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30. The Tendency to Interpret Literally

The world is full of figurative language, from idioms like ‘pull yourself together’  and metaphors such as ‘Her eyes were diamonds.’ to similes and hyperboles. However, for some, these expressions can be confusing or misleading, leading them to interpret statements very literally.

Why It’s Challenging

The capacity to process figurative language requires a certain level of cognitive flexibility and cultural understanding. Those who gravitate towards literal interpretations might miss the intended nuance of a statement or feel out of place in conversations where abstract language is used frequently.

Supporting Ourselves and Others

Empathy is crucial. Recognising that not everyone processes language in the same way can help in crafting communications that are more inclusive and direct. It’s essential to avoid making assumptions or passing judgments based on someone’s interpretative style.

Practical Steps to Navigate Literal Interpretations

  • Clarity First: While being succinct is often valued, prioritising clarity, especially in important communications, can prevent misunderstandings. This can tie into the challenges faced by those who struggle with abstract concepts.
  • Ask for Feedback: If you’re unsure about a particular statement’s meaning, seek clarification. Likewise, if you’re conveying an important message, ask the listener if they’ve understood your intent, similar to managing challenging conversations.
  • Education: Engage in activities that promote the understanding of figurative language, such as reading literature or poetry.
  • Direct Language: If you know someone prefers literal interpretations, try to communicate in a more straightforward manner, which might also benefit those finding it hard to process visual information in busy environments.
  • Utilise Visual Aids: Supporting statements with visual aids, diagrams, or concrete examples can help elucidate abstract ideas.


  • Language Learning: Many people who learn a new language initially struggle with idiomatic expressions, relating to the challenge of interpreting phrases literally.
  • Technology: Automated systems, like chatbots or certain software programs, often interpret inputs very literally, echoing the human tendency for direct interpretation. This is reminiscent of the emphasis on patterns and systems, like in mathematics.
  • Everyday Conversations: Phrases like “break a leg” or “it’s raining cats and dogs” can be puzzling if interpreted literally. If confused by them, google is a quick way to get an explanation if you dont feel you can ask.

Daily Change Summary

Understanding that some individuals gravitate towards literal interpretations can lead to more inclusive communication styles. By promoting clarity and fostering environments where questions and feedback are encouraged, we can bridge the gap between the literal and figurative, ensuring everyone feels understood.

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