Anybody who knows me knows that I like words. Words are these amazing things. Strings of sound that we’ve managed to imbue with meaning. It’s incredible! Written words are also awesome. Those are little squiggly lines that we associate with sounds that we string together in (hopefully) similar ways to the spoken words to represent those meanings. And they aren’t the same, either. I write-think better than I talk-think, and despite accusations that it’s just because I can go back and edit, my brain really does flow differently and more smoothly when I’m writing.
In any case, words. Words are awesome. So recently, thanks to a friend posting a video on facebook, I discovered this guy called Ze Frank who makes youtube videos. I have gotten all into them, as they are most cool. One of them wound up being about this concept to which a word has been attached – exformation.
I got very excited about this, largely because I really like encountering new words and how they can make it easier to explore a concept that maybe you haven’t thought much about before. Or at least, they do that for me. Words are so awesome.
Exformation does not appear to have made it to the dictionary yet, as it’s a very new word. Just a baby word, really. So basically (if you haven’t watched the video, which is cool if you don’t want to), exformation is information that a person deliberately leaves out of communication. Everyone does this. Any time you’re explaining something and end with “but I’m sure you get what I’m saying” there’s probably more you could say that you aren’t saying, assuming that the listener will be able to unpack what you mean via everything else you said, or cultural assumptions, or shared experience, or any number of other things we can reference to pull meaning out of interactions. It’s assuming that the listener can and will be able to do that.
So then I, of course, though about this concept in terms of autism. People on the autism spectrum seem to often be accused of two particular things (ok, lots of things, but there are two I’m wanting to talk about).
1. That we talk and talk and talk entirely excessively, giving way too much information
2. That we jump topics in odd and unpredictable ways, or can be confusing when we talk because we assume the listener knows something that they don’t.
I think both of these can be connected to exformation. The easiest way would be to say an error in exformation, but I don’t like that kind of answer. I mean, I’m not always able to unpack what I’m supposed to know when I’m listening to someone else, but we wouldn’t say that they made an exformation error, would we? Actually, a lot of people would say that’s my fault too since I’m on the autism spectrum, but that’s a rant for another time.
The point is, knowing what not to say is just as much of a thing as knowing what to say. It’s based on knowing and understanding what other people know and understand, and having a pretty good idea about what they’ll be able to infer or figure out or calculate or whatever else. Which is actually kind of complicated, if you think about it.
Not too long ago I read a book called Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. It happens to be a Ukrainian book that was translated into English, and it’s for a Ukrainian audience. Now, as far as I know it was meant to be surreal and odd, but seriously, it was very very strange. I found myself wondering at what cultural assumptions I am supposed to have, or what shared experiences that, being American, I just don’t share that is supposed to inform the reading of that book. I don’t suppose I’ll ever figure that out short of going to the Ukraine or talking to someone who’s been there who’s also read the book who also understands how my cultural background informs how I look at the world.
So jumping back to autism, I’m wondering if sometimes these glitches (I think that’s a significantly better word than “errors’ for this) in exformation are because my experience of the world, as a person on the spectrum, is significantly different from most other people’s experiences of the world. My experiences and culture and whatnot all inform what I believe needs to be said or left unsaid, but sometimes that isn’t shared even with other people from the same general culture. So there’s a glitch. Or, in the inverse, maybe I don’t realize that I’m saying things that other people would be able to easily unpack, so from their perspective I’m going on and on about things that don’t need to be said. There’s a glitch. A mis-match.
I don’t think mis-matches are errors or mistakes or a sign that someone is wrong. When Andrey Kurkov wrote Death and the Penguin, he was not wrong to write it for an audience that shared his cultural background and general life experiences and assumptions. When I read it, I was not wrong to not be able to unpack whatever I was maybe supposed to. We’re just different and that’s ok, and it means that if I’m going to fully understand I’ll have to put in some extra effort. That’s ok.
So it’s ok to mis-match more close to home. I just think we need to be willing to understand when there’s a glitch and instead of deciding who’s at fault, working together to meet in the middle and figure out what assumptions we were supposed to have.
I like unpacking and inspecting assumptions anyway, so it all sounds most worthwhile to me.