Sarcasm, Hidden Meanings, and Politeness
April 2, 2011 9 Comments
So much of communication is not about what we say directly, but about the implications of how we choose to convey the information. Most of my day job revolves around crafting a sentence’s literal content so that the audience/readers will most likely understand my intended, implied message.
What fascinates me is how easily we can understand a person’s intended message from even drastically different literal content.
Take the sentence “Your dog is very happy right now.” The literal meaning is obvious: the dog is happy! But what if it came right after you ask your friend, “What happened to my roast beef sandwich?” Suddenly, the intended message changes: the treacherous dog ate your sandwich! We’re able to draw the correct implication, but how?
Steven Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” pointed me toward an interesting explanation. We assume that other people are following certain rules, trying to cooperate with us by sharing information efficiently. Pinker cites Paul Grice’s four Conversational “Maxims” that we take for granted people are following:
- Say no less than the conversation requires.
- Say no more than the conversation requires.
- Don’t say what you believe to be false.
- Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.
- Don’t be obscure.
- Don’t be ambiguous.
- Be brief.
- Be orderly.
- Be relevant.
We typically take it for granted that people are following these maxims, so if the literal meaning of a sentence breaks them there must be an intended message which doesn’t. You figure that your friend wasn’t arbitrarily changing the subject by mentioning your dog’s wagging tail – that would violate the maxim of Relevance. He must be giving information relevant to the disappearance of your roast beef sandwich.
Polite expressions also make more sense with these maxims in mind. Taking it literally, it’s strange for me to say at breakfast, “If you could pass the syrup that would be great.” It would be such an odd time to discuss counter-factual possible worlds that you parse it differently: “Pass me the syrup.” You know I want to cover my waffles in delicious maple-y goodness.
My favorite example, however, is sarcasm. At the beginning of the movie “Serenity”, the protagonists stage a robbery only to find the safe nearly empty. Zoe looks at Captain Mal blankly and says, “At last, we can retire and give up this life of crime.” The statement’s literal meaning is clearly not true, so it’s violating the maxim of Quality. As a result, we interpret her statement to have the intended implication that Mal led them to failure.
But why do we bother with these techniques? If everybody can see right through the double-talk, what’s the benefit in using them?
To put his point into an unfairly small nutshell, Pinker suggests that the literal meaning of the words still strongly affect our social reactions, even if the implied message is completely different. It’s considered a challenge to someone’s autonomy if I order them to pass the syrup – but not if I couch it as a statement of fact about my desire. It’s still mocking to insult someone with sarcasm, but the speaker don’t come across quite as poorly because the literal statement is positive. According to studies done by psychologist Ellen Winner and her colleagues,
[P]eople have a better impression of speakers who express a criticism with sarcasm (“What a great game you just played!”) than with direct language (“What a lousy game you just played!”) The sarcastic speakers, compared with the blunt ones, are seen as less angry, less critical, and more in control.
Communication does more than share information. It’s a social act. Different phrasings can save face, show respect, and influence how others see us. The question is still “What do we want to accomplish with what we’re saying?” But we can learn to wield a good deal of control over the impact our words have.