’ edited by Jane Chance, writes that in Entish: “‘real names’ are not arbitrary, but instead ‘tell you the story of the things they belong to’.” (Lord of the Rings). The Ents’ name for the Orcs is given – in abridged form – as: “‘evil-eyed-blackhanded-bowlegged-flint-hearted-clawfingered-foulbellied-bloodthirsty, morimaite-sincahonda.’ This, however, is not their ‘full name’, which is coextensive with their existence and thus ‘as long as years of torment’.” (Lord of the Rings).

    She quotes from ‘An Introduction to Elvish’ by Jim Allan et al: “Entish may have lacked anything that may be called a common noun, for Ents would be able to take the time and use the complexities of their own tongue to describe every object and every person in a way that would, in effect give it a distinct proper name of its own.”

    Kathryn W. Crabbe writes in ‘J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded Edition’ that “The language of the Ents is characterized by the translator as ‘slow, sonorous, agglomerated, repetitive, indeed long-winded; formed of a multiplicity of vowel shades and distinctions of tone and quality.'”

    Treebeard told Merry and Pippin that it takes a very long time to say anything in his language, “because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”

    He then says “a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lindor-burume”, which Tolkien describes in Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings as “the only extant (probably very inaccurate) attempt to represent a fragment of actual Entish.” Treebeard says “that is part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world.”

    Ents loved to string together Elvish words in Ent-fashion, as in Treebeard’s name for Lothlorien: “Laurelindorenan lindelorendor malinornelion ornemalin…Taurelilomea-tumbalemorna Tumbaletaurea Lomeanor”, which are Quenya words.

    Tolkien explained in a letter dated 8 June 1961 that “Treebeard was not using Entish sounds on this occasion, but using ancient Elvish words mixed up and run together in Entish fashion.” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter).

    Tolkien wrote to W. H. Auden on 7 June 1955 that he did not consciously invent Ents. “And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through.” (Letters).

    He wrote in a letter dated 4 May 1958 that “a single word in human language (unlike Entish!) is a short-hand sign, & conventional.” (Letters).

  37. I’ve read your blog every now and then, and always liked it although I’ve never commented, but this post really made me think, and I wanted to reply to it. I hope you don’t mind me commenting, especially on a month-old post.

    I am what you’d probably call neurotypical, and I do see a lot of implied meanings and unspoked sentiments in conversations, although I’m consciously trying to avoid doing that in this comment.

    I don’t recognize the type of person you’re referring to in your post, because to me, manipulation is an entirely separate trait from seeing layers (even too many layers) in a conversation. Some manipulative people actively look for the worst qualities in others, and try to twist meanings in order to see the worst possible implication in other people’s statments. I understand that those are the people that you’re referring to. However, I think that many people see unspoken layers in a conversation without seeking out the worst interpretation.

    I think even the most basic conversation has a certain degree of implication. For example, “sugary” has the denotative meaning of “sweet,” but it also has connotations of being overly sweet, almost cloying. I would only use the word “sugary” if I meant “sweet, and almost too sweet.” “Joyful” means “happy,” and it has connotations of pure, possibly religious happiness. “Delighted” also means “happy,” but it has connotations of a simpler, possibly physical happiness. I might accept an invitation by saying “I’d be delighted to come to your party,” but not by saying “It would make me joyful to come to your party.”

    As far as I know, almost every word has many connotative meanings in addition to a denotative meaning, and in conversations I look for connotative meaning (not only of words, but also of phrases, sentences, ideas, and body language). To me, this complex interplay of connotation is one of the things that makes language beautiful. The joy I get from reading, writing, and conversing, comes from understanding the layers of implication. These layers, for me, make conversation not just a bare exchange of facts, but also an attempt to create beauty with one’s words.

    I understand, partly from reading your post, that not everyone does this, and that those who do look for implications do so to different degrees. This is something I will have to look out for in the future, because I don’t want to read meanings that aren’t there. And I can see how a conversation between two people who see two different layers of meaning could become muddled and confused from too much over-analysis.

    I hope I haven’t stated my case too strongly. I just want to make it clear that reading layers into a conversation can be an entirely innocent and unmanipulative action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s