OPINION COLUMNS

I literally can’t stop taking things literally

By Joy Carrico | Published Wednesday, November 11, 2015
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Why can’t kleptomaniacs understand puns? Because they take things literally.

I love this joke because I get it.

I am a literal thinker. My default position is to take whatever is being said at face value. This gets me in trouble all the time.

Joy Carrico

Joy Carrico

I don’t get it when people “try to tell me something.” So many nice people in this world have tried to tell me things without being rude, and I have just blown right past whatever they are trying to tell me because I didn’t get it.

If you catch me on a good day and beat around the bush about something, I might eventually interrupt you and ask, “Are you trying to tell me something? Because I’m not getting it.”

With me, it’s best to be direct. I promise, you won’t hurt my feelings, and even if you do, I’ll get over it.

When it comes to communicating, I am a blunt object – as in, “the victim was killed by a blow to the head with a blunt object.” Time and experience have tempered my bluntness, but I am not blunt by choice. I only know one way to the point – straight. It would never enter my mind to talk around a subject. I would get lost on that journey.

The nicest word I frequently hear to describe the way I communicate is “direct.” Blunt, of course, or abrupt, even rude to some people who aren’t used to my direct approach, are other adjectives I’ve had applied to me.

Another symptom of my literally-minded disorder is that I answer the question asked. That may not seem to be a problem at first, but consider the following example.

“Do you know the time?”

“Yes.”

Again, on a good day, my synapses can connect that that question is actually asking something else: “What time is it?” But if I’m having a bad day, I will answer that question literally. Yes, I know what time it is. Not because I’m a smart aleck (which people often think) but because I merely answered the question asked. It doesn’t occur to me at first blush to do otherwise.

Let’s be realistic. I live in the real world and have learned to interpret lots of things and can communicate with people (for the most part) effectively on a day-to-day basis. I go whole days at a time without causing confusion and frustration (as far as I know), but my default position is literal and I have to take a little trip in my mind through the various life lessons to land on what others seem to understand right away.

“Do you know the time?”

“It’s 11:02.”

That takes work for me.

I also get tripped up by two opposing questions at once.

“Do you want to go out to eat or would you rather stay in?”

Here’s what happens inside my brain: “This is a yes/no question. If I say ‘yes,’ he will not know what I’m saying yes to. If I say ‘no,’ same problem. Does not compute. Overload.”

Given this insurmountable paradox, I tend to answer the second part of the two-question series because that’s the portion my overtaxed brain is clinging to. “Do you want to go out or would you rather stay in?”

“No.”

That means I want to go out. I said no to “would you rather stay in?”

The Fella has had to learn this about me out of sheer survival. Poor Fella, he’s a trooper.

Sometimes I can say “yes and no” to that question, which would mean, “Yes, I want to go out. And no, I don’t want to stay in.” Questions answered in the order asked. In my mind, that’s clearer, but it still tends to confuse people because they don’t really remember how they phrased the question.

Pay attention to how often people ask two opposing questions at the same time. Even I do it, despite my disability. I bet you do it. You just don’t notice because most people can navigate such an interrogation technique with finesse. They don’t stumble over it like I do, calling painful attention to it.

When I’m on my game, I can weed my way through this question and come up with a reply that is useful and doesn’t require a bunch of confused follow-up questions. “I want to eat out.” But on a bad day, there’s no chance this is going to be easy for anybody.

Finally, and most upsetting, I usually don’t get jokes. Despite the initial joke about kleptomaniacs claiming that literalists can’t get puns, I have better luck with puns. After all, my brain is usually frantically interpreting everything anyway. When a pun is made, my brain runs through the options and says, “Hey, two meanings that both relate to what’s being said. Funny. Ha, ha, ha.”

But where I may catch on to a pun about 50 percent of the time, other jokes elude me most of the time. I can’t count how often people have told a joke, and everyone’s laughing while I’m thinking, “I don’t get it.”

Jokes aren’t funny when they have to be explained. It’s so awkward and uncomfortable to be the one in a group half-smiling insecurely, desperate to understand what everyone else seems to understand and killing the mood by being obviously uncomprehending.

I would fake it, but I’m a terrible liar, so my best bet is to just say nothing. As a consequence, I’m left out of the world of joke-telling, and I’m sad about it.

Joy Carrico is a graphic artist for the Messenger.

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