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.

9 thoughts on “”

  1. I’m with you on integrity being super important. In your vacation example, I would not really be able to participate; it would feel too much like lying (even though Alice seems totally ridiculous here and I don’t blame you a single bit). Someone once broke up with me because I was insufficiently enthusiastic about their baking, even though I could tell they wanted me to be enthusiastic, I really didn’t want to fake it because it felt dishonest (I’m sure they had other reasons for breaking with up with me too).

    I also didn’t sign the pledge because it felt dishonest.

    That said, I really don’t like the repeated use of the phrase ‘words have meaning’. I think its an inaccurate description of the problem, and functions as a yet-undeserved social cudgel for an idea that is not obviously right.

    If it doesn’t seem clear that it has social power, imagine someone saying it with substantial emphasis and a bit of anger as you’re arguing against them. I don’t know about you, but that’s scary as fuck for me.

      1. That’s fair. The more I think about it it doesn’t even speak to the difference- everyone agrees words have meaning, the question is whether it’s social or literal. “words have meaning” seems like a car ride home thought.

      2. I like “social” somewhat, though I think it leaves out the case of words as performance-enhancing drugs. “Attunement” might be closer to what’s going on. But words are informative in both cases, they’re just transmitting information differently.

        I want to say something like momentum vs position, or enactive vs denotative.

    1. I like the baking example – its a great concrete illustration of the divide between the attitude that enthusiasm in the direction of existing social momentum is prosocial and skepticism is antisocial, and the attitude that taking special care to avoid saying false things is prosocial, and saying things to be agreeable is antisocial.

  2. I think “words have meaning” and “words have meanings” are substantially different claims. Basically everyone agree that words have meaning, in the sense that you generally get a lot of information from which words someone’s using. The question is whether words largely denote concepts that refer to specific classes of objects, events, or attributes in the world, and should be parsed as such. See my response to Howie’s comment on my original post for more on this.

  3. @benquo your link to “words as performance enhancement drugs is broken, and I’m curious to read the thing you were linking to. Would you be willing to share the correct link?

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