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Pop!Tech: Steven Pinker and what language tells us about relationships

Dr. Steven Pinker can pack a lot into a quick speech. He offers a deep dive into pyschology and language, looking closely at the topic of “indirect speech”. He suggests that there are different ways to understand human behavior, including:
– Anthropology, which studies universals and their variations in human society
– Biology, which studies evolution, genes and the brain
– Psychology, which has laboratory studies of behvaior
– Fiction, where we can learn from the recurrance of plots.

Pinker studies social relationships through words. He suggests that we can learn our views of causality and responsibility from verbs, our view of time from tenses, our social relationships from the naming of things. Indirect speech, in turn teaches us some interesting things about social relationships.

For an example of indirect speech, Pinker invokes Steve Buscemi in the movie “Fargo”, offering a bribe to a police officer who’s pulled him over by saying “I think maybe the best thing would be to take care of it here in Brainerd.” This is a bribe that’s communicated indirectly, relying on the officer to understand the real meaning within a statement that’s deliberately ambiguous. Pinker offers another example: “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.” It makes very little sense, actually – you passing the guacamole would not induce awe in me. We’re speaking indirectly for some complex personal reasons.

One reason indirect speech gets used is to provide legal cover – a statement that could lead to sexual harrasment or other legal difficulties might be safer to offer in a veiled or indirect way. Pinker offers three reasons to speak indirectly: plausible deniability, negotiation and mutual knowledge. He digs into the final topic in some depth, using game theory.

If we are thinking about bribing a police officer to avoid a traffic ticket, we’d love to know whether the police officer were honest or corrupt. If we don’t know, we need to make a matrix of options. If we’ve got an honest cop, not bribing leads to a traffic ticket, and bribing leads to a bribery charge plus a traffic ticket. A dishonest cop, the bribe leads to getting off and no bribe leads to the traffic ticket. But a veiled speech option changes the outcomes – an honest cop can’t turn a veiled bribe into a bribery charge, while a dishonest cop still accepts the bribe and lets you off. There’s a clear theoretic advantage towards veiling the speech.

So why do we do this in contexts that don’t have legal implications? Pinker uses the example of Bruce Feiler, who wrote a piece for Gourment called Bruce Feiler“Pocket Full of Dough.” He visited a number of New York restaurants with a date and offered bribes to get a better table. He admits that he felt terribly embarrased, used extremely veiled speech… and got seated in 2-4 minutes every time.

Bribing through veiled speech can negotiate relationship stypes. We use the literal form – politeness – to convey the safest relationship while relying on the listener to interpret the deeper meaning – the demand for a table. But there’s no presumption of dominance that would come from an imperative. Dominance relationships are one thing we’ve learned to negotiate, evolutionarily, along with communality and reciprocity.

Humans discover that behavior in one relationship is not okay moved to another. It’s not okay to pay our hosts for dinner at a dinner party. Ambiguity and awkwardness can come from not understanding which script to use, whether to treat our boss as a friend or a dominant, for instance. With a maitre d’, we’re trying to figure out if he’s reciprocal (willing to take a bribe and be a friend) or dominant (in control of his restaurant).

In situations where there’s no real uncertainty – sexual innuendo, for instance – one of the reasons for indirectness is mutual knowledge. If I make a pass at Sally, explicitly, and she rejects me, it’s hard to continue the friendship, because I know that she knows that I’m interested in her. Whereas, in indirect speech, we avoid that mutual knowledge and can maintain the friendship if she can ignore my veiled innuendo.

Mutual knowledge explains why dictators are so afraid of free assembly and people gathering in the streets. I know that I hate the dictator, but seeing people in the streets lets me know that other people hate him too… and they know I hate them too… which could mobilize a movement.

What does this tell us? Humans are very touchy about our relationships. We distinguish types of relationships sharply and suffer emotional costs when they get breached. And humans think a lot about what other humans think about them for deep evolutionary reasons, which are reflected in language.

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