1984: Misinterpretation

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"But there are seven billion people in the world! I can't possibly stop to consider how ALL of them might interpret something!" "Ah, yes, there's no middle ground between 'taking personal responsibility for the thoughts and feelings of every single person on Earth' and 'covering your eyes and ears and yelling logically correct statements into the void.' That's a very insightful point and not at all inane."
Title text: "But there are seven billion people in the world! I can't possibly stop to consider how ALL of them might interpret something!" "Ah, yes, there's no middle ground between 'taking personal responsibility for the thoughts and feelings of every single person on Earth' and 'covering your eyes and ears and yelling logically correct statements into the void.' That's a very insightful point and not at all inane."


Cueball is complaining that people are mad at him again because of a misinterpretation of his statements. This is referenced by the comic's title. He complains that since (he believes) he is being perfectly clear, it cannot be his fault that everyone misinterprets him. The off-screen voice sarcastically agrees that communication is an activity that only involves one person; in fact, of course, it famously involves at least two.

Cueball speaks as though his communications are complete and perfect once he has finished making them. The reality is that communication can't be considered complete until the message has also been received and understood. Cueball is failing to take into account the need for partnership between sender and receiver, and doesn't realize that the problem may well be in the way he carries out his side of the transaction rather than in the way everybody else is carrying out theirs.

In the title text, Cueball then answers that he cannot possibly account for the many possible interpretations which the message, potentially reaching the whole world, could acquire. This is an example of the Nirvana fallacy. Cueball's idealized solution is to consider how every person on Earth would interpret the message, so Cueball rejects doing anything less as insufficient; however, actually figuring out how every person on Earth would interpret the message is unfeasible, so Cueball doesn't do that either. The reply comes once again sarcastically, deriding his point and saying that a middle ground between taking up such an effort and entirely avoiding it must be reached.

This avoidance is phrased using an analogy as “covering your eyes and ears and yelling logically correct statements into the void”, implying that no one would understand the logical sentences (thus the void), and would instead read them more naturally – and also that ignoring the appalled reaction of listeners to their own interpretation of the sentences is similar to covering your eyes and ears. This action makes communication more difficult through the popular[citation needed] means of speech, text and sign language. If the hands are occupied with covering either part, then Braille communication is also impossible. Therefore, the action of “covering your eyes and ears” is a metaphor for deliberately making it more difficult to communicate with oneself. The simile might also mean that Cueball subconsciously rejects criticism as it would hurt his ego.

It is clear that Cueball is acting as a straw man to further Randall's point, and the off-panel character is portrayed as the (sarcastic) voice of reason.

Randall returns to a recurring theme in his comics, regarding, in contexts of communication, the responsibility of the speaker for how they are interpreted. Having gradually gotten less subtle, this theme is now laid bare, there being no joke other than the sarcasm. What follows is a chronological history of this theme.

  • Much earlier than the other comics below, but related, 169: Words that End in GRY is a surreal reprimand upon people who act smug when their bad communication is misunderstood.
  • The title text of 1028: Communication notes that “Anyone who says that they're great at communicating but 'people are bad at listening' is confused about how communication works.”
  • The title text of 1860: Communicating also asserts that the responsibility of a misunderstanding lies with the speaker, not the listener — a theme explored in the comic via the character Humpty Dumpty.
  • The comic 1911: Defensive Profile implies that a person who boasts of having “no filter” in their (social media) speech is actually merely insecure about making people mad with their statements.

This theme is part of the larger category of comics about social interactions.


[Cueball is sitting in an office chair at a desk in front of a laptop with his hands raised above the keyboard. An off-panel person replies to his remarks.]
Cueball: Ugh, people are mad at me again because they don't read carefully.
Cueball: I'm being perfectly clear. It's not my fault if everyone misinterprets what I say.
Off-panel person: Wow, sounds like you're great at communicating, an activity that famously involves just one person.

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“covering your eyes and ears and yelling logically correct statements into the void” — isn’t this the definition of Twitter? 15:10, 23 April 2018 (UTC)

Alas, no... Twitter doesn't have any requirement for logical correctness. 18:26, 23 April 2018 (UTC)
Which is why the US president manages to use it so successfully... ;-) --Kynde (talk) 20:20, 23 April 2018 (UTC)
Alas and alack .. Twitter is not connected to the void either. 01:30, 24 April 2018 (UTC)

WOW, I am just about literally Cueball here, like I wonder if Randall has been stalking me, LOL! But I have to disagree with this off-panel person. All we can do is word things as clearly as possible. As it is, it seems like this desire to be understood leads to my writing large blocks of text to clearly, explicitly state things (which ends up making it worse from another direction, because then people get too lazy to read everything, so they STILL misunderstand.... Maybe you should have just paid attention in the first place, when I wrote less). :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:02, 24 April 2018 (UTC)

In modern media it's also easy to write something which 90% people understand and still get thousands people who didn't (being in those remaining 10%). Yet, if 90% of people understand, it was quite clear, wasn't it? -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:45, 24 April 2018 (UTC)

I don't think the timing of this comic is a coincidence in light of the recent media attention to "terms and conditions" language being used by companies with an online presence, e.g. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-20/uber-paypal-face-reckoning-over-opaque-terms-and-conditions 04:35, 24 April 2018 (UTC)

Does Cueball fail at communicating? Or does writing as a medium that lacks the subtle facial expressions and tone that talking has mean that a spoken sentence and that same sentence written out can be interpreted differently even by the same person? Ahem, Poe's law. 15:00, 24 April 2018 (UTC)

I must say, I expected something else for 1984.

AFAIK, AFAIR, ISTM, IANAL but I reserve the right to be wrong... However, YMMV ;-) RIIW - Ponder it (talk) 17:58, 24 April 2018 (UTC)

This one seems to have hit a sore spot among the kinds of people who comment on explainXKCD. Note that Cueball said “everyone” — if just about “everyone” misinterprets what I’ve said even when I'm being as clear as I know how, then yes, I am bad at communicating. Maybe that means I need to get better at writing so that I can refine my definition of “as clear as possible.” And don’t blame it on the ancient art of writing - more variables means more room for error as well, not to mention the opportunity to reflect and edit that is present when writing. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Are you referring to any comments here above,because I cannot find anything relating to what you say about commentators here on xkcd... --Kynde (talk) 13:13, 25 April 2018 (UTC)
ID 1984

Am I the only one who is surprised that this comic has nothing to do with the novel 1984, given that there were already several jokes in regard to the comic id (e.g. comic 404)? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

No there was another above you, but here are so many meanings to all possible numbers and I have long stopped expecting Randall to do anything out of this. He did it with 1000, which is a milestone (but then not at 1024), and yes she did the April fool 404, but that was because it made sense. So I did not expect him to do anything and also do not expect anything special with regards to #2018 falling in this year. --Kynde (talk) 13:13, 25 April 2018 (UTC)

This feels like a metaphor, not a simile108.162.237.197 12:53, 5 August 2022 (UTC)

While I agree with the basic argument Randall is making here (That communication is the responsibility of both parties. Also basically what Kynde said above), the number of contexts I have to keep track of in order to avoid offending people (because I have a habit of using sarcasm just like the comic depicts) is rather alarming. I am in a lot of online spaces, and while I usually manage it all well enough, it has caused some issues with confused contexts. I think sometimes listeners should try to be more understanding of someone that has found themselves, inadvertently, overwhelmed by a big public space. But I still try to take responsibility when I make a mistake because of the issue.--Twisted Code (talk) 03:28, 19 February 2024 (UTC)