Tell me what you really think 

posted by John

(this post is based on part of Steven Pinker’s TED talk on this topic. You should watch it, but read this first!)

What can The Wire, Taylor Swift, the Coen brothers, Cee-Lo, and A Beautiful Mind teach us about the linguistic field of pragmatics?

For starters, check out this clip from The Wire, and we’ll see! (Watch from 1:12-1:50.)

This lovely young lady asked our friend D’Angelo to “buy her a drink.” If we take her literally, it makes little sense that he would then ask her how much that drink cost, and even less that she would say $20. That’s a lot, and they’re in Baltimore, not Manhattan. But, of course, we know that she’s asking him to do a litttttle more than drink with her.

Some of us might prefer T-Swift to The Wire (watch from 0:44-1:00):

When she sings “But she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” Taylor means that her unfortunate victim is famously lazy, or that she loves to sleep, right? No, Taylor is saying, rather, that this girl has developed what some might call a “reputation.” There, see, I’m doing it too.

What is it? It is layering something unpleasant, uncouth, offensive, risky, or embarrassing underneath a statement that is entirely tame, coy, or ostensibly innocuous.

We all do it to varying degrees, and most would probably attribute this proclivity for euphemism to general norms of politeness. But Harvard’s Steven Pinker argues otherwise.

Let’s consider his example of layered and indirect meaning. He finds it in the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. In the scene we’re concerned with, Steve Buscemi’s character (the kidnapper) is pulled over in the midst of driving with the lady he has kidnapped in the trunk. When the officer asks for his license, he holds out his wallet, making a $50 bill visible, and asks if “we can take care of this right here in Brainerd*.” We know immediately that he is thinly veiling an attempt to bribe the officer.

But why does the crook offer his bribe in this way?  Why doesn’t he say, “How about I give you $50 and you just let me go?”  Here, we’re not talking at all about issues of politeness, but rather of self-preservation. That is, our evil friend is maintaining what governments (and Pinker) call ‘plausible deniability.’ For a lawyer-in-training, it might be better called  “limiting liability” by speaking indirectly.

Pinker examines why we might choose to speak euphemistically by looking at the potential consequences of speaking directly versus indirectly. Basically, it’s a game of risk-assessment and limitation. Speaking directly is “do-or-die.” If the officer doesn’t want to accept your bribe, he pretty much has no choice but to take action. Speaking indirectly, on the o there hand, allows the illicit offer to be either ignored entirely or later defended as simple, innocent talk. The latter is far less risky and thus we generally choose to adopt it.

If the cop attempts to arrest Buscemi’s character for trying to bribe him (or however he’d give him trouble), Buscemi can simply say he was really only asking for the officer to give him a warning instead of a ticket. Same goes for Shardene’s proposition that led off this post. If our young lady happened to offer herself to the wrong person (say, a police officer), she can claim she simply was just asking for a drink.

We know, however, that we can’t fully protect ourselves using this method. We layer meanings precisely because they are significant and we want them to be understood. Recall Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, who was caught soliciting sex in a bathroom stall. Although he simply arranged his luggage in a certain way outside the stall, his signal clearly carried a deeper significance (which is why we might call it a signal in the first place). And although the signal was surely designed to allow its users to maintain plausible deniability, it nevertheless meant enough for him to be arrested.

There’s an entire linguistic field devoted to this problem of how we converse (or otherwise communicate) and actually understand each other—even when the relevant meaning isn’t the surface one. Context, as we all know, is critical. But so are a bunch of other things, known in the linguistics world as ‘maxims’ of conversation. The maxims are ‘rules’ of natural language and human interaction that we all (at least subconsciously) understand and follow.

They are: Quality (people say things that are true), Quantity (people are appropriately specific), Relevance (people speak relevantly), and Manner (more or less, people are polite, avoid obscurity, and are orderly).

What’s awesome about the maxims is that even when we ostensibly don’t obey them, we actually still do. Because we know people speak Relevantly, we know that even when their words themselves aren’t germane, their underlying intention must be. Thus we search for that meaning and most of the time find it. When we don’t, the joke, pun, or euphemism goes un-gotten. This is how we understand Shardene, TS, and Steve Buscemi’s character, despite their apparent obfuscation of meaning.

It can get tiring to wade through the layers of meaning we construct to limit risk and avoid embarrassment. That’s why when we finally hear someone speaking without them, it’s so refreshing. I’m talking about things like this song (warning: explicit lyrics):

Of course, it’s hard to even imagine a society in which we all said exactly what we meant all the time. It might not be a better one—we would all be like Russell Crowe in this scene from A Beautiful Mind

Except that if you tried that, you would get slapped.



*Original post incorrectly claimed that Buscemi wanted to take care of it in Fargo, but it is indeed Brainerd–thanks, Lane, for catching the mistake.