Open Letter to My Literal-Thinking, French Fry-Counting Brothers and Sisters

Compassionate Love:Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness   (c)2014 Nancy Virden

Dear Literal-thinker,

You probably know who you are. Yesterday, the boss called a meeting for 3:00. You were there, she was not. You were impatient and slightly confused by her two-minute lateness.  

A supervisor tells you to ship a package, only you discover that not all the merchandise fits into one box. Smaller boxes are available but you spend an hour looking for a bigger one.

The doctor tells you to “take two and call in the morning.”  You set an alarm on your phone to make certain you place the call before noon.

People who are not literal thinkers may be reading some of the above statements a second time, wondering what the fuss is about. We literal-thinkers however, clearly understand that bosses are supposed to say 3:02 if that is when the meeting is going to start. Shipping a package does not mean two or more.  If a doctor says morning, he unquestionably means A.M.

At approximately six years-old, I was sent by my Dad into a McDonald’s to order our four-member family’s meals. This was in the early 60s, and the fast food chain wasn’t what it is now. Minimum menu options meant I only had to remember four cheeseburgers and fries.

A teenager peered at me over the counter. “How many french fries do you want?” he asked.

I was stumped. Quickly mentally counting, I offered my best guess. “I don’t know, forty-four?”

Finally, my mother came into the store to see what was taking so long. Paper bags of fries were piling up even as more fries were being lowered into the grease! I remember her asking what is the problem, and can still picture a shy boy telling her what I had said. We left with only four bags of french fries, and I thought I’d done something wrong but didn’t know what.

We literal-thinkers have experienced many such scenarios. In adulthood it becomes more troublesome. Life teaches us that most people do not think so carefully about what words they choose. It can be embarrassing sometimes, right? “But you said…” becomes a phrase we avoid, because chances are what they meant and what was said are not the same.

A more recent example is a common phrase I hear in therapy, “in the moment.” As supposed to worrying about the future or past, acting on what we can control now is a healthier response to life. Problem is, the  word “moment” means to me a precise miniscule point in time. Synonyms include flash, split second, jiffy, minute, second, and instant. 

A moment cannot be an entire afternoon. Literal-thinking tells me I cannot successfully be conscious of any one given moment. Until someone used the term “present” instead, I was a bit overwhelmed by how to change my thinking in that area.

You and I must accept that we speak “normal” as a second language and that our literal-thinking “accent” may not be completely overcome. We can learn to relax more, digest conversations slowly, and consider what was actually said and in what context. It pays to take that extra time before reacting.

I’ve heard the way I interpret situations can be annoying because I think too much. (How much is too much? I mean, just how much time is proper? 5 minutes? 2 days? You understand the question!) Pressing for details is commendable when taking notes in a meeting, however not necessarily so desirable in conversation.

We are not unintelligent. Nevertheless, literal-thinking regularly interferes with relationships, communication, and peace of mind.

So, dear brother or sister in the Literal Family, be emphatically encouraged to believe you are not a failure at communicating. We just may need a little extra focus and time, and a sense of humor never hurts either.

In this with you,



NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline     1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.


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