Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

If it’s the Psychic Network why do they need a phone number?
Robin Williams

Interpreting what a speaker means from what they say – not always an easy task. Pragmatical interpretation has sometimes been dubbed a relative of mind reading in the sense that we use hints and clues from the other person’s behavior – verbal or otherwise – to collect information on what the person is saying.

As a disclaimer, I have no opinion whatsoever of people who seem to possess actual psychic abilities, and whether or not they use the same senses all of us do or something more.

A lot of indirect communication takes place through flouting conversational maxims – those of Quantity, Quality, Relevance and Manner.

Combined with indirect speech acts, you can end up with seemingly incoherent conversations where everyone is on the same page. Alternatively, you can have a very frustrated listener and a very annoyed speaker who are in different books altogether.

If you really loved me…

Stereotypically, women are the ones often accused of expecting that everyone else knows what they think. Depending on the culture and the person, I’d guess there are a number of men with this tendency as well.

That may very well be a politeness issue: if a person thinks it is rude to flat out ask for what they want, they might drop careful hints and then be disappointed when their hints are ignored.

The other classic example is the “if you don’t know why I’m mad at you, I’m not going to tell you!” -phenomenon. You know, claiming that everything is “fine!” and then sulking around, very clearly demonstrating that this is not the case.

In both of these phenomena, the indirect communicator puts the responsibility of the communication on the other person. If they don’t pay enough attention to infer the right meanings, the message will not come across.

I know I’ve been guilty of repeatedly saying that everything is fine and nothing is wrong, and then getting upset when the other person walks away, frustrated by the lack of feedback. Similarly, I’ve been disappointed I didn’t get what I clearly hinted about for my birthday.

Maybe the illusion of “great minds think alike” is too strong. Of course, it’s scary to admit your true feelings – I want this, I’m upset about that. Maybe it’s easier to reveal just a tiny bit of skin and hope that someone catches the hint instead of flashing your entire emotional arsenal and hope no-one shoots you down.


So now we get to why I’m sometimes very annoyed by indirectness in close relationships. Politeness reflects distance. Indirectness reflects boundaries. Boundaries and distance are all well and good, but there’s something to be said for closeness, trust and honesty as well.

Some time ago, a friend of mine said she needed to talk with me about X, a matter that was troubling her about our situation. We agreed to talk, and I spent a lot of energy processing X, my feelings about X, all the guilts and the what ifs and the other stuff.

We got together, and started talking about X. As we reached an agreement, I saw she was still not all right. As it turned out, X was not the actual problem at all, it was Z all along. Furthermore, Z was something I had never even considered, and was really surprised that Z would even be relevant to her.

We finally reached a consensus about Z as well, but the incident troubled me.

I felt offended that she didn’t tell me Z was the problem to begin with.

I felt hurt that she would think I was a Z kind of person.

I felt annoyed that I had spent all that time processing X, was really proud of myself for figuring it out, and was slapped in the face with Z out of the blue.

And I felt frustrated because I had to fish out the real reason after a reasonable amount of conversation, when she was the one with the need to clear the situation.

A big huge trust issue about a relatively small indirectness thing.


What I learned from this, though – getting the grief and the messy out of the way the first time is well worth it. Politeness and indirectness in big relationship matters might mean that you have to go through all that nasty stuff twice.

Thank you for stopping by, and until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings!



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“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!”

Lewis Carroll

One of my favorite favorite books about pragmatics is Deborah Tannen’s That’s not what I meant!, which deals with the balance between directness and indirectness in communication.

To explain the paradoxical human need for both independence and connection, Tannen uses an example of a group of porcupines in the winter. To stay warm, the porcupines need to huddle up as close to each other as possible. Sadly, the closer they get, the more they poke each other, so they have to stay at a distance to avoid getting hurt. Which means they’ll get cold again, and huddle up. Ouch. And step back. And on and on again.

Which is exactly what humans do, too: in order to stay connected, we get too close, and in order to give others privacy, we keep away. In terms of direct vs. indirect communication, the former often serves the purpose of creating closeness, whereas the latter often observes the boundaries and distance your hearer needs.


With every utterance, a speaker performs a speech act. It can be a question (“Where is the car?”), a command (“Give me the sweater!”), a statement (“Something smells bad in here.”), or a bunch of other speech acts, like promises, threats, or requests.

In terms of speech acts, directness could be explained as matching the speech act with the grammatical structure it most naturally takes. In the examples above the question, the command, and the statement are all easily recognizable, and can be interpreted at face value.

Now imagine a stranger walks up to you on the street and says those three things. You feel quite offended, right? Politeness rules dictate that increase in social distance requires more indirectness.

Then again, a mother would have no problem saying those things to her seven-year-old, for two reasons. One, the two are socially very close to each other. Two, the mother is higher in the social hierarchy than the seven-year-old.

Directness between equals, then, often marks closeness. You wouldn’t think twice about telling your best friend those jeans make her behind look horrible – at least before she buys them. Or telling your spouse that s/he has toilet paper stuck on the sole of his/her shoe. You trust them enough to interpret your message at face value and to not read some hidden criticism into it.

Directness requires a good nose for the situation, however. Being too direct when stating your opinion might seem like an insult, especially if the hearer perceives you as being lower in the social hierarchy. Direct commands, of course, can easily sound like you’re bossing people around.

Asking direct questions from someone you’re not that close with may make the hearer feel you’re being nosy or intrusive. Furthermore, they might feel you’re forcing them to be rude by asking a question they cannot skate over and must answer with a direct “I don’t want to tell you.”


If directness was defined as matching your speech act with your structure, indirectness would then be e.g. using an interrogative structure (“Are you wearing that to the party?”) to convey a non-question speech act, like a statement (“I don’t think you should wear that to the party”) or even a command (“Go put on something else.”)

As already noted, indirectness is very useful in socially distant situations. People have varied levels of directness tolerance, and until you know where the limit is, it’s wise to stay well on the polite side.

The interplay of directness and indirectness is also an interesting factor in social situations where some people know each other better and some are new acquaintances. Using direct speech to your old friends and indirect speech to the newcomers is an efficient way to keep the two groups separate.

On the other hand, addressing your new friends very directly in front of your old friends can have a few effects. It can serve as an invitation to join the group, especially if your directness is matched.

Or it can seem like a form of namedropping, especially if your new friends are somehow higher in social hierarchy.

Case in point:
A while back I attended an event that had people from a few different circles. One of the more amusing moments of that evening was when a woman – one that had been extremely polite and indirect to my friends and very direct to hers – started addressing a few of “our” gentlemen in very familiar terms. Specifically, the hot one and the semi-famous one. Her offer for more familiarity was politely declined by both, though.

When it comes to close relationships, mismatching structure and speech acts can work as either increasing closeness or creating distance.

In a safe and trusting communicative culture, like one you might have with a significant other, using indirect communication can become almost a code language between the participants. Communicating with mere declarations and relying on conversational implicature can enhance the feeling of “s/he can totally read my mind!”

“We’re out of milk.” (indirect request/command)
“I’m going out to the post office in just a moment.” (indirect response to request)
“I’m baking bread this evening.” (indirect request)
“Great, then I’ll bring some yeast, too, just in case.” (indirect response)

On the other hand, you could just as well use indirectness to tell your spouse that you feel like keeping at arms length and you’ll be just fine on your own, thank you very much. Gestures, eye contact and tone of voice all contribute to the effect.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this whole topic of directness, indirectness, trust, closeness and independence. Will most likely be getting back to this on Friday.

Until then, keep catching your own insightings!



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“Make your contribution such as is required in the context.”
Cooperative Principle, Herbert Paul Grice

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Albert Einstein

So I’m a new blogger. Taking my very first babysteps into the world of writing things that, well, someone will read. And I need help.

I could dive into the endless pit of advice that is the Internet blog scene: how to write, how not to write, the ten mistakes and the seven steps

Or I could go back to something I already know after years of studying linguistics. I could take what I already know about communication and apply it to this context. *ding!* Insighting.

The Maxims of Conversation (and Blogging)

Grice’s Cooperation Principle, a pragmatical theory quoted above, could well serve as the backbone of this blog – or any blog, for that matter. The point of the approach is that whenever we communicate, we cooperate with the others to make the conversation understandable.

The Cooperative Principle is based on four maxims that support understandable communication.

1. The maxim of Quality: Try to make your contribution true.

2. The maxim of Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but no more.

3. The maxim of Relevance: Make your contribution relevant.

4. The maxim of Manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly

1. Quality: Try to make your contribution true

I enjoy fiction as much as the next guy. That is not what I read blogs for, though, and it’s not the reason I’m writing one, either.

First of all, there is actual value in speaking from experience. Never mind the expert viewpoint – I can only really speak of the things that I have seen, heard, and experienced. Furthermore, I can only really have in-sight into things that I’ve struggled through.

This is also why this post is not titled “here’s how to write a top-ranking blog post”. I can’t teach something I don’t know. I hope I can write that post twelve months from now.

2. Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but no more.

There’s a fine line between sharing and overexposition. When I’m reading a post about an emotional situation between two people, I want to know if they are mother and daughter or husband and wife. I might also want to know if it’s the first time this has happened, or if there’s a history of this kind of behavior. Without this information I might not understand what exactly the writer is trying to say.

If I’m also told they are fighting at a restaurant, or that it’s twelve noon, or that the weather is stormy, I might get impatient. Why are they telling me this? Can’t they get to the point already? Can’t they figure out what’s important here?

(A brief moment where I pause to take my own advice and move on to the next point.)

3. Relevance: Make your contribution relevant.

The broad topic of this blog is learning, communication, and analysing my insightings. This means that whatever I post should have some bearing to those three concepts. The more I do so, the more my readers (hi, the three of you…) can count on me to be relevant.

This is closely linked to the quantity maxim. If I start my blog post by describing what I had for breakfast, it should have an integral connection with an insighting I’m about to reveal. In drama, the parallel phenomenon is Checkov’s Gun: If there’s a gun onstage during the first act, someone should be shot by the third. If it’s just there for no reason, get rid of it.

4. Manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly

When I manage to get a hold of an insighting, it has no actual form; it’s just a jumble of concepts whirring around in my head. Nowhere near brief and orderly, it’s very obscure and often ambiguous. My responsibility as a blogger, and also as a teacher, is to organise that jumble into a reader-friendly form. Again, the Internet is brimming with tips on how to do this, so I won’t go into too much detail today – maybe later, when I’ve had more experience on the matter.

The main thing is to organise the idea, whether you end up with a narrative, a how-to, a detective tale or an interview. Independent of the genre, revising and editing are invaluable tools with this maxim.

Violating vs Flouting Maxims

In ordinary conversation, adhering to these maxims causes successful communication, and violating them results in a communication breakdown. Incidentally, a lot of humor in fiction, be it literature or drama, TV or comics, is based on the violation of one or more maxims. Insufficient information, concealing information, speaking in ambiguous terms or flat out lying are at the root of hundreds of pieces of literature. A handy thing to keep in mind if you ever intend to write fiction. 🙂

Flouting maxims, however, is slightly different. When you flout a maxim, you seem to break one, but the other person in the conversation will still be able to understand your implied meaning. This is why it’s sometimes called “inferential mindreading“.

Imagine you’ve been to see a foreign movie. When your friend asks what you thought of the movie, you answer, “Well, the opening credits were nice.” On the surface, it seems you’re breaking the Quantity maxim: you’re not saying anything about the movie itself! Your friend, however, might infer that you didn’t think much of the movie itself, since you only chose to comment on the opening credits.

If you’d said “I feel we should burn down the theater and the remaining copies of the film,” you’d be flouting the Quality and Relevance maxims. Unless you really consider burning down the theater, your friend will most likely infer, again, that you didn’t think much of the movie.

In blogging, I would err to the side of caution when it comes to flouting maxims. Since the verbal content is all there is, a reader may or may not understand the implication correctly. This is why sarcasm – a form of humor often achieved by flouting these maxims – doesn’t really work as well in writing as it does face-to-face.

Even if I could be sure all (three of) my readers are smart and Internet-literate people, the risk of having some bonehead (excuse the un-PC term) misinterpret an exaggerated remark and burn down a theater, for instance, seems like a big one to take. This is why I’ll try and find funny for this blog through other means.

(If you’re reading this in December 2008, welcome to this brand new thing that is Insightings. There’s a lot more coming up. If you’re reading this in 2009 or later, awesome. Welcome, look around, I’m hoping the archives have everything you came here for.)

Until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings and feel free to share them here!



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