Lost For Words, On Purpose

When we use words to say how we feel, the more relevant concepts and distinctions that we know, the more precisely we can express our feelings. So you might think that the number of relevant distinctions we can express on a topic rises with a topic’s importance. That is, the more we care about something, the more distinctions we can make about it.

But consider the two cases of food and love/sex (which I’m lumping together here). It seems to me that while these topics are of comparable importance, we have a lot more ways to clearly express distinctions on foods than on love/sex. So when people want to express feelings on love/sex, they often retreat to awkward analogies and suggestive poetry. Two different categories of explanations stand out here:

1) Love/sex is low dimensional. While we care a lot about love/sex, there are only a few things we care about. Consider money as an analogy. While money is important, and finance experts know a great many distinctions, for most people the key relevant distinction is usually more vs. less money; the rest is detail. Similarly, evolution theory suggests that only a small number of dimensions about love/sex matter much to us.

2) Clear love/sex talk looks bad.  Love/sex are to supposed to have lots of non-verbal talk, so a verbal focus can detract from that. We have a norm that love/sex is to be personal and private, a norm you might seem to violate via comfortable impersonal talk that could easily be understood if quoted. And if you only talk in private, you learn fewer words, and need them less. Also, a precise vocabulary used clearly could make it seem like what you wanted from love/sex was fungible – you aren’t so much attached to particular people as to the bundle of features they provide. Precise talk could make it easier for us to consciously know what we want when, which makes it harder to self-deceive about what we want. And having available more precise words about our love/sex relations could force us to acknowledge smaller changes in relation status — if “love” is all there is, you can keep “loving” someone even as many things change.

It seems to me that both kinds of things must be going on. Even when we care greatly about a topic, we may not care about many dimensions, and we may be better off not being able to express ourselves clearly.

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  • IMASBA

    I agree about 1) and 2), here are two more.

    3) Western culture is still knee-deep into old farmer attitudes about sex and love (Victorian attitude basically), so there never was much opportunity for more expressions to evolve and even in 2014 you still don’t know if a random person can appreciate a more liberal form of discussion about these things.

    4) Love and sex are such subjective experiences that there isn’t always a point to a very detailed discussion: very often some form of advice is useless unless the other person has a personality and experience very similar to your own.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      3) sounds like a reason that clear talk looks bad. On 4), why would love/sex experiences be more context dependent than food experiences?

      • IMASBA

        3) is a reason why clear talk looks bad but it is different from the way I interpreted 2): 2) seems more intrinsically human, while 3) is just a cultural quirk that actually goes against human nature and is more dramatic than 2).

        On 4), well, it’s so much more than the raw experience, isn’t it? It’s more like talking about diets than about how your food tastes, but even a diet doesn’t compare because it has less emotional components and you can actually objectively measure food allergies, body weight, etc… Still, with food we do accept people have very different diets, tastes and habits, the reason that we don’t do that with love and sex seems to me to be 3). As we become more like foragers again I expect 3) to wither away and our attitudes towards love and sex to become much more liberal (some countries in Europe are significantly ahead of the US in this regard).

  • lump1

    I doubt that 1) is true. I expect that if you look at love from the perspective of a relationship researcher/counsellor, you would find lots of dimensions.

    But for ordinary lovers, there is not much utility to precise, clinical and subtle distinctions, because we wouldn’t use them even if we knew them. We’d say the stuff that we’re supposed to, not the stuff that’s maximally informative. That’s your 2), and I think it’s sufficient on its own to explain the phenomenon.

    If I were to suggest a 3), it’s that precise vocabulary usually accompanies some kind of expertise, and becoming love/sex experts is inherently difficult. Expertise might involve a retreat from the involved perspective into an “objective” point of view. This is certainly possible regarding love and sex, but the way we care about love/sex is from the involved perspective, so the vocabulary of the experts would seem ill-suited to our experience, even if we were to learn it.

    Notice also that friendship is important and multidimensional, but our vocabulary for describing it is also hopelessly blunt. A part of that might be that we just don’t become friendship experts, but your 2) is again an important factor.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      As with money, I did distinguish the distinctions ordinary people make from those of experts. I don’t see how you’re expertise comment distinguishes food from love/sex. We have limited experience with both of them.

  • Granite26

    “Also, a precise vocabulary used clearly could make it seem like what you wanted from love/sex was fungible – ”
    makes me think of these things:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spintria

    May be off topic and missing the point, though…

  • Sebastian_H

    Could it be that most people experience a large variety of foods, but very few people experience more than a handful of loves?

  • John Laing

    Once again, I am wondering whether you put even the slightest effort into researching this subject before posting. As just one example, f-list.net cross-references a technical vocabulary of hundreds of types of sex and/or love with four degrees of preference, and a further mechanism for specifying new terms.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The issue is the number of distinctions that most people know and use, not the number of distinctions that can or have been made by specialists.

      • John Laing

        So you’re counting anyone who creates an account on a dating site as a ‘specialist,’ and chefs as ‘most people,’ then?

  • Philip Goetz

    Also, imprecision may be more desirable in love than in food. A precise description of how you feel about someone could give zer a precise knowledge of how much ze could get away with.