“Interesting but ugly”


So, this happened …

I came home the one day to find her crying in the lounge, she really was distraught. I tried to comfort her, although at that age I probably wasn’t doing a great job.

After all, I was 12 years old and my sister was 10.

She explained what had happened. There was a boy in her class that she really likes, Ryan, and her friend had asked him what he thinks of her.  “She’s cute,” Ryan had replied.

“Oh good!” I said. “That sounds positive.”

“No!” she countered, “that’s terrible. Everyone knows that cute isn’t a nice thing!”

“Yes it is,” I insisted. “That kitten is so cute, I want to take a photo. A baby is cute, I could a\stare at it for hours. Cute is a wonderful thing.”

“No no no!!  Cute means ‘interesting but ugly’.  He thinks I’m ugly.”

“Who told you that? I’ve never heard that before. Cute means cute.”

“Rachel told me.”

“And who else told you that?”

“No one else, only Rachel.”

“Uhm, so you’ve only heard it from one person. I’ve never heard that before. And he likely hasn’t heard that before either. He probably really thinks that cute means cute.”

“I’m not ugly!!”

Simple Definition

Interesting but ugly: This describes a situation where we read into other people’s words more than what they intended. Ultimately, it should be about what they actually meant, and not what we think they meant.

Discussing what it means

We probably look at my sister’s situation with sympathy and understanding, after all she was only ten, and such matters can be tough for a child to grasp. It’s hard to truly understand the difference between what people say and what people mean, and it’s even harder for children to understand the relative truth of facts from different sources.

“Kids,” we comfort ourselves by saying. “At least it’s better when we grow up.”

But unfortunately it’s not. We continue to misinterpret what people say by imposing our own ideas of what they actually mean. And we mess up our lives (and theirs?) through some deep-seated belief that “cute” means “interesting but ugly”, for example. Indeed, there is an entire sub-genre of romance movies where most of the movie is about how they almost don’t get together because one had misinterpreted what the other had said. In the movies, at least, it all works out at the end.

But it doesn’t always work out for us, though, so it’s really important we learn how not to screw things up from the beginning.

Some really basic examples you may recognise from your own life include:

  • He hasn’t called yet, that means he doesn’t like me.
  • She paused before answering, so she probably doesn’t really love me, even though she says she does.
  • The interviewer said she’d get back to me. That’s so non-committal, she probably has no intention of hiring me. I may as well accept that other second-rate job instead.
  • I got a small bonus, so my boss doesn’t appreciate my efforts.
  • My friend said he’d think about my request for help on a project, so I guess that means he has decided not to participate. I should stop asking.
  • My boyfriend asked me what I got up to today. That means he’s suspicious and is checking up on me.
  • I’m hearing a ‘no’, but she probably just wants me to try harder.

For me, one strong memory comes from work when I was doing a larger project with a parallel department to mine. The head of that department got a little carried away the one day, and was issuing aggressive commands to me as if I were a junior associate. Do this. Send that. Fetch the other. I tolerated it for a while but he didn’t let up, so I became impatient and snapped “Stop barking commands to me!” He was Asian and the reference to ‘barking’ implied – to his thinking – a reference to dogs, and – in his culture – this was highly offensive. He totally flipped at my insult. Of course, I wasn’t insulting him – “barking commands” is a standard English phrase which is often used in the context of commanding officers in the military. I intended no comparison with dogs, nor did I intend any insult. I just wanted him to stop ordering me around. But – to this day – I don’t think he ever allowed for the possibility that what he thought I was saying, and what I actually meant, were worlds apart.

I meant what I said, I just didn’t say what I meant

For the sake of completeness, it’s important to be explicit here that it’s true that people do not always say what they mean, and so we’d be naive if we always took their words at face-value. But it’s also too easy to get into the habit of only hearing what we want to hear, or hearing what we fear.

Optimists might always believe the answer is yes. Pessimists might always believe the answer is no. When we’re insecure or lack confidence, they say “cute” but we hear “interesting but ugly” all the time. And yet for people who are self-absorbed or arrogant, people might actually say “interesting but ugly” but they then interpret it to mean “cute”.

The key is in understanding our own biases regarding what we hear versus what they say, in appreciating the differences between words, tone, facial expressions, body language, setting, social nuances, personality of the person we’re speaking with, toughness of the message to be delivered. You need to improve your meta awareness so that you can actually see the cogs turning in your brain while you try to reconcile the words with possible intent. In this way you can challenge your own thinking, so that you might realise that Rachel was the only person who every told you that “cute“ means “interesting but ugly”, and therefore there’s a good chance Ryan simply means “cute”.

It’s also important to appreciate that I’m not suggesting you should always try be realistic. Some sales people are really successful because they always assume their prospect wants to buy, regardless of what the person says. Some risk managers are very effective because they always assume things can go wrong, no matter what the engineers say about the product’s safety. Some counsellors save a lot of lives because they might allow for the possibility that the person really needs help, even if they say they are feeling much better and don’t have anything to talk about.

Wider contexts

We see this words-vs-meaning gap play out in literary theory too, where the concept of Authorial Intent says that, in a work of fiction for example, just because readers agree that a book was written as symbolic of something, it doesn’t mean that the author intended that symbolism when writing the book. Nevertheless, American film studios typically say, “The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.” Just in case the public start to think that although the film says “cute” the director actually meant “interesting but ugly”.

There is another cognitive bias worth mentioning here, that of ‘Actor-Observer Bias’ – which says that, when we do certain things (when we’re the ‘actor’) we attribute our behaviour to our extenuating circumstances (I bumped into that person because I’m in a rush, I’m a very busy person, I’m on the way to somewhere important). But when others do that same thing (when we are the ‘observer’) we attribute their behaviour to ill will (They bumped into me because they’re selfish, they’re aggressive, they’re in a bad mood).

Going from a misinterpretation of the word ”cute” to assuming that others are always doing things to us out of malice, might seems worlds apart (that escalated quickly!) but at its roots, these are both matters of confusing what people mean or intend, relative to what they say or do.

Making it personal

Have you got your notepad ready to scribble your thoughts? Or perhaps you’ve opened your #HashtagYourLife journal in Word, ready to go …

Think about the various conversations you’ve had in the last couple of weeks, as many as you can remember. Mix things up by taking into account conversations with various people: your partner, your family, your colleagues, your friends, with strangers on Reddit.

Try get a sense of your own personal biases coming out – do you tend to place a negative angle on what people say? Are you rather optimistic? Do you over-react to what your spouse says but not to colleagues’ words?

And next time you’re with someone and your brain is creating a gap between the words you’re hearing and the meaning you’re creating, try be aware of all the thoughts that bounce around your head. Try notice why you think there is a mismatch on that occasion, consider whether this is more common with this person than others, identify whether this is a wider bias you might have.

And make sure, every time your mind creates a words-vs-meaning gap, the phrase “Interesting but ugly” pops up. Flag those moments so that you’re aware of what is going on, and give yourself an opportunity to close that gap if appropriate (or widen that gap, if required).

And of course, true to the principles of #HashtagYourLife, share this story with your partner or your colleagues, and allow “Interesting but ugly” to become part of your vocabulary, so that you can mutually flag such moments with each other. Clear communication is key to strong relationships.

You need this. (And I mean that in a good way, not a bad way ?.)

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