Direct vs Indirect Use of Language (Steven Pinker Talk)

By Xah Lee. Date:

A fantastic video that explains why we often do not talk directly what we mean, to friends, bosses, or peers. The video is just 10 minutes, by [ Steven Pinker ] [ ] (born 1954), a specialist in psycholinguistics, at Harvard University.

“RSA Animate - Language as a Window into Human Nature”

Here's some kinda personal notes about the video. (won't make good sense if you haven't watched the video.)

We use indirect communication all the time. Between friends, on a date, in work place, in meetings… we leave open to others to pick it up and decided its meaning. There are many reasons why we do this. Often, being direct would be impolite, blunt, inappropriate, or even have adverse consequences with respect to our intention when compared to using indirect communication.

• language does 2 things. ① convey some content. ② negotiate a relationship type.

According to anthropologist Alan Fiske (UCLA), there are 3 major human relationships. ① Dominance. (For example, boss, employer) ② communality. (family, close friends) ③ Reciprocity. (For example, business relations)

Logic: Individual Knowledge vs Mutual Knowledge. When you know x, and i know x, that's individual knowledge. But when both of us know that the other also knows, that's what he calls “mutual knowledge”. The fact that when you have the info of the type “someone knows”, that can be critical, with major consequences in your decisions. (For example, [ game of Chicken ] [ ], Poker, negotiation.)

Steven's presentation culminates in a ending that roughly summarized as this: we use indirect language because that avoids the “mutual knowledge” among the parties in the exchange. In other words, it leaves many doors open in the relationship, whatever that is or to become. (For example, may it be veiled bribe offer, a sexual initiative, aggressive joke, etc. We can pretend nothing happens because we are not certain what's really going on.) If we use direct language, whatever is exchanged becomes “mutual knowledge”, and that sets in stone some intentions of the parties. (and this, without being said, is presumably not desired, because it make relationship awkward or hard to maintain, or possibly becoming hostile)

My Personal Reflection

Personally, i've always been the direct type of guy, and is known to be rude or inappropriate, and had plenty experiences of embarrassment or awkwardness. (sometimes as major stress: panic attack).

I am like that partly because of social ineptness by nature, but partly intentionally because i have always been deeply effected by my obsessive study of logic and math. I have always been striving to become a pure calculating machine sans emotions whatsoever. Part of this desire for direction communication is loosely tied to the concept of honesty, or today's political word “transparency”.

(For some period of my life i've been wishing to become a computer program as depicted in some sci-fi as in Mr Data, “The Schizoid Man” (StarTrek), or themes in Japanese animations, for example: “Ghost in the Shell”. Buy at amazon (for most of my life, i lived as a city hermit).)

Steven Pinker's presentation is certainly on the spot. I like to make some comment. Note that we have a assumption here that human relationships always falls (roughly) into 3 types: dominance, communal, reciprocal. Note that this relationship is not set in stone, is open to change. In some contexts, such as work place, bar, family, the type of relationship is often clearly suggested, if not already established. While, often other times, when you meet someone, the type of relationship is yet to be established. Also, a relationship can change, and often does. For example: from stranger to lover to spouse. From stranger to coworker. From businessmen to friends.

After watching this video, in retrospect, i think i have always tried to impose a type relationship onto others, which explains that i have no qualms or regrets in my behavior of a direct communication style. For example, in workplace, my relationship with my superiors, from my mind, have always been absolutely clear to be of a reciprocal type, and never a dominance type. In my behaviors or use of language, i often (subconsciously) made this clear. To me, as a hired programer in a company, my stance of the relations between me and my “manager” have always been that of functional, sans any connotation of submissiveness. This demeanor is not conventional, and sometimes creates friction between me and my “superior”. That is, they perceive me to not have given them due respect.

In dating, i also often sets certain context by my demeanor. My philosophy on courtship and mating is that of mutual type.

Over all, Steven Pinker's presentation explains why we use indirect communication. But note that it EXPLAINS. It is not a survey of conformity, not a description of etiquette, not a advice. For most people in most situations, i think it's beneficial to use indirect communication at times. Though, what i want to mention is that it's not absolute.

For example, in the scenario in the video where a employee wonders whether to address his boss by name. If you are the type of strong philosophies (for example: Richard Stallman, certain activists, philosopher, leader), you might address him by his first name bluntly without hesitation. And if his response is negative, then you know that he's not fit to be your employer, and perhaps can plan to move on. In dating, if you bluntly ask a girl for sex, and from her response you can discern directly whether the girl is really the one that is compatible with your style. (presuming your goal is not just to have sex that night)

In summary, indirect communication is usually beneficial for negotiation, peddling, diplomacy, type of situations. While, if the parties involved are all direct types, geeks, it's much more efficient. One extreme is to think of machine-to-machine communication.

Ultimately, when 2 human animals communicate, in some sense there's a gaming going on, such as in math's game theory. You want to know who he is, what he wants, and he or she wonders about the same of you. If all human animals are by nature of certain idealized peace-loving collaborative type, then none of this would happen. But because we are not selfless collaborative types by nature, thus was born indirect communication. It is a form of strategy of gaming.