Huffpost Healthy Living
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Discovering My Abhorrence of 'Tangential Thinking'

Posted: Updated:

I'm not a very tangential thinker -- as in, I am someone who sees 'the big picture' or cuts to the chase sooner rather than later. I do pick up tidbits of thought often idling along the side of a conversation and reflect on them later, but I tend to, in the course of a conversation (at work, home, and even with friends), see goals or endpoints (from A to B) and move rather quickly toward them. I've always known that about me and remember times when I would grow impatient of others for not seeing things as clearly and as quickly as I might. That arrogant way of thinking hit me hard on Sunday when I stopped into a day spa while on a long walk with my husband in Los Angeles.

We ventured in to ask about what kinds of treatments they offered at this spa and in reading over the menu of options, were intrigued by one called 'The Traveler's Delight' -- a full-package treatment including manicure, pedicure, body wrap, massage, lunch, and meditation. My husband asked, "How long do we need if we do this treatment?" to which the spa representative said, "Oh, it depends on if you want a male masseuse, who's busy, who's available, etc."

Now that's not at all what my husband and I were expecting. (He, like me, sees the shortest route of thought from A to B). We merely wanted to know how much time would be necessary (4 hours, 5 hours, etc.) to get the full treatment. I tried again, "Okay, assume we can have anyone we want because we have booked this months in advance and there are no barriers to our needs, if we come in at 9 am, what time would we be finished?" To this new query the Spa representative said, "Oh, we don't open at 9 am. Our hours are from 12-8 Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and 10-6 other days."

AAAHHHH!...Would this tangential thinker ever give us a straight answer?

We left the spa and I asked my husband, "How do you describe that kind of thinker?" as I know several at my place of employment. How would you ever explain to that person what you really want to know? They seem to get caught in little detail and miss the point completely. Yet, if they don't see things the way you see them, then how, how, how, could you ever make it clear?

It gave me great pause to see again the diversity in our human nature, how we each think and connect the dots in the world around us. I talked to another friend about how frustrated I was (and am) at times when I want an answer but am forced to wait or try multiple ways to get my question across to a tangential thinker. She understood it as well and justified my criticism by the nature of their position; if the guy is selling spa treatments, he needs to be good at hearing the question and responding effectively.

Although I agree with my friend, it gave me a great opportunity to see my own subtle yet very present feeling that my way was the best way. I decided to try to explore the world from the tangential thinker's perspective upon my next encounters with such people to experiment and see first, why they are frustrating to me; and second, what the world would be like from their eyes.

I discovered that patience remains elusive to me at times like these and that the process of being taken on someone else's meandering mind ride tests my patience. It has provided me with a new challenge or experiment of sorts to examine the source of such impatience. It dawned on me that this is the sort of frustration teachers experience with students who don't get it upon first, second, or third explanations. And, what about the life of the student, or the adult, who thinks tangentially while many in the world do not? They probably do not understand why those around them are getting angry, impatient or frustrated when they are trying their best to just do their jobs (whether a spa Representative or a student in high school). Thinking differently can be a great challenge if we don't pause and see how critical or intolerant we are.

I've never seen the term 'tangential thinking' used as any particular cognitive style in psychology but I am pretty sure it is related to what is called executive functioning (i.e. goal-setting and following through on goals). Yet, in my experience with 'tangential thinkers' in everyday life, I've discovered another place in which I am quick to judge the thinking style of others as perhaps less than that of my own. It is in these discoveries of subtle judgments and projected inequality that true equality and patience show their loving heads.

From Our Partners