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What Do You Mean, What Do I Mean?
March 7, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 24 comments

There’s more than words at work in a conversation. Listen in on the next conversation you overhear and you’ll know what I mean. Most of what you overhear is pretty light on content (actually, it’s mostly completely moronic, but I didn’t want to say that directly). And it’s behaviours like that just mentioned (eavesdropping) that got cognitive scientist/author Steven Pinker interested in what people are really talking about when they talk to each other.

It’s the stuff in Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, his most recent book.  Again, at the risk of being direct: I haven’t cracked it, haven’t read a word this prolific guy has written. Did look at some of the photos on his site, which were weak, but that’s not the point.

I did take almost six minutes from my busy schedule (not to put too fine a point on it) to watch his wisdom get animated on the RSA Whiteboard. Having some artist squeak out magic marker comic illustrations while Pinker goes on and on makes it a lot easier to follow. Hopefully there’ll be a hand puppet version.

What Pinker has found is that a lot of what is going on in a conversation has nothing to do with the actual content of what the conversationalists are saying, but about what kind of relationship they have.

This is because language has two functions, content is king, the message is the message, but language is a medium for relationships, which is of far more importance to us. Getting our relationship just right is our chief concern, and failure to do so can really ruin our day.

Social anthropologist Alan Fiske has identified three major types of human relationships across all cultures.  Each is a distinct method to distribute resources. Each has a distinct evolutionary path. Each applies most naturally to certain people, but can be extended through negotiations!

Communal Sharing: Our most intimate relationships are conducted as share and share alike, in that ancient family spirit that allows you to wear someone else’s underwear and do irritating things to drive those closest to you insane. You’re not supposed to keep count for those types of relationships.

Equality Matching: Those are the kinds of relationships that depend on reciprocity. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. One good turn deserves another.

Authority Ranking: That’s when the dominant dominate. Exchange is asymmetrical. Subordinates defer, respect and obey, while superiors make sure their inferiors stay that way.

Now, when it comes to talking, what you say in one type of relationship, you can’t necessarily say in another. And you can never be sure, either, which type of relationship you’re dealing with because these relationships are constantly being negotiated. At the cocktail party, you can eat off your wife’s plate, but don’t even think about grabbing that cocktail wiener off the boss’s paper plate. Sometimes, though, the relationship is not so cut-and-dried. There are days when you might take the boss out for a drink (in my case that’s most days) or days when an invitation might make things awkward. And no one likes that, not even bosses.

So when it comes to requests, people don’t say what they mean in order to say something else. Conversationalists are often concealing their intentions, sort of, with what Pinker calls an “indirect speech act.” We don’t say what we mean, but we say it in such a way that the other person knows what we mean. That way there’s wiggle room, enough plausible deniability to get out of a sticky situation.

Because when we speak directly, all can hear, and it becomes mutual knowledge. And what we say cannot be taken back. The more inappropriate the remark to the relationship, the longer it will live in memory.  But if we keep things indirect, we never actually said it, just let those around us know that we could say it. There is enough uncertainty so that no damage is done.


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