Why are obvious meanings veiled?

Why do people use veiled language even when both parties likely know the real message? For instance if a boy asks a girl up for coffee after a date, nobody is likely to miss the cliched connotation, so why not be direct?  The same question goes for many other threats, bribes, requests and propositions. Where meaning is reasonably ambiguous, plausible deniability seems a good explanation. However in many cases denial wouldn’t be that plausible and would make you look fairly silly anyway.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker offers six possible explanations for these cases, the last of which I found particularly interesting: People are not embarrassed nearly as much by everyone knowing their failings as long as they aren’t common knowledge (everyone knows that everyone knows etc). Pinker suggests veiled language can offer enough uncertainty that while the other party knows they are very likely being offered sex for instance (which is all you need them to know), they are still unsure of whether you know that they know this, and so on. Plausible deniability of common knowledge means if they decline you, you can carry on with yours pride intact more easily, because status is about what everyone thinks everyone thinks etc your status is, and that hasn’t changed.

This has some problems. Does any vagueness preclude mutual knowledge? We don’t act as though it does; there is always some uncertainty. Plus we take many private observations into account in judging others’ status, though you could argue that this is to judge how they are usually judged, so any aspect of a person you believe others haven’t mostly seen should not inform you on their status. Pinker suggests that a larger gap between the level of vagueness that precludes mutual knowledge and that which allows plausible deniability is helped by people attributing their comprehension of veiled suggestions to their own wonderful social intuition, which makes them less sure that the other knows what they understood.

But veiled comments often seem to allow no more uncertainty than explicit ones. For instance, ‘it would be great if you would do the washing up’ is about as obvious as ‘do the washing up’, but somehow more polite because you are informing not commanding, though the listener arguably has less choice because angrily proclaiming that they are not your slave is off the table. Perhaps such phrases are idioms now, and when they were alive it really was less obvious what commenting on the wonderfulness of clean dishes implied. It seems unlikely.

Some other explanations from Pinker (I omit one because I didn’t understand it enough to paraphrase at the time and don’t remember it now):

The token bow: indirection tells the listener that the speaker has made an effort to spare her feelings or status. e.g. requests made in forms other than imperative statements are designed to show you don’t presume you may command the person. I’m not sure how this would explain the coffee offer above. Perhaps in the existing relationship asking for sex would be disrespectful, so the suggestion to continue the gradual shift into one anothers’ pants is couched as something respectful in the current relationship?

Don’t talk at all, show me: most veiled suggestions are a request to alter the terms of the relationship, and in most cases people don’t speak directly about the terms of relationships. This is just part of that puzzle. This explanation doesn’t explain threats or bribes well I think. By the time you are talking idly about accidents that might happen, awkwardness about discussing a relationship outright is the least of anyone’s worries. Also we aren’t squeamish about discussing business arrangements, which is what a bribe is.

The virtual audience: even if nobody is watching, the situation can be more easily transmitted verbally if the proposition is explicitly verbal. If the intent is conveyed by a mixture of subtler signals, such as tone, gestures and the rest of the interaction, it will be harder to persuade others later that that the meaning really was what you say it was, even if in context it was obvious. This doesn’t seem plausible for many cases. If I tell you that someone discreetly proffered a fifty dollar note and wondered aloud how soon their request might be dealt with, you – and any jury – should interpret that just fine.

Preserving the spell: some part of the other person enjoys and maintains the pleasant illusion of whatever kind of relationship is overtly demonstrated by the words used. Pinker gives the example of a wealthy donor to a university, who is essentially buying naming rights and prestige, but everyone enjoys it more if you have fancy dinners together and pretend that the university is hoping for their ‘leadership’. This doesn’t explain why some transactions are made with a pretense and some aren’t. If I buy an apartment building we don’t all sit down at a fancy dinner together and pretend that I am a great hero offering leadership to the tenants. Perhaps the difference is that if a donation is a purchase, part of the purchased package is a reputation for virtue. However outsiders aimed at mostly don’t see what the transaction looks like. For other cases this also doesn’t seem to explain. While one may want to preserve the feeling that one is not being threatened, why should the threatening one care? And seducing someone relies on the hope of ending air of platonic aquaintence.

Another explanation occurs to me, but I haven’t thought much about whether it’s applicable anywhere. Perhaps once veiled language is used for plausible deniability in many cases, there become other cases where the appearance of trying to have plausible deniability is useful even if you don’t actually want it. In those cases you might use veiled language to imply you are trying, but be less subtle so as not to succeed. For instance once most men use veiled come ons, for you to suggest anything explicitly to a girl would show you have no fear of rejection. She mightn’t like being thought either so predictable or of such low value, so it is better to show respect by protecting yourself from rejection.

None of these explanations seem adequate, but I don’t have a good enough list of examples to consider the question well.

12 responses to “Why are obvious meanings veiled?

  1. You don’t appear to have mentioned the Gricean maxims which is Pinker’s answer to this.

  2. You pick out situations which don’t fit each explanation, but for example the “don’t talk at all, show me” seems to provide some kind of insight for the “come up for coffee” example, whereas the bribe/threat example is illegal and would rely on plausible deniability much more.

    Perhaps different status behaviors require different explanations?

    I imagine that a threat is locally high status but globally low, so you want it to be obvious but deniable later; whereas a come on is locally low status (asking for something) but globally high (bragging rights later). So having a varied explanation makes sense to me.

  3. It makes sense for criminals to care about the feelings of their victims because it makes the transaction more likely to go smoothly without bad consequences for the criminals. “On Cooling the Mark Out” goes into detail about this: http://www.tau.ac.il/~algazi/mat/Goffman–Cooling.htm

  4. Veiled language is harder to eavesdrop on. At a party with many conversations going on at once, for example, people pick up single words and small fragments from many conversations they aren’t involved in. If one of those words is “prostitute”, it attracts attention. If, on the other hand, the message is not given directly by any single word but must be inferred from the complete sentence, then no one but the intended recipients will notice.

    The first word of an utterance the most likely to be overheard, and utterances with the primary message entirely in the first word are the most direct. Saying “do the washing up” advertises the fact that an order has been given to everyone in earshot, whereas saying “it would be great if you would do the washing up” reveals that only to people who are listening to the conversation.

    As a result, people habitually veil their meanings when talking about certain topics. In particular, people always veil their meanings when talking about crime or revolution, usually veil their meanings when talking about sex or status, and sometimes veil our meanings at random so as not to lose the skill.

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  6. I’m not sure that making generalizations of this sort is that helpful. I’d be interested in evidence that this sort of veiling occurs across cultures. This does occur in other Western cultures but I’d be curious to see evidence that this is a universal.
    Note also that in some circumstances there is contrary to your assertion squeemishness about bribes. They are often given euphemisms or paid for by buying associated services with no real content.

  7. I think you’d appreciate Jurgen Habermas’ “discourse ethics”. Perhaps not as entertaining. Oh, wait … I guess that pretty much disqualifies him. *sigh*

  8. ‘it would be great if you would do the washing up’
    ‘if you could pass the Guacamole, that would be awesome’ (Pinker’s example)

    These requests are presented as trade offers, not commands. As in – I will get particular pleasure if you do the dishes or pass the salt, so I will owe you one. The benefits to the requestor are deliberately exaggerated. This implies an ongoing peer relationship on the part of the requestor, not a power relationship. An incentive has been supplied to the requestee. This works better than a brute command. ‘Do the dishes’ is really on par with ‘gimme the money’.

    ‘Would you like to come up and see my etchings’

    A veil, or a trade? I get to have sex with you, and you get to see my brilliant artwork. So why isn’t the sex mentioned as part of the deal? Because the man doesn’t want his ‘demand’ for sex to seem too great, so he doesn’t mention it. Simple negotiating technique of downplaying the benefits of the deal to oneself. The focus is placed on the benefits to the woman.

    Thinking about the other examples…

  9. “there become other cases where the appearance of trying to have plausible deniability is useful even if you don’t actually want it. ”

    plausible plausible deniability!

  10. Pingback: Language as a WOK Finale Post | LJA Theory of Knowledge 2014

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