Open-Ended And Closed-Ended Statements, And Miscommunication

Some statements are closed ends. They are what they are, and there is nothing more to them. "That is my dog." "I like your pants." "You smell like ham." There is nowhere else for these statements to go. They come, they declare, they die, and life goes on.

Other statements are much more open-ended, and I'd argue that these are more fun. They invite participation from others by their very existence. "Something about that barn door doesn't look right." "I'm getting a very peculiar déjà vu right now." "Your eyes are sparkling just as they did on our honeymoon." One glimpse of a statement like these and we instantly want to know more, to ask a question, to share a feeling, or to reminisce. Hearing one of these open-ended statements gives one the impression that there is a little piece of life just around the corner of them.

Unfortunately, open-ended statements can also be negative and make someone feel unpleasant. "Have you always been such an insufferable fool?" is the kind of statement that, being open-ended, somehow manages to hurt so much more than the closed-ended version of it, "You are an insufferable fool." "Why do you smell like ham?" is a more embarrassing statement than its closed-ended sibling. In addition to the hurt caused by the raw accusation of being a fool or smelling like ham, the open-ended versions of these statements cause hurt through that "little piece of life just around the corner." It's bad enough to smell like ham; but how many good reasons to smell like ham are there? Now you must feel embarrassed not only for your current state, but also for the circumstances that brought you here.

If we could have our choice, we'd probably prefer that all negative statements sent our way were closed-ended, while all positive statements were open-ended. We'd much rather elaborate on the positive than the negative, while if we do have to tackle the negative, we'd prefer to keep it short and easy to contend with.

You can easily verify this by considering the conversations you have in real life.

One of the best things that can happen on a first date, for example, is that you say a lot of things that make your date want to either say a lot of things in return, or encourage you to keep talking. One of the worst things that can happen on a first date is for you and your date to have basically nothing to say in response to each other's statements. We want first dates to be pleasant, and that means we want the things we say to our date to be open-ended, inviting, and to generate curiosity.

By contrast, during a heated quarrel, the last thing we want to do is give the other person an opportunity to go on an extended tirade. If we're smart, we'll keep our statements short and closed-ended, so that the other person has little reason or opportunity to go off on a new tangent, or worse yet, to strengthen the case for their own point of view by citing clear examples and strong reasoning. The less they say, the less chance they have to get the better of us, and the sooner they stop attacking, the sooner we can wrap things up and set our sights on more pleasant circumstances.

You can have a miscommunication with someone if you fail to understand what they're saying, or if you completely misunderstand it. But you can also have a miscommunication with someone by mistaking a closed-ended statement for an open-ended one, or vice-versa.

Suppose, on your first date, you meet at a restaurant and your date says suddenly, "Your eyes are brown." One way to  interpret this statement is as a plain, closed-ended statement of fact. This is likely to cause you some discomfort since, first of all, you already know what color your own eyes are; and second of all, as a closed-ended statement, there isn't much for you to say in return, other than, "Yep." You're expected an open-ended statement from your date, but what you got was a closed-ended one. That's not good, or so you think.

On the other hand, this communication can also go wrong if you mistakenly believe that "Your eyes are brown" is an open-ended statement. If you're darkly complected, you might think your date is making a comment about your race. Or you might jump to the conclusion that your date wishes you had some other color of eyes. In short, you might fill in a non-existent gap with an uncharitable explanation. That wouldn't be good, either.

In either of these cases, the solution to the potential miscommunication is simple and obvious: be as charitable toward your interlocutor as the situation warrants, and ask forthright questions about anything you'd like to clear up. There's no reason to hypothesize about your date's potential ill will when you can simply ascertain the truth of the matter with a smile and a follow-up question. There may be some artistry involved in learning how to ask direct questions without offending someone, but once acquired, it's an invaluable skill. Besides, even a fumbled question that confirms no ill will with another person is better than stewing in your own silent doubts.

It is much more difficult to be on the other side of the table. Imagine making what you believe to be a concise and simple observation, a closed-ended statement like "My brother has the very same shirt as yours," and having it be misconstrued as something with a deep and open-ended "context." If you're lucky, your interlocutor will clear up any misgivings with a direct response, something like, "Ha ha, is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

If you're unlucky, though, the other person may simply take offense and bear it in silence, remembering you as the person who "made a comment" about their shirt. How do you overcome this later? You don't.

Or suppose you want to make conversation, and so you start by making what you believe to be an open-ended statement, "Django Unchained was pretty good, but for me, the best western movie will always be Silverado." Some might think you're pushing your opinion onto other people. Others might believe that you think ill of those who prefer Django Unchained. And who knows what other incorrect conclusions other people might draw? The strength of your open-ended statement is in other people's being able to understand that it is open-ended, and respond accordingly. If they fail to understand, and they don't seek to clarify their burgeoning negative opinion, there is little you can do to turn the situation around.

And, of course, after a few such situations, the social group may start to turn against you.

It's important to recognize that other people's thoughts are not yours to control with perfectly crafted statements. If someone's having a bad day, or a bad year, there might be no level of perfection on your part that would prevent their thoughts from turning negative; and that's not your fault, nor is it your responsibility.

Still, the mere fact that you're not responsible for other people's thoughts is scant compensation for situations in which one or more people consistently misjudge your statements and persistently assume ill will or bad faith on your part, where none exists. And so we try to build up good communication skills in hopes that we might mitigate against other people's biases and uncharitable readings.

To that end, you may find the above discussion useful in your pursuit of better conversation.

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