April 24, 2009

Unintentional Actions

Today I'm thinking about intentionality and its relevance to other people's emotions.

Specifically, I'm thinking about a lack of intentionality in one person and a perception which brings about emotion in another person

Some words can cause insult without specific intentionality behind the use of the word. For example: words associated with the history of slavery, or with racism, carry complex meanings that depend heavily on their histories. Because individuals have imperfect knowledge, reasonable people may interpret some usages as seriously insulting while the speaker or writer intended no insult. This insult, if it was truly unintentional, is a result of the ignorance of the individual.

Word usage is not the only place where insult does not follow from intentionality. A speaker might make a specific, true observation that is not considered polite. Again, this insult can reflect the ignorance of the speaker: ignorance of social rules. It could also reflect indifference to the emotions of the object of the comment, though you could argue that this indifference itself is an intentionality.

Intentionality and insults are interesting to me because the social dynamic often appears to depend on figuring out someone else's motivations and deciding whether to be insulted or not. Or, getting insulted and then deciding whether you're justified.

Here's another situation that diverges from insults, but deals with intentionality. What if you took a picture of an insect, and you had to get up really close to take the picture. You post your picture to the web, and someone comments "you exaggerated the size of the insect." Does the word "exaggerate" imply an intention; does it imply that you meant for people to believe that the insect was very large? The primary definition implies intentionality; "to represent as greater than is the actual case." You are presenting something as something that it is not. You are participating in an intentional deception. However, the second definition gives lots of wiggle room "to enlarge or increase to an abnormal degree." Certainly, the image of the bug is larger than the bug, and you are offering the image.

"Distort" carries similar connotations. Someone might say, "you distorted what the insect looks like." It could be they meant to say that the lens creates a distorted image at such close range. Or, they might mean your image was intended to mislead. "Distort" has a more clear intentionality embedded in its definition, especially the second definition here which states "to give a false or misleading account of; misrepresent."

The words may not be used specifically to insult, but the object of the comment might take some offense. Even if the speaker said "your picture distorts the insect's image" or "your picture exaggerates the size of the insect" there is a whiff of assumed intentionality in those comments.

So much of our interpersonal relationships depend on our perceptions of other people's intentions. Extra care must be used in both the employment of words which imply intentionality and in interpreting words which could presume intentionality on your part. In all cases, people should be given the benefit of the doubt first, and be allowed to explain themselves.

Posted by James at April 24, 2009 2:17 PM
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