I am linking to this post by Ben Hoffman because I want to declare myself for team words-have-meaning. But while I’m at it I want to discuss a complication. The piece is fairly hard to excerpt, but here is a paragraph to give yo an idea.
My working hypothesis is that some people mainly perceive their environment as one in which words have meanings, while for others speech-acts are primarily construed as social moves. If you’re in the first group, you imagine that people are tracking honesty of attempts to inform in a way that contributes to your reputation. If you’re in the second, you might think that they’re mainly interpreting your words as a statement about your current posture and intent. Are you on their side? What are you about to do next? Where are you trying to point their attention?
I take my integrity very seriously, but there are times I treat my word as a social signal rather than conveying literal truth. For example, I sometimes simplify the anecdotes I tell on this blog. I do this because the anecdotes aren’t supposed to prove anything, they’re supposed to be illustrations of the data that actually proves things, as a concession to the way the human brain works. Taking out extraneous details is respectful of the time of you, the reader. I don’t think anyone took my suggestion that the head of the World Health Association was actually a giant sentient tuberculosis cell literally either.
Here’s a more complicated example. Two friends of mine, Alice and Bob, started dating at approximately the same time I started dating Bob’s friend Carl (and Carl and Alice had met, although they weren’t close). Shortly into this Alice started talking to me about the four of us going on vacation the next year. Since we were talking about plans nine months away for people who had been dating a week and a half, I assumed we were playing some sort of fantasy game. Telling her no would have felt like saying no in improv. It would have cut off a conversation that was really about us being excited about our new relationships. Apparently she was taking it more literally and immediately approached Carl (who had the most restrictive job of the three of us) to get possible dates. For nine months in the future.
I think Alice was being unreasonable here. But my immediate reaction when Carl told me this was “oh shit, I should not have said maybe.” I put the responsibility on myself to determine whether something was a literal-truth-type-situation or not, and viewed the miscommunication as my failure. The alternative would have been blaming her for misinterpreting me.
I propose that people differ not only in when they think words are social vs. informational, but in who bears the blame when there is a misinterpretation. I pretty much always put the responsibility on the person who used words as social levers. I suspect other people are faster to put the blame on the person who took the words too literally, and this correlates with tendency to use words as social levers, but not perfectly so.