Literal versus inferential


11 March 2024

We have people who have a greater tendency to be a literal speaker who, as hinted in the name, will speak literally and specifically about what they mean. ‘Please get me a glass of water’, is a literal request. Then on the opposite side of the scale, there is an inferential speaker. They will weave around a topic hoping the other person will guess or work out what they are saying. ‘Oh, I am so thirsty’, is an inferential request. They are not asking clearly for what they want, although they often expect someone to hear their ‘request’. 

Can you see the difference? 

Few of us are 100 percent literal or inferential but sit somewhere in between. One thing to remember, there is no right or wrong and no ‘better’ way to be.

Generally speaking, and this is a sweeping statement, men can be more literal speakers, and often, women are more likely to speak inferentially. 

Just to complicate the situation, we also have the same two different styles for listening. Some listen literally, while others listen inferentially. 

Can you see the challenge when this is not understood? 

A person who listens literally can take an instruction or information to an unnecessary place. On the other side, someone who listens inferentially will hear hints from conversations and decide that there is an instruction. They are more likely to take action even when this is not needed. This can create a lot of miscommunication in relationships where one partner will give clues and hints like, ‘Oh, it would be so nice if we went on a holiday’, and the other partner is listening and thinking, ‘Why do you keep talking about this?’. They are not sure what is being said, as they do not hear the hidden request. On the other hand, the inferential speaker thinks that they are being clear, which then becomes another issue. 

Someone who hears inferentially can hear the request, can read between the lines and hears, ‘They must mean that they want to go on holiday, let us book one!’. 

An inferential speaker and listener may think that the literal person is harsh and almost rude. This can cause challenges, as you can imagine.

These communication styles can cause challenges in relationships, particularly between men and women. A man might listen literally, so they respond to specific, clear, tangible instructions and do not understand references, hints and subtle cues. At the same time, a woman may think they are giving instructions through hints and gets frustrated when their partner does not respond.

These styles can be and should be used in a different context. For example, when speaking to children, you might be more literal than when speaking to your partner or family member. The most important aspect here is to be aware of the differences, as understanding them can be a game changer in relationships. 

Take some time now to think about your own communication styles and see if they are serving you.


If you want to read more, this section was taken out of my book – How to make sense of relationships. You can buy your own copy here:

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