General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
A Take on Indexing

by Milton Dawes

General semantics is a system that provides us with guidelines for better living. These guidelines incorporate a set of interrelated principles – based on the methods and approaches in science and mathematics – that we can use to modulate the ways we ‘think’, ‘feel’, and behave. These modulations takes us beyond basing our responses mainly on labels, definitions, categories, and ‘things’, to responses based on ‘seeing’ and responding to situations in terms of variables, functions, relationships, interdependence, structure, change and patterns of change (rhythms). A fundamental premise of general semantics can be formulated as follows:

If we study and apply the methods and approaches we find in science and mathematics to our everyday lives, we are likely to achieve measures of success comparable to those achieved in these disciplines.

One of the factors that operate against our improving relationships, with ourselves and with others, and in improving our communication with ourselves and with others, involves a tendency we have to engage in what I call “gross-mapping“. We tend to map grossly in our usual everyday behaviors, when we classify, ‘think’, ‘feel’, imagine, remember, talk, label, describe, criticize, and so on. The act of indexing helps us to become more sensitive to, and more conscious of our gross-mapping tendencies. Gross-mapping is unavoidable – and not necessarily objectionable. But an awareness of this tendency allows us to do more appropriate “micro-mapping“.

In micro-mapping, we are keener observers. We listen more attentively. We are engaged in making finer distinctions. We are more finely tuned to what’s going on in and around us. We are more specific than when we map grossly. Combining our macro-mappings with micro-mappings gives us better, more accurate maps. With better maps, we find our ways through our life’s journeys with greater ease. You might consider, as an analogy, micro-mapping as living in a country, whereas gross-mapping is more like traveling around the borders of a country, or visiting a country for just a few days.

When we call someone an American, or black, or white, or democrat, or Jew, or heterosexual, gay, Catholic, student, teacher, nurse, doctor, etc., according to this mapping model, we map grossly. We ignore the unique human individual. Instead, we are likely to relate to and treat him or her according to our gross-mapping classifications, labels, and definitions. When we index, we recognize that one individual is not the same as – not identical with – another. In general semantics terminology, this is expressed in terms such as “Person1 is not Person2“. In general, it’s a way of saying “This one (whatever this one happens to be) is not that one“. When we index, we map our world (and this includes ourselves), with greater details.

In mapping ourselves with greater details, we become more aware of ourselves in action. Without such awareness, there is little we can do to make corrections and improve whatever we would like to improve in ourselves, or in a situation. When we index, we lessen our tendency to identify one thing with another. When we identify two things, individuals, behaviors, etc, as the same, we are more likely to respond and treat them as being the same. No two individuals, things, or situations, are identical with each other. If we treat them as the same, they will inevitably behave differently (to some degree), and we will sooner or later be surprised – sometimes uncomfortably so.

When we index, we are self-consciously recognizing differences. In language, adjectives and adverbs qualify as examples of indexing – but not necessarily examples of self-conscious indexing. If there are a number of books on a table, and I ask you to “Please hand me the book,” you are likely to ask “Which one?” If I then say “The blue one,” this distinction, this higher specificity, helps you to hand me the book I want.

If you phone a friend and get no response, then say “She’s not at home,” this could be an example of gross-mapping. If you say “I assume she is not at home,” the indexing of the conclusion with “assume” describes the situation more accurately. So although in our everyday situations we do index, we are not usually aware of indexing as an important tool we can use with more deliberation to improve our living.

To a great extent, this relates to what friends, counselors, psychologists, and others do when they help us recognize more healthy ways to index our ‘feelings’ and ‘thinking’ about situations that we find distressing. On our own account, when we are not getting along well with others – or with ourselves – we might ask ourselves whether more indexing of our ‘feelings’ and ‘thoughts’, and conclusions, in terms of “details we have left out”, might not be more useful than being distressed.

In giving our opinions, sharing ideas, making suggestions, criticizing others, and so on, there are some index phrases we can use to improve our communication and minimize conflicts. These include phrases such as:

to me
in my opinion
as far as I know
as I presently understand it
to the best of my knowledge


(Etc. is a very important general semantics index term. In using etc. we are indicating that we recognize that all has not been seen, ‘thought’ of, said, understood, and so on. I invite you to add to this list. I must caution that just mouthing these phrases is not enough. There must be an accompanying awareness of the distinction being made.)

To complement the above, we can also improve our personal and professional relationships by asking ourselves some of the following questions to practice indexing our behavior:

How am I behaving in this situation?
Am I being a good listener, an impatient listener?
Am I presenting myself as an expert, a teacher, a student, a skeptic, a critic, a know it all, a proselytizer?
Am I trying to impress?
Am I acting as a leader, a follower, an interested person?
Am I acting like a bully, a victim, a negotiator?

I must caution that no matter how we believe we are presenting ourselves, others might not see us that way. Our maps of ourselves are not identical to the way others map us.

If you are gross-mapping right now, the above examples might be evaluated as “trivial”. But there are situations when indexing can save our lives.

For example, you are driving along. You see the right flasher of the vehicle ahead of you. You assume this person will turn to the right. You decide to pass on the left. If you are conscious of your assumptions (“conscious,” as used here, is as an example of indexing), you might index your assumption and say to yourself, “Right flasher does not mean right turning. And although the vast majority of drivers who flash to the right, have turned to the right, THIS TIME IS NOT THE SAME AS THOSE OTHER TIMES.” (Here we see dating – another general semantics index tool.)

If we indexed and dated our conclusions and expectations, we might discover that this provides us with a way to minimize our disappointments, frustrations, shocks, and sometimes even accidents. If we ‘think’ of disappointment as a function of our expectations, and if our expectations result from imagining the future to be the same as the past, we might benefit from the practice of dating and indexing. We fool ourselves, and sometimes we endanger ourselves, if we expect someone, something, some situation, or ourselves, to be the same as previously experienced. This might seem childishly obvious and not worth stating. The question is – in our busy everyday lives, how often do we remember this?

In addition to indexing, there is also “chain-indexing”. In chain indexing, we make even finer distinctions – we index our indexing. So American1(today), is not the same as American1(tomorrow). We have indexed American, to American1. And we have further indexed (chain-indexed) American 1, to American1(today). We go from gross-mapping American, to micro-mapping American1,to American1today. Friend 1(today) is not the same as friend 1(ten years from now). Politician1(before election) is not the same as politician1(after election). The person you are today is not the same person you were 10 years ago. The restaurant today that served a great meal and gave fantastic service is not the same restaurant two weeks from today.

With indexing, we mainly differentiate between individual entities. In chain-indexing, we mainly differentiate between ‘times’.

Here is a little experiment you can do to move to an experiential level of understanding chain-indexing. I invite you to get an apple. Index your choice as to the kind of apple – red, yellow, green, and whatever class. Cut the apple and notice the color. Let it stand for about an hour and notice the change in color. Apple at time (1), is not the same as apple at time (2). You might be wondering why concern oneself with such high levels of specificity? I agree that most times we don’t need concern ourselves. But as a problem-solving life-skill tool, if one doesn’t know of it, it cannot be used with discretion. And there are times when having such a tool could make a great deal of difference. I ‘feel’ reasonably sure that if you took the time, you might recall a situation where noticing a small difference made a very big difference in your living.

In a world where no two things are the same, treating things as identical can at times be a really dangerous thing to do.In a world of diversity and change, the practice of indexing gives us a more accurate way of mapping situations and ourselves. We are more in touch with what’s going on. The practice of indexing and chain-indexing can help us become better managers of ourselves, and better managers of change.

For practice, I invite you to read over the above and see how many examples of indexing you find. And the next time you listen to the news, or hear a report, you might index what you hear as “This person’s statement“, or “This station’s slant on the situation.” See if it makes a difference.

By the way – computers hooked up to microphones, cameras, and sound spectrographs, can now be programmed to make up sentences that were not uttered by a particular individual, but sound just like the person. And the computers can also be programmed to create an image of the person, with appropriate facial movements, saying these things they did not say. If, in seeing such an image, we were in the habit of indexing images as being different from the actual situation, we might remember that what we see is not necessarily all that’s going on. In general, indexing and chain-indexing can help us out of many of the quandaries, confusions, and problems we create, and will encounter, living in the increasingly complex, highly technological, increasingly interactive human world we have created. 

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