Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Humans | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Addressing an unspoken concern

An interesting phenomenon in many movies and TV shows (rarer, but not unheard of, in real life) is one character saying something and the other making a disconnected response. The reasons for this can vary (e.g. a wish not to dignify a wannabe comedian with an answer, the hope to avoid criticism or a sensitive topic, or a simple misunderstanding); the possibly most recurring variation, however, is the second character trying to by-pass a superficial concern in order to address a deeper one. Hypothetically:

A: Did you see my SO yesterday?
B: You are worried that (s)he is having an affair.

(Assuming a context and/or non-verbal communication that makes B’s speculation at least conceivably true; an entirely unprompted answer along such lines would obviously be border-line idiotic.)

I am always a bit troubled when I hear such exchanges (although a few communication guides explicitly recommend this approach):

  1. Basing an answer on speculation about what has remained unspoken bears a high risk of error. I note, in particular, that when others have expressed speculation about my inner state or thoughts, they have usually been wrong—often by a mile.

  2. If, as is often the case in short-term emotional situations, the speaker is himself not in the clear on his underlying feelings, then the speculative response can lead to a hostile reaction or denial. (I do not deny, however, that nudging him in the right direction can be a valuable help.)

  3. Depending on the circumstances, it can be untactful to address an unspoken issue—it may well be that the speaker would prefer that the subject is avoided, or that he is uncomfortable with others having insight into what he considers his private thoughts and feelings. Speaking for myself: On the few occasions where others have expressed correct assumptions about me, I have experienced various degrees of discomfort and irritation.

  4. Not addressing a spoken concern, in particular if a direct question, is disrespectful (unless a valid reason is present, e.g. a too personal question).

  5. The speaker may actually benefit from a response that addresses his actual statement; and refusing this answer is then to his unnecessary disadvantage.

  6. The answer will often come across a accusatory or patronizing.

What would a good alternate approach be? I suggest to, in a first step, take the statement at face value and give a corresponding answer; in a second step, to make a cautious inquiry if there is something to the speculation. It may even pay to do nothing, keep the speculation at the back of ones mind, and look at how things develop—a faulty speculation can be detected; a correct brought up, if at all, at a more opportune moment.

Concerning a few of the items above, it is noteworthy that “deniability” plays a large role in human interactions. Claims that “the dog ate my homework” do not cut it in school; however, in adult life they are relatively common, and even a skeptical counter-part typically pretends to take the statement at face value—things go smother and people feel better this way. Similarly, romantic approaches are often done with an excuse that gives deniability: The stereotypical “Got a light?” may be an approach or an honest request—which is why it is “safe” to use as an approach. Obviously, addressing unspoken issues in the above manner invalidates the deniability that the original speaker would have had.

(One of the reasons such exchanges are common in fiction could be that there is a need to move on with the plot. Another that the average script writer has a natural interest in psychology, human behaviors, the inner workings of the characters, etc.; and tries to incorporate this in his work.)


A related, but not identical, phenomenon is attempting to demonstrate an understanding of emotions, e.g. in the form that B repeats a statement by C in his own words, stressing the emotional content. (The same technique stressing the factual content is entirely uncontroversial.) This does have some justification, but should be done with care. In particular, it should not be used for speculation, but to establish a common understanding and to give the other party the opportunity to correct any misunderstanding. By analogy, if one sees a tire, one should not say “car”, but “tire”—if in doubt, possibly even just “rubber object”.

Further, care should be taken with tact. A both tactless and much too fargoing example occured in an episode of “Dr. House”: House is treating his ex-girlfriends husband, and Cameron (presumably trying to show her emotional understanding) says roughly “It must be awkward to be treated by someone who used to date your wife.” (in a very “feeling” voice)—in all likelihood she was right in her estimate; however, the feeling of the involved parties is unlikely to have been “Thank God that someone understands us!”, but “And you just made it worse by explicitly bringing it up!”.