I am completely incapable of finding something interesting without also wanting to know exactly how it works. Not just physical objects like toys, or mechanical processes like figure skating and hooping, but also abstract things like linguistic structures and social scripts. I'm willing to do the kind of obsessive research you need to make this work, so the fact that this is weird normally doesn't bother me much. The most troublesome part is that I keep unintentionally convincing people that I'm the local expert in something I've only been cramming into my head for a few weeks, which can get awkward. At least by that point, I can direct them to other people who know a lot more than I do.

I also do it in personal relationships, which has the unfortunate side effect of confusing and annoying other humans. I gather they feel that anyone who wants to scrutinize interaction in that much detail is determined to find fault with whatever's going on. I think it's just the opposite. Feynman used to get the complaint that he kept looking at pretty things like flowers and then science-ing them to death; he contended that things are much more beautiful when you see and understand the elegance of their internal structure and how they came to be they way they are.

Most people are not on Feynman's side, so I try to stuff a cork in it.

The persistent need to know why makes me sound suspicious, I suppose. It's honestly really rare when someone has an ulterior motive for doing something; much more commonly, what happens is that they provide insufficient information, and I don't feel I have enough to extrapolate accurately. Behavioral choices are the ultimate in high-context decisions -- they're influenced by everything you've ever experienced in life, right up to that very moment. People forget sometimes that most of that context exists solely inside their own heads, and that without it, actions can be ambiguous.

Why don't I just ask? I do, if it's important. Or at least I express the uncertainty, so whoever I'm dealing with has some idea of why I keep getting sidetracked by strange details. There are occasions when asking doesn't help; the most obvious one is when someone is lying, which happens for a variety of reasons. There are also situations where people won't give you a straight answer because it's one of those things it's not considered polite to say. They assume that you have a common foundation for the interaction, and that when they tell you [polite thing], you'll know that traditionally it really means [impolite thing] but that neither of you is supposed to admit it.

People have also been known to do things for reasons they can't articulate. Sometimes this is because they genuinely don't know what they were thinking. It happens. A lot of the time, it's because their motivation was 'because I felt like it'. A lot of people seem to think it's an inadequate rationale. I think this is a perfectly good reason to do most things, but I've also been known to write in my own answers to multiple-choice questions, so I am perhaps not the best person to use as a guide here.

There are also occasions where asking is counterproductive. Polite fictions can cause this as well; if you keep asking because you genuinely don't know what the hell [polite thing] is supposed to mean, sometimes they're so sure you really do know that they think the only reason you won't drop the matter is that you don't like what they're doing and you're trying to pester them into relenting. People can also get really hurt if they thought it was obvious they were doing something altruistic, and asking makes it evident that you're confused; I think it makes them feel disappointed that you don't automatically assume the best of them, but I'm not literally a mind-reader, so don't quote me on that.

One thing I never have worked out how to explain to people is that picking things apart intellectually isn't the same thing as trivializing them. At least, not for me. I do a lot of the people-reading things backwards: Something happens, I realize I'm having a particular reaction to it, and then I pick that apart to see what's going on. I find it a lot easier and more accurate than trying to run straight off the internal truth tables, although I have those as well. I can go decipher interactions that I have no personal stake in, but it's not as interesting, and I'm not particularly motivated to refine my guesses on the things I can't deduce directly.

I am often tempted to turn around and just tell someone that I know exactly what is going on here, and detail the exact pattern of interactions that I see, step by step. It's great for getting bullies to back off, because almost everyone assumes that the fact that I have gone to the trouble to decompose all of this into outline form means, 'I see your game and I refuse to play, because I think it's stupid and you're being a dick.' I have never had any success getting across when it actually means, 'I've seen this pattern before and I want to make you aware that I'm choosing to cooperate on purpose,' so I've quit trying.

People do a lot of things that I find meaningful not because they were planned as great significant gestures, but because they weren't. Having any kind of conversation about it inevitably gives them the impression that I think they were trying to convey some sort of MESSAGE IN MAJUSCULES, as if I'm one of the nutters who's convinced that the TV weatherman is sending me secret signals with his choice of necktie. I don't. It's the things people do when they think nobody's really paying any attention that are most telling.


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