Respond to what they probably meant

Edit: I didn’t realize this before writing the post, but what I’m referring to is The Principle of Charity.


I was confused about Node Modules, so I did a bunch of research to figure out how they work. Explaining things helps me to understand them, and I figured that others might benefit from my explanation, so I wrote a blog post about them. However, I’m inexperienced and still unsure of exactly what’s going on, so I started the blog post off with a disclaimer:


I’m a bit of a noob. I just graduated from a coding bootcamp and am still trying to wrap my head around this stuff myself (that’s actually why I’m writing this article). I tried to do my research, but I can’t guarantee that everything is correct. Input from more knowledgeable people is very welcome.

My friend said that it’s a bad idea to do that. He said:

You’re literally discrediting yourself in the first sentence of the article. Stand by what you’ve written!

I interpreted what he said literally and basically responded by saying:

Why should I “stand by what I’ve written”? What I mean to communicate to the readers is that, “I’m x% sure of what I’m about to say.” To “stand by what I’ve written” is to assign a higher confidence to the things I’ve written than what my true confidence is. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to interpret “stand by what you’ve written” as meaning “claim that you’re 100% sure of what you’ve written”. Why would I do that?

This was stupid of me. He didn’t mean “claim that you’re 100% sure of what you’ve written”. He didn’t mean “pretend that you’re way more confident in what you’ve written than what you really are”. He meant, “I think that it comes across as you being less confident than you actually are. And so I think you should reword it to better communicate your confidence.”

I shouldn’t have interpreted what he said so literally. I should have thought about and responded to what I thought he meant to say. (Although, he also should have been more precise...)


People often interpret and respond to statements literally. Instead of doing this, it’s often useful to think about and respond to what the other person probably meant.

For example, “If I interpret what you said literally, then A. But you probably meant X, so B. If you meant Y, then C.”

Depending on how confident you are in your interpretation, you should probably respond to a variety of possibilities. Like if you’re < 80% sure that you know what they meant, you should probably respond to possibilities that have at least a 5% chance of being what they meant. I’m not sure whether 80 and 5 are the right numbers, but hopefully it communicates the point.

Why don’t people do this?

I see two likely reasons:

  1. The whole “argument is a war that I must win” attitude.

  2. Habit.

1 - “You said X! Gotcha! That’s stupid! You’re wrong!”. This clearly isn’t a productive approach.
2 - I think that a lot of people—myself included—have a bad habit of interpreting things too literally. Well actually, that by itself isn’t what’s bad. What’s bad is stopping after your literal analysis, and not considering alternatives that are likely to be what they actually meant. This bad habit isn’t ill-intentioned—that’s why I distinguish it from reason 1). It’s just an analytical impulse.

Practical considerations

In “low friction” situations (like when you’re talking to someone face-to-face), it’s probably a better idea to just say, “I think that what you’re trying to say is X. Is that true?”. Ie. instead of responding to what you think they mean… you could just ask them to clarify.
In higher friction situations, there’s a cost (in time and/​or effort) to having one person stop talking and another person start talking. Like in online discussions, you might have to wait a while before they respond. So if you’re 95% sure that you know what they meant, you could just say, “I think that you meant X, so A. But if you meant Y, then B”. The alternative is to respond by saying, “I think you meant X but I’m not sure. Did you mean X”, and then having to wait for a reply.
I’m having trouble thinking of other “higher friction situations”. Perhaps a (semi)formal debate where you have to speak for a certain length of time would be a good example. In this situation you’re expected to just keep speaking, so you can’t pause to ask people what they meant—you just have to think about and respond to the possibilities on the spot.
Another practical point to make is that the flow of the conversation has to be taken into account. Stopping to address every possible interpretation of what the other person said is obviously impractical—it’d take too long, and it’s hard for everyone to follow the logic of the conversation.
However, I think that my core point is applicable for all types of conversations. The goal of communication is for each person to interpret and respond to the others’ statements. Interpreting things literally instead of thinking about what the other person probably meant to say is a failure to interpret, and it impedes communication.