Relationship Wisdom – Being a Literal or Inferential Person


What is left unsaid?

Sometimes it is just that knowing something additional, even if it is a seemingly little thing, can alter a relationship pattern that makes a big difference. The following article will hopefully provide you with one of those meaningful pieces of wisdom in terms of how different people perceive the world.

Literal and inferential

This is a differentiation that is not as well-known as the more common ones, for example introvert and extrovert or thinking and feeling types of people. A literal person will interpret a statement literally. This means that if they have a visitor saying ‘I’m thirsty’ this, to the literal person, is simply a statement about thirst. The inferential person will infer meaning into the statement and make an assumption about the meaning behind what is said. In the example above, they most probably will offer their visitor something to drink.

If you are an inferential person, you might think ‘but this is common sense’ and some things are. Even the literal person may have become habituated to understand and infer ‘common sense’ through education or training. It is however not their natural way of thinking.

My sister comes for dinner but does not help even though I’m on crutches!

This difference might even be differentiating you and your siblings and creating unnecessary stress. If you have ever been ill you will have noticed which of your family members or friends are inferring and which ones are literal. The inferring group will go around your house, help out and do whatever seems necessary. The literal person will come visit, probably because you asked them to, sit on your bed and talk to you. They might wait for you to offer them a cup of tea but if you cannot get out of bed you need to be literal with them and ask them to make their own cup of tea.

Recently, a client of mine mentioned her sister didn’t help out while she was visiting having dinner even though my client was obviously challenged being on crutches. Having read the above what is your guess on the two sisters? Indeed, the visiting sister most likely belongs to the literal group of people, whereas the sister who was ill, to whom it was common sense to help out, belongs to the inferential group.

How to use this knowledge

This difference is usually more of a problem to the inferring person because they expect the other to do or say something they repeatedly don’t do or say. Seldom, the literal person will start to wonder why the other person comes to certain conclusions that are not reality.

Suggestion for the inferential person:

As an inferential person you have to remember that your assumptions are just that: assumptions. They do not necessarily need to reflect reality, as much as they might seem like that to you.

As mentioned above, remember to ask the literal person specifically what you want them to do: Please wash the dishes. Could you please also dry them and put them away. If your partner comes out of the kitchen without having cleaned the bench, then aim to add this specific detail. Don’t assume he or she didn’t do it to get back at you, even though that’s what you might do.

Suggestions for the literal person:

If you are unsure what your partner might mean with a request, aim to clarify. This way you avoid misunderstanding and upset. Have a clear understanding of what your partner’s likes and dislikes are and make sure you remember that cleaning the dishes also means wiping the bench afterwards.

For both:

Repeat to yourself ‘my partner is a literal person, which means he/she does things I specifically and clearly ask’ or ‘my partner is an inferential person, he/she will, for example, infer that me not coming home at the usual time means something is wrong.’

If you are both trying to see the world from time to time through the other person’s perspective you not only widen yours, you also add satisfaction and understanding to your relationships.

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