Hell is ambiguous social signals, I said.
After posting, I thought for a while, and found my self in disagreement with Five Minutes Ago Kate. (For most effective use, think before posting. Ask your doctor if Internet is right for you! Side effects of being on Internet include occasional Wrongness, spontaneous palm-to-face contact.)
Because I actually don’t think I dislike ambiguous or subtle social signals as much as that statement implied.
I have had my butt/heart/other metaphorically weighty bits saved by some well-timed ambiguity. Indirectness/Guess Culture gets a bad rap for being all about unspoken and implicit rules and norms, but I think it’s also extremely protective. When you don’t have a strong preference, being indirect, rather than explicit, can prevent being forced to choose a side. Guess culture runs on encoding social information in the middle of plausible deniability.
Joe: Do you prefer A or B?
Joe: Apple, coffee, bulldozers, dining room furniture, newspaper, aardvark, tea, acrobat, hellmouth, Buffy, shield, cushion, sewing machine.
Jane: Orange, acorn, ice, acrobat, couch, brisket, pleather pants.
Joe: Let’s do A.
But supposing Joe instead said “I think we should do B!” Jane would have a safe rejoinder in saying that she’s also interested in B.
Ambiguous social signals are data points. Instead of Jane needing to hope that her preference for A wouldn’t directly contradict Joe’s preference for B, they can ‘dance’. Joe mentions some things, which indicate that he likes A and B (apple, aardvark, acrobat, bulldozers, Buffy) and Jane offers a rejoinder of mostly-A indicators.
This is especially useful when there’s a power imbalance. Jane might have a main goal of keeping Joe happy—perhaps Jane thinks he’s a potential business client. Instead of giving that away “Well, I could do whichever, A or B, because I mostly want to convince you that I care about your preferences” or accidentally picking A, without knowing Joe secretly loathes A and everything associated with it.
Okay, but an actual, non-alphabet-based example?
Dating is a lot of slow escalation and plausible deniability. Presumably, two people on a first date have a sense that the person opposite them might have the characteristics they want in a partner. Being warm and lingering over dessert is a way to signal interest in a second date, without committing to a relationship, while being hands-off and failing to make plans for another outing conveys a lack of romantic interest without needing to baldly state that you can’t imagine dating them. One ambiguous signal (“She was being really touchy! But she might just be a touchy sort of person who’s only somewhat interested in me!”) is not enough information. The process of dating lets everyone find trends.
In the race to end up at We Should Date, you don’t want to outpace the potential partner. A proto-relationship in which Lisa introduces Mark to her friends as her boyfriend and he has to pull her aside to discuss why he isn’t comfortable with that is likely going to be worse off than a relationship that took another month to get to Official Boyfriend-Girlfriend status. (In fact, depending on that conversation, Lisa and Mark might not make it another month. Jim could be unwilling to tell Lisa that he’s not sure if he’ll wants to put up with her annoying laugh on a permanent basis. Sharing this will not end well, even if it’s true.)
Relationships use that indirect ‘dance’ to negotiate arriving at more serious milestones. Playing the “What do you consider love?”/”Have you been in love before?”/”I love [characteristic] about you” dance back and forth is a way to be more confident that your “I love you” will be returned. Asking what your partner considers love, only to hear back that they don’t believe in love lets everyone safely pretend it was only a distant, academic interest in the topic, instead of rejected at the moment they proclaim their love. (Alternatively, it protects the partner who doesn’t love from feeling forced to say ‘I love you’ too early.)
There’s a good deal of noise for each signal in Guess/Indirect means of communication, but that noise can be extremely useful. I’m fairly direct myself, but framing Indirect/Guess communication as universally less-good fails to notice how good can be nuance and uncertainty.