Things are (not) obvious
For decades I have been convinced that there is no need to discuss certain subjects because they are known to everyone; that there are universal truths; that certain matters are axioms or common knowledge; that there are issues with absolute lack of complexity and as such require no explanation; that
some thing are obvious.
”Little Life Guide” — this was the title of the little booklet in the 90s of the last century we exchanged with my then partner as a romantic gift. Parents of an American teenager wanted to support him while he was moving out of his family home. So they prepared observations and advice they hoped would make life easier. What they were probably unaware of is it doesn’t work like that and each subsequent generation makes precisely the same mistakes. Among the strictly pragmatic advice (”do not mix black and white clothes when doing a laundry”) and the somewhat more metaphysical ones (”never cut what can be solved”) was one especially close to our teenage hearts:
never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them.
A simple symbol — three digits — was not only a beautiful idea of love but also a reminder to express this love at every opportunity. We welcomed this shorthand to our relationship. It became so ”ours” that it was enough to say ”347” and both sides knew everything we wanted to tell each other.
We’ve created something obvious for our own needs.
The problem is that with time the true meaning behind these three numbers started to disappear — the true meaning of obviousness has escaped. ”347” becoming the equivalent of ”I love you” began, over time, to lose its strength, pronunciation, and meaning. The beautiful symbol devalued, become a replacement, ersatz, a nickname of a feeling, leaving out its true meaning ”by default,” not literally recalling it, while systematically blurring its value.
The obviousness of ”347” has become a sort of a picklock to reality — a semantic shortcut releasing us (or maybe just me) from thinking, from deeper reflection, from the attentive conversation, from the need to communicate, from responsibility for understanding and being understood by the other side.
The obviousness ceased to be obvious despite being understood by the both of us.
The obviousness itself is based on the assumption that the other side of the relationship, meeting, conversation, or conflict understands what we mean, sees the implications and nuances related to the topic of the conversation or the problem being discussed, understands our desires and accompanying feelings.
In the case of romantic relationships, there is an additional layer imposed culturally and socially — defining love as a unity of minds and understanding without words — with which we have lived for centuries. Literature and film have been continuously hammering those ideas into our minds since Romantic times. Involuntarily, influenced by environment and repeated patterns, our awareness is shaped around the axiom that reliable communication is communication without words, that it’s about ”connecting souls” and ”reading minds.” We stick to the same mechanisms we learned in childhood observing our loved ones, and then during adolescence, meeting our friends’ families, experiencing the patterns present in other relationships, meeting our first partners, and creating our own relationships with them.
”I didn’t talk about feelings and emotions at home, so I don’t talk about how I feel.”
”He loves me so much, he can almost read my mind.”
”If he loves me, he should try harder for me.”
”We’ve lived together so many years, I don’t see the need to talk about it.”
”I won’t explain anything
if he loves me, he should know.”
If he loves me, obviously he’ll guess I’m not saying anything for one reason or another — there’s no need to talk about it.
If I answer “nothing is happening,” it is obvious that the other side is supposed to guess that absolutely something is happening. What’s more — they are supposed to figure out what is happening and how to remedy it, fix it, change it.
If the other party does not guess why I’m angry, then it’s obvious I have the right to be mad until she or he guesses what’s wrong or the situation escalates to unbelievable proportions, we fight and explode in anger. Since they do not understand me without words, this relationship is not the ”love” I know from the books, and it’s not what I want.
Obvious — instead of solving problems — leaves all doubts in the guess, creating an unnecessary layer of abstraction between the problem, the expectation, and the desire that is difficult to understand.
We leave things out by default. We communicate by omission, by neglect or understatement, for various reasons. Sometimes out of laziness, often out of comfort, but most often out of fear — it is easier to leave out an unspoken thought, emotion or a feeling that is difficult to communicate than to admit our own mistakes, often embarrassing desires or needs for fear of being perceived as stupid, naïve, self-centered, pessimistic, maladjusted or ”perverted.” We prefer to leave something unspoken, unspecified, hoping that things will ”solve” or explain themselves out, maybe someone will make a difficult decision for us, maybe ”circumstances” will decide, perhaps ”somehow it will be.”
It is also easier in the event of a failure or a defeat to blame it all on the circumstances, on other people, bad luck, and malicious fate.
Calling things by name, loud and clear communication of our needs or desires requires self-confidence, courage, and conviction of the legitimacy of our own needs and desires. It also requires strength in the case of a refusal or rejection.
However, whenever we open a possibility of interpretation, we introduce a risk of being misunderstood. Because our obviousness is not obvious to the other side. From religious dogmas, perception of the role of women (diametrically different for different communities), to interpretation and importance of white and black colors in various cultures, to the ordinary dictionary and logical errors, or even such ”trivial” topics as our sexual needs, which most of the times we don’t know how to speak about openly.
According to stoicism, we live in the idea of what the world looks like and how we experience it, and not in the actual state of this world: each of us perceives colors, flavors, and smells a little bit differently, experiences events and expresses emotions differently. This relativism of sensations and impressions coming from communing with the world means the concept of obviousness is somewhat detached from reality:
every idea of what is obvious remains true only for a particular individual, but never for the general public.
We certainly often communicate banalities or something that the other party is perfectly aware of when we do not leave anything to be guessed. Still, we leave no room for ambivalence: the obvious ceases to be a semantic abstract and becomes a hard fact — named and defined our version of reality.
It’s the ambivalence of our non-verbal communication — thoughts, intentions, feelings, and emotions — that causes confusion, unnecessary consternation, and hesitation in building understanding. Therefore, one may be tempted to state that
nothing is no obvious — for every person, a different piece of reality shared with others will be ”the obvious.”
Just take a look at conflicts within seemingly homogeneous groups (political parties) or splits among groups united around the same point of interest (sports fans). Even patterns of behavior that seem to be a part of our herd instinct or collective consciousness are not the same in every part of the world — pointing a finger is not as universal as a person raised in Western culture thinks. And even if it is a marginal difference, it still does exist.
Misinterpretation of even such a small gesture as “pointing with other than the finger part of the body” can cause problems in communication, let alone differences caused by a different interpretation of party slogans or ideas.
Since everything is a matter of individual interpretation of reality and is inseparably connected with the individual’s point of view, with reasoning about the discussed phenomenon or perception of a particular event, how can we say that something is “obvious” in the context of perceiving the world by other people?
Only naming things explicitly, pointing out the differences — even with a metaphorical finger — and explaining how we perceive a given phenomenon should minimize the possibility of misinterpretation.
Nothing should remain implicit — even if it’s “obvious” for us.
Communication grounded in explaining and translating everything may seem exaggerated, repetitive, or even boring, but since we are building the world based on our ideas about it, let others get to know our version of these ideas.
Let’s share our observations as fully as possible and as often as possible. Maybe then the obvious will become a somewhat more universal concept than we think it is now.
Ten esej jest dostępny również po polsku.