‘False positivity’

Thanks to this pandemic, we learned two new medical terms: “False positive” and “false negative.” When a test result shows that you are Covid positive, it may be false because another test done later might reveal the contrary. That’s a case of false positive result, which is what happened recently to a member of our extended family.

But there is another case that we should watch out for. I call it “false positivity.”

There are people who seem to be problem-free when you talk to them, but they are actually saying the opposite, leaving it up to you to discern or decipher the mess they are in or the trouble they are having.

There is an old song that became a hit in the ’80s where the singer/lover keeps saying “I ain’t missing you at all” but the words belie what he is really feeling because there’s an undertone of desperation in his voice: “I ain’t missing you at all/Since you’ve been gone away/I ain’t missing you/No matter/What my friends say.” Note the insistent use of “ain’t” to conceal his true sentiments.

When a grieving friend says I’m Ok, Ok lang, nothing that I can’t handle, kayang-kaya ko ito, you know that deep down, it’s not true at all. She is just trying to put up a brave front but it’s all a façade, a masquerade. Inside she must be devastated, crumbling to pieces. I know someone who had been very sick and is now posting pictures of herself looking happy and neatly groomed trying to project a reassuring image of wellness and contentment. But her too frequent postings may actually be a call for help.

In other words, there is a subtext to what people appear to be saying. It is the underlying conversation thread, which we often fail to read. Often to our regret.

Subtext refers to the hidden true meanings of what we say or do. It is when words belie their meaning; when there is a discrepancy between what we say/do and what we really think. One psychologist puts it as “a deep hidden meaning that often operates beneath the radar of the surveilling eye.”

I know all about subtext because as a writer, I’ve seen it used as a technique employed in many films or plays. A good writer uses subtext to reveal information about the story or characters without stating it outright.

Subtext can refer to an actor’s performance that contradicts the words. For example, an actor who says he wishes his lover to have a wonderful time and all the while meaning he doesn’t really want her to go can have a field day conveying subtly the negative feelings hidden behind the positive words of the scene. Watch the body language of the actor in the scene. While his words are positive, his posture and facial expressions are different.

Subtext is the silent conversation that happens between people. Sometimes, it may not be very subtle at all. Gestures, facial expressions, posture, a face scrunched up, arms crossed, intense stare, physical distance.

To understand people, we need to be more sensitive, attuned to the subtext of what people are saying. We need to learn to read body language, tone of voice, just like what great actors do.

For it is in the subtext of words, actions and relationships where we find what is “really going on” in the lives of people we live, work, and interact with. Indeed, uncovering subtext in what they say and do is like a sign with an arrow that points to something we need to take note of. That way you make the right plays, make the right reads and avoid any rips in the relationship.

We Filipinos are never frank or direct to the point. Our conversations are paligoy-ligoy (circuitous). We do not want to offend others unless it is deemed necessary. A person who is too frank is deemed tactless. The Pinoy is likely to show outward pleasantness to mask inward negative feelings. We would rather let pahiwatig or pakiramdam to convey unpleasant matters.

If we ever express our honest feelings about someone, we usually try to preface it with pillow words to soften the blow, such as “Hindi naman ako galit sa kanya. Hindi ako naiinggit sa kanya. Ok naman sana siya…”

But even in ourselves we need to be aware of the subtexts beneath the words that we express and actions that we show to our loved ones, friends, colleagues, and workmates, and even subordinates.

For example, do we really mean what we say to others? Do we really mean what we promise to do?

When we say we are just being tactful or polite, it is really a form of hypocrisy. This is what I sense when FB friends are so profuse with compliments and positive messages whenever someone posts solo pictures of themselves: “Gorgeous!” “Beautiful!” “Looking great!” “You look so much younger!” You know they could not really mean it as you contemplate on how age has ravaged the person in the image. The worse part is the receiver seems to believe them and is so carried away; she posts more and more selfies ad nauseam. There are times when refraining from commenting can be a more appropriate message.

Truth be told, in any organization, it’s almost perfunctory for us to smooth talk colleagues, specially those above us in the pecking order, with left handed compliments. But behind his back, we badmouth him. I was guilty of this. On my last day at a company which I was too happy to leave, I confided to the new employee the faults of a colleague who he was going to work with, hoping it would help the said newbie navigate office politics better than I did. Little did I know that this person was close to that former colleague and subsequently wasted no time in distorting my intention and my words. I was never confronted about it but soon word got around that I was a hypocrite. Mea culpa, for I had been acting chummy all along with that colleague I secretly disliked.

The lesson here is not to be carried away too much by flatteries, compliments and plaudits. People could be damning you with faint praises but you’re so dense not to get the message that something’s wrong with you. We must confront some uncomfortable truths about our selves, as well as look more closely into the subtext of our relationships that can serve as a catalyst to change, as there is always a gain in knowledge about oneself and others.

Now that we are all connected through social media, we get a lot of messages from people close to us, from friends, colleagues, and some of these pleasant messages could have a ring of false positivity. When someone is too happy and doesn’t seem like his old self, either he is lying or he is sending a message to you, which he wants you to decipher for yourself. Failing to read the subtext right could spell the difference between saving a life or abandoning someone to a state of hopelessness.


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