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Healing Space | Are we speaking different languages or what?

We saw the oxygen shortage, but others say they didn’t. This happens at home too. We see the mess, others don’t. Why the inferential gap means we are not always on the same page.

July 24, 2021 / 07:30 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

Why is it some people witnessed an oxygen shortage during the second wave of the pandemic and others claim they didn’t see it? Is it a miscommunication or a difference in perspective? Think about it this way: You and your partner can be standing in exactly the same room, one sees a mess, the other just doesn’t. You can have a conversation with the neighbour, you think they were being sweet, your partner points out they were being “so bitchy”. You end up thinking, "Did we even have the same conversation?" Where does this communication gap in an obviously common situation come from?

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthThis is the inferential gap or inferential distance. It is the difference between what you understand from what you see and what I understand from what I see. What constitutes the gap? If you and your partner were brought up in the same neighbourhood, were the same age, shared films, music, schools, sources of learning, references, etc., you might be more likely to share a vocabulary and see events in the same way. It’s like when Indians say ‘I’m coming back’, they actually mean ‘goodbye’, but the rest of the world may not get that that’s what we mean by it. These commonalities inform your schemas, the structural framework of how you assimilate and adopt new information. So, in an argument, your wife may see something another way, but you call your kid and say ‘do you see it how I see it?’, and they may agree with you. That doesn’t mean you are necessarily right, it means that your schema is more likely to have informed and shaped your child’s schema.

How are these schemas formed? You’ve grown up learning about dinosaurs, so you keep filling the box with what you are shown as ‘dinosaur’. This is adoption. When you see a new kind of dinosaur in a museum, you assimilate it into the dinosaur category. Then one day someone tells you a chicken is also a dinosaur. Your brain goes, ‘What? Wait. No way. I don’t buy that.” Because the new information doesn’t fit with your existing schema. Some people have rigid schemas and others have more dynamic ones.

When your schemas are different, what you and another take out of the same situation differs. You don’t just disagree on outcomes, you disagree on what constitutes the facts, the components of the logic, the characteristics that allow an object or hypothesis into a schema. A scientist’s schema says look to the DNA and genetic mutations to know if it’s a dinosaur. A dinosaur buff categorises dinosaurs by ferocity, how old or extinct it is, or Jurassic Park stereotypes. Each has had their schema affirmed by their confirmation bias. They have looked for characteristics that affirm their individual hypothesis. The two will be unlikely to agree on what constitutes a dinosaur.


As you can tell, what constitutes the ‘truth’, in this case ‘the dinosaur’ itself, differs, so any debate is doomed. This is an age-old philosophical argument surrounding the nature of reality itself. How do you know that what I see as ‘green’ is what the other person calls ‘green’? How do you know what they are seeing is not what you call ‘brown’? Truth is, we don’t know. This is why philosophical traditions insist that all truth is relative. In order to function socially, we have to assume some commonality, i.e., we agree to call things by a name, or identify it with specific characteristics.

On a space like social media, or between government and citizens, offices and employees, parents and children, or partners, the ambiguity begins when these characteristics are not defined. So if the government is counting ‘deaths by oxygen’ as those certified by a hospital only, and journalists are counting deaths in crematoriums, graveyards and even outside those parameters as informed by relatives, the total number each arrives at differs. Each sticks to their version of what constitutes the ‘truth’ because each has defined ‘truth’ according to their own parameters. This omission may be unconscious or a consciously deployed tool. Maintaining ambiguity suits some communicators.

This is what happens when a parent says ‘clean your room’. The child says they will do it, but they mean ‘eventually’ not ‘within the next 10 minutes’ which is the parent’s schema. Never the twain shall meet.

Healing Space Inferential gap are we speaking different languages or what - BOX
Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Sit Your Self Down, a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and the forthcoming Anitya, a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]
first published: Jul 24, 2021 07:30 pm

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