When Literal Honesty Goes Awry
May 25, 2011 10 Comments
When is it NOT appropriate to bluntly speak the truth? We’ve all heard someone be insulting and resort to the defense of “Well, it’s true!” Even boring, inoffensive facts can become offensive if brought up inartfully. I think this is a perfect example, illustrated by the hilarious comedy team of David Mitchell and Robert Webb:
I mean, technically it’s true. The literal fact that “anyone we know is unlikely to be the most attractive person on earth” shouldn’t hurt feelings. Nobody should think that much of themselves!
…And yet, it’s rude to say. Why?
I think that’s because nobody took Robert’s original statement “this is the most beautiful woman in the world” at its face value. It violated the maxim of quality – the literal meaning was clearly false so people look for alternative interpretations (“She’s beautiful and I love her” or “She’s very attractive in a combination of ways”).
Since nobody took it seriously at face value, challenges to the claim are perceived as challenging the alternate interpretations rather than the literal meaning. The very decision to call attention to it makes a statement. Why would David be so motivated to discuss her beauty unless he strenuously disagreed with her beauty? So, in essence, he’s saying “No, she’s not very beautiful.”
Yes, David’s literal content is true: she’s not the most beautiful person in the world. But so much of our reaction to a statement is is really a reaction to its implied meaning, and it’s tough to get around that. Initial gut reactions can be powerful.
But it’s possible to do it right. I love having the opportunity to share the awesome and incredible Tim Minchin song If I Didn’t Have You:
Somehow, when Tim does it, the honest approach works better. People often claim that they DO have a soul mate, so it isn’t automatically interpreted as a figure of speech for something more casual.
But it’s particularly important the way he addresses the literal meanings. Compare “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but not off the charts” with “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but you fall within a bell-curve.” It’s a strange enough statement to make people think about it harder and realize he’s not being snide.
I found myself thinking of something Steven Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought:
The incongruity in a fresh literary metaphor is another ingredient that gives it its pungency. The listener resolves the incongruity soon enough by spotting the underlying similarity, but the initial double take and subsequent brainwork conveys something in addition. It implies that the similarity is not apparent in the humdrum course of everyday life, and that the author is presenting real news in forcing it upon the listener’s attention.
Pinker was writing about using new metaphors to emphasize non-literal meaning, but it works the other way as well. Fresh phrasings – in this case gloriously nerdy ones – make listeners pay more attention to parsing the intended meaning, metaphorical or literal.
If you’re worried about being misinterpreted, try a creative way of expressing the same thought. Protesting “But I was telling the truth!” won’t always be enough.