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Language is a window into social relations.
I’ll begin with a puzzle in language.
This one is taken from the movie “Fargo,” from a scene early in the movie
in which the kidnapper has a hostage tied up in the back seat of a car
and inconveniently is pulled over by the police because he’s missing his plates.
The police officer asks him to show his driver’s license.
He proffers his wallet with the license showing
and a fifty-dollar bill extending ever so slightly.
And he says to the officer,
“I was thinking that maybe the best thing would be…
…to take care of it here in Brainerd.”
which the audience and presumably the officer
recognize as a veiled bribe.
This is an example of what linguists call an indirect speech act,
a case in which we don’t blurt out what we mean in so many words
but we veil our intentions in innuendo
hoping for our listener to read between the lines and infer our real intent.
And this is something what we do all the time often without realizing it.
“If you could pass the guacamole that would be awesome!”
Now when you think about it that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense
but we effortlessly recognize it as a polite request.
“We’re counting on you to show leadership in our campaign for the future.”
Anyone who sat through a fundraising dinner is familiar with euphemistic schnorring like that
which can be translated as… “Give us money!”
“Would you like to come up and see my etchings?”
That has been recognized as a *** come-on for so long
that in the 1930s James Thurber drew a New Yorker cartoon in which a man says to his date,
“You wait here and I’ll bring the etchings down.”
Then there is a…
“Nice store you got there… It would be a real shame if something happened to it!”
which any viewer of “The Sopranos” can recognize as a veiled threat.
So the puzzle is why are bribes, requests, seductions, solicitations, and threats
so often veiled when both parties presumably know exactly what they mean.
Language has to do two things:
It’s got to convey some content such as a bribe, a command, or a proposition;
at the same time it’s got to negotiate a relationship type.
The solution is to use language at two levels:
the speaker uses the literal form to signal the safest relationship to the listener
while counting on the listener to read between the lines
to entertain a proposition that might be incompatible with that relationship.
And politeness is a simple example.
What’s going on with “If you could pass the guacamole that would be awesome?”
I think that everyone would agree that it’s a bit of an overstatement;
and also it’s not clear why you should be pondering counter-factual worlds
right there at the dinner table.
Now the listener thinks, assuming that the speaker has not lost his mind,
the speaker says the outcome is good therefore he must be requesting it,
the overall effect is the intended content gets through, namely the imperative
but without the presumption of dominance that would ordinarily accompany an imperative,
namely, an expectation that you can be commanding some other person to do what you want.
Well, according to anthropologist Alan Fiske,
there are only three major human relationship types across the world’s cultures.
Each prescribes a distinct way of distributing resources,
each has a distinct evolutionary basis,
and each applies most naturally to certain people but can be extended through negotiation to others
and that’s where language comes in.
So there’s Dominance as I’ve mentioned whose logic is “Don’t mess with me!”
and which presumably we inherited from the dominance hierarchies that are ubiquitous among primates.
Very different from that is Communality, the ethos “share and share alike,”
which evolved by a different route, namely, kin selection and mutualism,
and therefore is extended by default to kin, to spouses and among close friends.
Finally, there’s Reciprocity, “you scratch my back – I’ll scratch yours,”
which pertains to the businesslike *** for tat exchanges of goods and services
that characterizes reciprocal altruism.
The behavior that’s acceptable in one relationship type can be anomalous in another.
For example, at a drinks party you might go over to your husband or wife…
…your boyfriend or girlfriend and help yourself to a prawn off their plate.
But you wouldn’t go up to your boss and help yourself to a prawn of his plate
because what you can get away with in a communality relationship
you can’t get away with in a dominance relationship.
Likewise at the end of a dinner party if you pulled out your wallet
and offered to pay the host for the dinner
that would not be perceived as fair, that would be perceived as crass
because of the clash between reciprocity which would be appropriate, say, at a restaurant
and communality which is what we deem appropriate among friends.
And those are cases where everyone knows what’s appropriate
but in cases where the two sides aren’t sure that they are on the same wavelength,
a divergent understanding can lead to an unpleasant emotion,
the one that we call awkwardness.
For example, there can be awkward moments in a workplace
when an employee doesn’t know or a student doesn’t know
whether to address a supervisor by the first name or to invite him after work to a beer
because of the ambiguity as to whether their relationship is governed by dominance or friendship.
It’s a well-known bit of wisdom that…
good friends should not engage in a major business transaction
like one of them selling his car to the other.
The very act of negotiating a price can put a strain on the friendship
because what’s appropriate in a reciprocity relationship is not appropriate in a communality relationship.
A contrast between dominance and sex
as when a supervisor solicits sex from an employee
defines the battleground of *** harassment.
And even the two kinds of communal relationship of friendship and sex
give rise to the anxieties of dating.
Well, one remaining problem which is:
Why we resort to indirectness even when there is no real uncertainty?
For example, when the listener knows the speaker’s intent
people aren’t naive and it’s hard to believe that
any grown woman can be fooled by the line about the “etchings.”
Nonetheless, there is something that is more comfortable about asking to see etchings than asking for sex.
So, what is going on there?
The deniability is not really plausible.
Why should an obvious innuendo still feel more comfortable
than a direct overture that is in some sense “on the record.”
To illustrate the problem with a scene from the romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally”
where in an early scene of the movie Harry makes a remark that Sally interprets as ***
and she accuses him “You’re coming on to me!”
So he says, “What do you want me to do about it? I take it back, ok? I take it back.”
She says, “You can’t take it back.”
“Because it’s already out there.”
He says, “Oh, jeez! What are we supposed to do? Call the cops? It’s already out there.”
Well, what is the psychological status of an overture that we feel to be “out there” or “on the record”
that makes it feel so much more awkward than a veiled overture that is conveyed indirectly?
And I think the key to this paradox is a concept that economists and logicians call mutual knowledge
which they distinguish from individual knowledge.
In individual knowledge A knows x and B know x.
In mutual knowledge A know x, B knows x,
A knows that B knows x, B knows that A knows x,
A knows that B knows that A knows x and to infinitum.
And this is a difference that has profound consequences.
For example, why is freedom of assembly enshrined as a fundamental right in a democracy?
And why are political revolutions often triggered
when a crowd gathers in a public square to challenge the president and his palace?
Well, it’s because when people were at home
everyone knew that they loathed the dictator
but no one knew that other people knew that they knew.
Once you assemble in a place where everyone can see everyone else,
everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone else knows that the dictator is loathed
and that gives them the collective power to challenge the authority of the dictator
who otherwise could pick off dissenters one at a time.
Another example is that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a story about mutual knowledge.
When a little boy said, “The emperor is naked!”
he wasn’t telling anyone anything that they didn’t already know,
anything that they couldn’t see with their own eyeballs.
He was nonetheless changing the state of their knowledge
because at that moment everyone now knew that everyone else knew that everyone else knew.
Once again, that gave them the collective power
to challenge the dominance of the emperor through their laughter.
The moral of the story is that…
explicit language is an excellent way of creating mutual knowledge.
So, here’s a hypothesis…
innuendos even obvious ones merely provide individual knowledge
whereas direct speech provides mutual knowledge
and relationships are maintained or nullified by mutual knowledge of the relationship type.
So, if Harry would say,
“Would you like to come up and see my etchings?”
and Sally says, “No!”
then Sally knows that she’s turned down an overture
and Harry knows that she’s turned down a *** overture.
But does Sally know that Harry knows?
She could be thinking, “Maybe Harry thinks I’m naive!”
And does Harry know that Sally knows that he knows?
He could be wondering, “Maybe Sally thinks I’m dense!”
There’s no mutual knowledge and they can maintain the fiction of friendship.
Whereas if Harry would say, “Would you like to come up and have sex?”
and Sally turns him down
now Harry knows that Sally knows that Harry knows that Sally knows
they cannot maintain the fiction of a friendship.
And I think this is the basis for our intuition that
with overt language you can’t “take it back,” “it’s out there.”