Communication is much more than the words that we speak or hear. Studies have quoted figures from 50% to 90% that communication—the message and emotion we get from others—is based on nonverbal or unspoken signals, starting from Mehrabian and Ferris in “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communications in Two Channels” in 1967. Add that to additional communication based on subtext, context, implication, and inference, and you’ll almost wonder what impact our actual words have.
Whatever the case, what we think we are communicating is often overshadowed or outright contradicted by what is meant to be interpreted between the lines. What we say is not really what we mean most of the time, and this is something we begin to learn as children. It’s not that the words we use don’t matter—they do. But the way in which we use them, and the contexts we use them in, are far more indicative of our feelings and emotions.
Unfortunately, for many of us, these small signs might as well be incantations for magic spells based on how subtle or convoluted they seem. One of the keys to communicating more clearly and being able to read between the lines of what people say is to understand subtext. To borrow from Chaney and Lyden’s 1997 publication “Subtextual Communication Impression Management: An Empirical Study,” in the context of an office environment, subtext is the following:
Subtextual communication, a covert language that strengthens or negates the spoken text, is used to influence the impressions other people have of us and may be used to competitive advantage in numerous situations in the workplace. The subtext is more subtle than the obvious text and may be more honest in interactions between people.
Subtextual communication elements are related to image and may convey positive or negative impressions related to:
- competence, and
- savoir-faire through dress,
- manner of introducing people,
- body language,
- regard for time,
- use of electronic communication,
- and dining etiquette.
Paul was taking people’s words literally and only at face value, and because of that, he was missing the real messages people were sending him. Whatever was being said was the only thing Paul was operating on, and he didn’t consider that communication would occur in any other way. Sam explained that people’s words were merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what they wanted to communicate, and “fine” said with a flat speaking tone was as a good as “this sucks.” That one simple statement made a huge change in Paul’s sales, as he began trying to dig beneath the words themselves and pick up on the meaning behind them.
Subtext will help you achieve your goals, both personally and professionally, as you begin to truly respond to what people are trying to communicate. Don’t be like Paul.
Communication can be divided into two categories: overt and covert. Overt is the words we say and the explicit messages we want to convey. This is when we directly tell someone that we’re hungry and ask for a hamburger.
Subtext is the covert type of communication. It’s almost never directly said, relies on literally anything besides the direct message coming out of someone’s mouth, and requires correct interpretation. Using subtext to say “I’m hungry” would include rubbing your stomach, licking your lips, pointing out that there is a menu on a nearby table, and mentioning that your previous meal was tiny.
Not everyone is going to pick up on those signs, but it is undeniable what the person wanted to convey. We routinely communicate through these indirect means and hope that it saves us the trouble of being direct. Subsequently, understanding the subtext under and surrounding people’s seemingly benign statements gives you insight into their true feelings and thoughts.
For example, how does the overt dialogue below differ from the subtextual, covert message? Here, it’s what is not said that completes the message. The subtext is that the question wasn’t replied to in a convincing manner and, thus, is less than sincere. Suppose the answerer of the question has a history of being blunt.
“Am I fat?”
“No, you’re not fat.”
Translation: Yes, you might be a little bit fat.
“Am I fat?”
“No, but I suppose you could maybe lose a couple of pounds.”
Translation: Yeah, you’re definitely fat now.
Subtext can be delivered through:
- vocal tone,
- reference to prior experiences,
- knowledge of relationships,
- body language,
- and even moods.
It sounds abstract and confusing, but just imagine that subtext is everything we want to say besides the exact words we use.
In fact, that’s one of the big reasons we use it. It allows us to navigate the world through indirect and nonconfrontational means. If you’re great at subtext, it saves time, it’s efficient, and it imparts great emotional intelligence by understanding people’s ever-shifting circumstances.
Subtext appears in every situation, from work and dating to social situations and family dynamics. In fact, much of dating can be said to be subtext because much of sexual tension depends on not revealing true intentions up front. If you ask someone to dinner and they tell you they are busy, they might be busy, or they might not be interested. If you ask the same person out four times and each time they say they’re busy, then there is additional subtext for you to read. Take the context into account and things aren’t looking good for you on the romantic front.
Through our behavior and choice of words, we transmit clues and desperately hope people pick up on them. Of course, this is the origin of passive-aggressive behavior—we don’t feel comfortable saying something directly, so our indirect measures become more and more aggressive and unpleasant. As a species, we are fairly avoidant and nonconfrontational. Not many people feel comfortable wearing their opinions and hearts on their sleeves, especially when they clash with those of other people. Directness is inherently tense, so it’s something we prefer to avoid.
A helpful method to imagine how subtext works in social situations is to imagine how it factors into a novel or a screenplay. When you’re watching a movie or reading a book, you don’t usually get told what the characters understand, feel, or think, and despite that, you come away with a clear sense of meaning about the scenes and relationships. This is all because of subtext.
In this context, it’s commonly referred to as what is under the skin of the character—what drives and motivates them, what they feel toward everyone else in the story, and what’s under the surface of all of their actions. Without giving characters clear motivations and having everyone in the movie operate only on a “what you see is what you get” level, you end up with a flat movie with no emotional impact.
Even in movies, there can be ambiguity in the subtext—sometimes intentional and sometimes not. This is the part the audience must fill in, which is why two people can come out of a film and have radically different ideas about the meaning the director was trying to convey.
Let’s take a look at an example scene in detail to illustrate this clearly. Always remember that we have to separate the covert and overt communication.
If you say, “Because he wants to propose to her,” you have understood the subtext present in this basic scene. The dialogue never says that the man wants to propose marriage to the woman. You inferred that from a combination of the mood, description, and the scene itself.
Is the word “wait” subtext? In this scene, the man is telling the woman to stop. There is nothing hidden in his words other than “Don’t go!” or perhaps “Stay!” depending on how the word is delivered.
Imagine instead that the man overtly says, “I have a table laid out here for you and I intend to propose with this beautiful ring I bought from Tiffany & Co.” It’s not something that would happen in real life, and thus, movies have to be written with subtext that allows people to understand what’s happening.
Filling in the details of any incoming communication through subtext is integral to better communication and greater likability. If you look closely, you will soon find that almost everything a person says has shades of subtext meant to consciously or unconsciously communicate additional messages.
Pay attention to people’s prior history and experiences and how they might relate to the current situation. It will inevitably color their perspectives, priorities, and motivations in a way that could make their message differ from their words. If you know someone’s general personality traits, you can often make a call by analyzing the situation from how they would prefer to conduct themselves. If someone is extremely meek and quiet and says something to the effect of “I agree… I suppose,” then it probably means they are internally screaming “NO!” Essentially, consider the source and how a person’s experiences color their communication.
Judge someone’s authenticity by analyzing the tone of their voice. Are they angry, serious, or sarcastic? Does the tone match the message? If someone says yes but they use a sarcastic tone, then they probably mean no. If someone says yes but they are angry, then they are probably not happy with the outcome. If they are serious and they say yes, then they are conflicted or they probably don’t care. There is a virtually unlimited number of interpretations of vocal tone, but most of them indeed mean that the words aren’t meant to be taken at face value.
Observe how people respond to you. When you look at how patient people are, how nice they act, and how accommodating they try to be, you can gauge how they feel about what you say. This also extends to how much silence you hear and how much interest they show. If someone takes two beats to answer a simple question, they had to think about their reply and may be using subtext to communicate negativity even if they agree with you.
Another aspect to consider, which may require more intense observational skills, is to see how much they deviate from their usual pattern of behavior. If your supervisor is typically upbeat, what does it mean that they are somber and negative? It can turn a proclamation of “Things are going well…” into the exact opposite message.
Subtext leaves clues that you can harness to become an expert communicator. People leave signs everywhere.
Of course, the tough part is deciphering these aspects of people simultaneously and instantly, as you might do in a normal everyday conversation. This means you actually have two tasks:
(1) processing the conversation and responding appropriately and
(2) being on the lookout for subtextual cues.
You might be able to train yourself to pick up on specific types of subtext and social cues, but can you pick up on them while trying to find others? Or will you only be able to observe so many things at once? It might seem like you’d need three brains and six pairs of eyes to pick up on so many things at once—at the beginning, this might be true.
But the only thing we can do is start small and train yourself until these things become a subconscious habit to consider—why did they say that and what could it mean from them?
I want to end the section on subtext with a small exercise to get you into the mood. It’s fairly easy: go out into public and observe people interacting—for example, sitting at a café and covertly watching the people at nearby tables. You can’t hear the overt conversation, so you’re going to make a guess at the subtext of the covert communication. Assign backstories, emotions, and motivations to the people you are observing. Go out on a limb and make up stories. Once you get better at subtext, you’ll find that the stories you create in situations like this will become more and more accurate.