Do you mean what you say?

Remember Senator John McCain? He- that -promoted -Sarah Palin -to -Vice- Presidential- candidate? And daughter Bristol to equivalent reality TV stardom?
Well, I’m happy to say that this month marks the two- year anniversary of his inclusion in my Undergraduate essay of the title The Field of Pragmatics is concerned with how people manage to mean more than their words seem to say. Discuss how they do this, with reference to Grice’s maxims.
It was a dull essay, believe me, but Senator JMC managed to spice things up about 1500 words in.
You see, one day in 2008, when JMC was on his campaign trail, an elderly lady supporter petitioned him for a quick word about his no-hoper opponent, Barack Obama. She told JMC proudly that she had “read about him”. JMC nodded in sympathy. By God, hadn’t he had to do his own reading up on that guy. It was the lady’s next utterance that scored the inclusion in my essay. She asked simply; “he’s an Arab?”, to which McCain- swiftly removing the microphone from under her- replied “no, he’s a decent family man … and citizen”.
The whole interchange was a delight to me. It justified the discipline of pragmatics as the study of meaning beyond words and made clear to me that language is as much about what’s not said as what is. Of course, the obvious implication in this interchange is that being an Arab and a decent family man are mutually exclusive. Were this to have been made explicit however, JMC would have been immediately asked to answer to accusations of racism. As his response was veiled in an (arguably irrelevant) compliment to Obama’s family values and citizenship (oh, the irony!) however, he faced no such charges.

Paul Grice was a linguist with a mission. He wanted to create a taxonomy of the unspoken rules that govern the kind of communication that generates meaning beyond words. You can read all about his maxims here but in short, he believed that successful communication relies on adherence to a few basic rules: tell me what’s true, tell me what’s relevant, don’t flood me with information, be polite. So, when I ask you whether you like my new haircut and you tell me that you think long hair really suited me, I can assume, based on the maxims of relevance and clarity, that you are politely answering “no”.

Saying what you mean is so rare that shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm exploit it as a particular kind of comedic art. Sugar-coating our utterances and beating about the bush are so ingrained in our psyche that they have come to represent what we consider civil society to entail. An insidious underbelly is revealed however when we consider the larger-scale effects of such rigid use of linguistic decoration. As recently as last week, the White House claimed that Bin Laden was killed “after a fire-fight”. What emerged later however, was that he couldn’t in fact have had any part in the fire-fight, since he wasn’t armed. When we hear the term “firefight” it’s fair to assume that both parties (now there’s an incongruous word) exchange fire, isn’t it?

Things don’t seem to go so well for those who do say what they mean though. Poor Old Gordon Brown had a terrible time during his campaign trail last year when he called a lady a “bigoted woman”. Even though she was.

At the end of King Lear, Edgar reminds us to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. Respect to Mr Brown for favouring William Shakespeare over Alistair Campbell.

6 thoughts on “Do you mean what you say?

  1. It’s funny how your article came at a time when people dont seem to mean what they say. I have been contemplating this for a while – why do people want to say things they dont mean? Or try to be politically correct? Even I who have been quite direct most of the time have turned into a politically correct creature in the course of my work.
    I dont like to lie so I go around in an indirect way as I found that frankness offends people.
    And along the lines, there are of course people who say certain things to get what they want – and maybe mean it at that point of time? I am not sure…I get slightly confused by that and my sensitive nature causes repeated hurts to myself and over time, I have learnt to reset my expectations and thus provide the same treatment as what I was treated as I realised, being the true self just doesnt seem to pay.
    Last but not least, I was surprised you cut your hair. And I would say you look nicer with long hair – sweet and demure(that’s the common popular image). I guess with shorter hair – it provides a more chic and clean cut image but minus softness and feminity(which people usually shakes their head to). I wouldnt say you look horrible though. I do look horrible – with very short and long hair:) So I can tell you, depends on what kind of image are you looking for? And be confident 😀


  2. Very good Katzi, a first class blog post but I won’t give you any feedback just yet as I’m not obliged to under departmental regulations. See the handbook for the relevant pedagogical advantages to this policy.

    All the best,


    P.S. Have you ever though about blogging anything about the behaviour of those who are manipulating an internal combustion engine in the form of an automobile?


  3. Soupa as ever, and I agree with you that what makes language so intricate a device is that it is what isn’t said and what is left to be discerned by the listener is where so much is actually said.

    ..and I’m sure that THAT could have been said far more eloquently 🙂 x


  4. See, the problem with the hair (and indeed, a lot of interpretations of these things) is that you can’t really know what’s going on in the other person’s head. For example if/when I told you that i preffered your short hair, that is not to say “no” that is to say “while I like your short hair, i still find it inferior to your previous, longer hair”

    However, if we can presume a ranking system, that goes

    1. Your old long hair
    2. Your new short hair
    3. a third variation
    et al

    there is no reason that the acceptable point above which all hairstyles are “liked” isn’t ranked number 7 on said list. Liking and prefering are two different things. I like vanilla ice cream, but I prefer strawberry.

    But back to the discussion of the issue of not knowing what’s going on in someone’s head:

    McCain may not himself have been racist (he himself may have nothing against arabs that would make him doubt their family man ability), but he could simple have been interpreting the woman’s comments as being from a racist place (“Hmmm, this lady is clearly anti-arab, I should point out that Obama is not the bad man she is imagining him to be”).

    In terms of Bin Laden, I think it’s a fair interpretation of what happened. The fact that he HIMSELF was not armed doesn’t mean there wasn’t a fire fight. The marines had to shoot their way through a whole bunch of people in order to reach Bin Laden.

    (which already qualifies as “after a fire fight”. There was a fire fight between OBL supporters and US marines, and then afterwards Bin Laden was killed. That is a literal interpretation. Your discussion really only works if they said he was killed “during” a fire-fight. So i think there’s an interesting thing going on there, considering your post is about what is interpreted in the unsaid. However, I shall continue to further properly contextualise his killing).

    You are a soldier engaged in combat with a group, and having killed several members of that group, one group member remain, and you tell them to get on the ground. Instead of getting on the ground, they remain standing, hiding behind their spouse. Having just been shot at by most everyone else in the group, you are aware of the potential threat this person may pose. Furthermore, this person is the leader of an organisation known for being willing to sacrafice their own lives in order to kill others.

    Do you
    a) Accept this person’s non compliance, and approach them, with no regard for your own safety, or the safety of the other marines, or
    b) Shoot this person, since their lack of compliance may indicate their intention to cause further harm to you, and the safety of your team is paramount.


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