Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

The Evolutionary Social Psychology of Off-Record Indirect Speech Acts *

Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

The Evolutionary Social Psychology of Off-Record Indirect Speech Acts *

Article excerpt

1. The evolutionary social psychology of off-record indirect speech acts

Indirect speech is the phenomenon in which a speaker says something he doesn't literally mean, knowing that the hearer will interpret it as he intended:

Would you like to come up and see my etchings? [a sexual comeon].

If you could pass the salt, that would be great [a polite request].

Nice house you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it [a threat].

We're counting on you to show leadership in our Campaign for the Future [a solicitation of a donation].

Gee, officer, I was wondering whether there might be some way we could take care of the ticket here [a bribe].

These "off-record indirect speech acts" have long been a major topic in pragmatics, and they have considerable practical importance as well, including an understanding rhetoric, negotiation and diplomacy, and the prosecution of extortion, bribery, and sexual harassment. They also pose important questions about our nature as social beings. This paper, adapted from a book which uses semantics and pragmatics as a window into human nature (Pinker 2007), uses indirect speech as a window into human social relationships. In doing so it seeks to augments the current understanding of indirect speech with ideas from game theory, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology.

Intuitively, the explanation for indirect speech seems obvious: we use it to escape embarrassment, avoid awkwardness, save face, or reduce social tension. But as with many aspects of the mind, the danger with commonsense explanations is that we are trying to explain a puzzle by appealing to intuitions that themselves need an explanation. In this case, we need to know what "face" is, and why we have emotions like embarrassment, tension, and shame that trade in it. Ideally, those enigmas will be explained in terms of the inherent problems faced by social agents who exchange information.

2. Background: Conversational maxims and the theory of politeness

Any analysis of indirect speech must begin with Grice's Cooperative Principle and the theory of conversational maxims and conversational implicature that flows from it (Grice 1975). Grice proposed that conversation has a rationality of its own, rooted in the needs of partners to cooperate to get their messages across. Speakers tacitly adhere to a Cooperative Principle, tailoring their utterances to the momentary purpose and direction of the conversation. That requires monitoring the knowledge and expectations of one's interlocutor and anticipating her reaction to one's words. (Keeping with convention, I will refer to the generic speaker as a "he" and the generic hearer as a "she.") Grice famously fleshed out the principle in his four conversational "maxims," quantity (say no more or less than is required), quality (be truthful), manner (be clear and orderly), and relevance (be relevant), which are commandments that people tacitly follow to further the conversation efficiently. Indirect speech may be explained by the way the maxims are observed in the breach. Speakers often flout them, counting on their listeners to interpret their intent in a way that would make it consistent with the Cooperative Principle after all. That's why, Grice noted, we would interpret a review that described a singer as "producing a series of notes" as negative rather than factual. The reviewer intentionally violated the maxim of Manner (he was not succinct); readers assume he was providing the kind of information they seek in a review; the readers conclude that the reviewer was implicating that the performance was substandard. Grice called this line of reasoning a conversational implicature.

Grice came to conversation from the bloodless world of logic and said little about why people bother to implicate their meanings rather than just blurting them out. We discover the answer when we remember that people are not just in the business of downloading information into each other's heads but are social animals concerned with the impressions they make. …

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