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In the episode, we talked a lot about how false implicatures can bend the truth just enough to sneak misconceptions into people’s heads, without them even necessarily realizing it. These are sentences where we imply something that isn’t true, without coming out and saying it overtly. But while we’ve touched on the topic of indirect speech before, we haven’t spent much time talking about why we do it. That is, why don’t we always just say what we mean, instead of risking a garbled message?

To get at an answer, let’s consider a few different uses we’ve got for indirect speech, and then see if we can figure out what they’ve got in common. Imagine, first, that you were out on a date, and as the evening winds down, you want things to move in a more romantic direction. Would you come right out and say it? Well, some of us might. But chances are that many would take a much more gentle approach — say, by asking if the other party wanted to come over to their place for coffee, or maybe to Netflix and chill.

Or let’s say you were driving a bit too fast, got pulled over, and were pretty sure you were about to get a ticket for a few hundred dollars that you really can’t afford. But let’s say you happened to have $50 on hand, and you’re feeling just brave enough to give a bit of bribery a go (NB: The Ling Space does not condone bribery). Would you move right to “I’ll give you money if you let me go”? Probably not, if you have any intention of staying out of jail. You’d likely try to be at least a little sly about it — maybe wondering aloud if the problem can’t be “taken care of here.”

Or picture the old cliché of a mobster extorting protection money from some local business, under penalty of violence. Since explicit threats are often illegal, but the enforcer still needs to get their message across, euphemistic speech ends up a vital part of their criminal enterprise. Phrases like “It’d be a shame if something happened to this fine establishment” replace outright intimidation, though the message remains the same.

In each of these cases, the speaker is affording themselves plausible deniability. Trying to move a new relationship (or even an old one) in a different direction can be potentially awkward, especially if the other party isn’t as interested as you. But if you play your cards close enough to the chest, and things go awry, you can always deny you were talking about anything more than coffee, or a night spent binge-watching the latest season of House of Cards.

And since bribing an officer is against the law, but might get you out of paying a hefty fine if they happen not to be the most honest cop in the land, the indirect approach lets you test the waters without committing yourself one way or the other. If they catch your drift, everybody leaves happy; if they don’t, well, you can hardly be found guilty for someone else misunderstanding your otherwise unimpeachable character! (More generally, shifting from one relationship type to another, like from one rooted in dominance to one that’s more transactional, can lead to tension, which is why bribing the maitre d’ for a better table can seem just as nerve-wracking, even if it’s not a crime.)

As for that threat: it might be hard getting something so weaselly to stick in court. On the face of it, after all, it really would be a shame if something happened! And they can always claim they were just expressing genuine concern, as laughable as that might seem.

And, so, indirect speech — and by extension plausible deniability — has many uses, both amongst those in positions of power, and those with none. Though paradoxical on the face of it, it can provide avenues for authoritarians to obtain and maintain control,* while protecting the powerless when all other exits are blocked.**

It’s fair to ask, though, why bribes and threats and the like that are so thinly veiled should work at all. Doesn’t everybody know what ‘Netflix and chill’ means by now? And is the mob really fooling anyone with their supposed concern for the well-being of the community? The secret lies in a concept we’ve spent some time picking apart already: mutual knowledge, otherwise known as common ground.

Mutual knowledge refers to the knowledge that exists between two or more speakers — not simply what both of them know, but what each of them knows the other one knows (and what each of them knows the other one knows the other knows, and so on). So while the intent of asking a partner over for coffee might seem obvious to both parties involved, because the invitation was indirect, there’s enough mutual doubt should either one decide to back out. If the answer is “no thanks,” embarrassment is saved, and everyone can go along pretending nothing ever happened. The possibility that either speaker doesn’t understand what just took place is small, but when we start asking whether each of them knows whether the other knows what happened, or knows that they know that they know, uncertainties multiply unbounded.

What indirect speech really does, then, is keep things off the record. While the information implicated by someone might be clear as day to anyone within earshot, that information manages not to work its way into the common ground. And, so, unlike base assertions, which fall square into the vessel of mutual knowledge we carry between us in any given conversation, implicatures float around just out of our reach — visible to everyone, but ephemeral enough for us to pretend they don’t even exist, if and when we need to.

 

*As when President Donald Trump said to then FBI Director James Comey “I hope you can let this go,” in reference to the investigation of his administration’s ties to Russia; though he may have wanted him to stop digging, direct interference would have been unambiguously criminal.

**In WWII era America, for instance, when same-sex acts were illegal, the term “Friend of Dorothy” was coined, to allow gay men (and, as time passed, women) to identify each other while steering clear of unwanted scrutiny.

 

Discussion:

So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about how we can be less than entirely truthful to reach rhetorical aims. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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