I asked a question.

My question was: how can I understand what people mean (when the meaning isn't literal). It was put on hold for being too broad.

One idea I have to make my question not broad is to ask is for help in the example I gave. However I was told by an answerer "We're not here to analyze situations for you." So that's a no.

Therefore, here's what I understand:

Me in a specific situation is too specific.

Me in all situations in too broad.

I'm stuck on how to make my question a fit; what I can do to make my question a fit for this site?


How can I determine what people mean and not what they say?

I know how to understand what people say (I think). The problem is understanding their meaning when it disagrees with what they say.

They'll say something. Their words will be clear. I will accept that meaning. Later, they'll contradict their earlier words. If it was written I'll read it several times. I'll agree with my original interpretation. I'll conclude they didn't mean what they say. I know this happens sometimes:

The other day I was talking to someone. He said something. He corrected himself. He said he didn't use the right word. He said that multiple times in the conversation. Therefore he was having trouble saying what he meant. I've seen others have trouble. Even I have trouble sometimes.

So I think the meaning differs from what is said (rather than me misunderstanding what is said).

How can I get better at understanding what people mean and not what they say?

(I assume there might be some indirect way I can infer actual meaning. For example if someone says something out of character for them, or that is unusual for someone to say - maybe I should try to clarify rather than just accepting the words.)

  • How can I determine what people mean when they communicate? -> nobody knows? Because no one can step into someone else's mind and read it? IMO, this is a good reason used to close the question. It's too broad, opinion-based, and, more than that, impossible to answer?
    – OldPadawan
    Jun 11, 2018 at 7:25
  • @OldPadawan I think it's less a question of how good a question is, it's a question how to inform the asker that the question is not a good fit and if repairable, how to repair it. If your comment would have appeared first, then it's fine. Everybody knows what's wrong with it. But what happens is that you get confusing and conflicting statements, so the asker asks himself: What do you want from me?. And the question is closed anyway, no matter what you are doing. This is irritating. Jun 11, 2018 at 12:51
  • @ThorstenS. : ok, that's more clear like that, thanks ;)
    – OldPadawan
    Jun 11, 2018 at 13:01
  • 2
    @OldPadawan While it is impossible to with 100% accuracy know the intended meaning of an individual utterance there are ways to improve your confidence that your are interpreting utterances correctly, or are at least aware of the set of likely intended meanings. Once you have a list of likely meanings it's much easier to ask informed clarifying questions.
    – sphennings
    Jun 11, 2018 at 13:02

1 Answer 1


Part of the reason your question was closed is because it's not well constructed. It's hard to see how all the sections fall together to create a cohesive single specific question. I'd break your question down to 3 parts and the title, and while they're all loosely related they don't support each other well.

In the first part of your question you're pretty unclear about what you exactly you are struggling with. There are many ways that communication can be misinterpreted, and many reasons that someone could call you literal or a robot.

The second part of the question describes a particular exchange online. Which you're asking us to tell you what you've done wrong. Without the context of the exchange it's hard for us to be able to make sense of it. Normally when people are posting exchanges like this in questions they're requesting help with phrasing their response. This section seems to be the inverse of that, where you're asking for help interpreting what others mean with a specific phrase. I don't think we've had many questions about interpreting phrases before but since we can't look into the mind of the speaker we'll never know. This makes interpreting individual phrases too opinion based for this site.

Your third section is the shortest and the most clear in what you're asking since it's only a sentence long. One of the reasons that your post could have been closed as too broad is that (if questions interpreting specific phrases were on topic) both interpreting a specific phrase and explaining how to determine what people mean when they communicate, are very different questions requiring vastly different answers. On it's own "How can I determine what people mean when they communicate?" is an extremely broad question. It's only when read in conjunction with the first section that it's remotely specific enough to remain open.

If you're wanting to ask better questions on IPS start by asking yourself "In one sentence what is my question?" Then ask yourself what information you need to provide to answer that question. If you feel that your one sentence question is too broad you'll also need to add clarifying statements restricting the scope of the question.

If I was editing this question to get it reopened I'd start with that final sentence as the kernel of the question "How can I determine what people mean when they communicate?" You'll need to clarify that your problem isn't with parsing the semantic meaning of a phrase but it's pragmatics.

You'd then need to describe the of difficulties you are having. Try to describe them in general terms rather than describing specific instances. If you're describing a specific exchange you are making the people reading the question need to analyze the specific exchange and can get sidetracked with the particulars of that exchange rather than providing answers that are useful to you in general. If you were working with a therapist describing particular exchanges would be an important part of the diagnostic process since they'd be able to ask many followup questions which isn't too practical on Stack Exchange.

I'd be glad to help you work on this question to make it a better fit for this site. You can also reach out to people in chat and ask them for advice there.

  • 2
    A compliment for a well thought-out answer and the offer to help. Well done! Jun 11, 2018 at 15:11
  • I thought the parts of my question was related/supported itself. Here was the structure I intended: I think I'm literal. / Others think I'm literal. / My being literal leads to misunderstandings. / Here's an example misunderstanding. / How can I avoid misunderstandings like this (i.e. understand others)?
    – user16858
    Jun 11, 2018 at 17:56
  • Also, thank you for the gracious offer - I'll take it when I have time
    – user16858
    Jun 11, 2018 at 18:13
  • @sphennings I updated my meta question per your advice. How's that?
    – user16858
    Jun 18, 2018 at 14:49
  • I try to help people sometimes. I always ask for specifics. When they self-assess they'll omit certain details they don't think are relevant. When they recall an entire situation I'll notice details they overlooked. Those details will often times be what they said or did. I assume the details would help others help me. That's why I wanted to provide them. I did, however, try to follow your advice and be general, instead.
    – user16858
    Jun 18, 2018 at 14:52
  • 2
    @WordsLikeJared maybe you could drop into Interpersonal Skills Chat once you have time, that might be quicker ;)
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Jun 19, 2018 at 7:53
  • @Tinkeringbell Thanks! chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/45231001#45231001
    – user16858
    Jun 19, 2018 at 14:45

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