Obliquity

30 04 2011

It’s odd how you increase your own lexicon. It’s a curious blend of serendipity and conscious exploratory follow-up.

An example, starting with the “conscious exploratory follow-up”.  I have only just discovered the word obliquity, pronounced ur-BLIK-wi-tee, or if you prefer standard IPA, əˈblɪkwɪti. Now, I’ve long known oblique, but had no idea there was a noun or that obliquity was it.   The dictionary predictably (and pretty uselessly) tells me that obliquity means “the state of being oblique”. But something that was useful was the additional sense carried in “oblique”, namely that there may be a hint of deception; and that the adjectival form obliquitous  is very suggestive of such deceit.

If “oblique” means not straight, at an angle, sloping, then it’s easy to see how the deceptive sense taps into one of the metaphorical uses of “straight”  –  upfront, honest, direct. I’m able now to imagine a sentence like the following: “Politicians, used car salesmen and real estate agents are infamous for their obliquities”.

We know that Shakespeare’s Caesar said “Let me have men around me who are fat” (I,ii). He might just as easily have demonised oblique as he did thin.

The fact is that English has a myriad ways to be oblique. A dip into any book on Pragmatics will take you to a section on Negative Politeness whereupon you will be confronted with umpteen ways in which you can avoid being straight up.  I have no reason to think other languages are not equally well equipped – or roughly so, allowing for the fact that languages do vary in how they favour or disfavour directness.

So, back to where I started. The “conscious exploratory follow-up” is the dictionary work I did on encountering obliquity. The serendipity factor was seeing it as the title of a newly released book –  Obliquity. Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. It’s by John Kay (Penguin 2011), who despite being both an academic and an economist, can write reasonably transparently.

The book is all about the concept of obliquity – what it is, how it’s all around us, why solving problems directly is often counter-productive, how an oblique approach can be both helpful and productive. You can draw from it your own conclusions of course,  but it’s good to bear in mind along the way the evidence presented on why the happiest people do not set out to pursue happiness.

My own research has taught me that there are risks both in directness and in obliquity. In neither case are these risks insurmountable, but in both cases they need to be approached pre-emptively and mindfully.

Like much in life, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.





Foreskins – an unusual point of harmony

9 03 2011

There aren’t many topics that bring Jews and Moslems into the unfamiliar territory of agreement. But there is one, and it’s just come up again, in San Francisco, where Jewish and Moslem groups are mobilizing and strategizing about how they will rally against proposed new legislation that will seek to criminalize male circumcision. It’s a topic where both faiths see eye to eye, as the riualized custom has a deeply embedded history, with cultural, community and religious associations.

You may well be thinking – what is my interest here? Am I trying to suggest that if agreement can be so easy on the delicate matter of the foreskin, then surely allegedly intractable points of contention in the Middle East might also be potentially open to agreement?

Short answer: No. In fact, my interest is less political than linguistic. I note that the leader of the anti-circumcision group in San Francisco is a self-described “intactivist”  – an activist in favour of well, staying intact.

It’s a clever word: like the Pro-Life lobby, it harnesses the positives (intact-ness), rather than promoting the contrariness (anti-abortion; anti-anything). It finds a “nice” way (if somewhat indirect, but that comes with the territory of euphemism) to avoid the word “circumcision”, which is very, well,  in-your-face.

It does make you wonder what name the anti-intactivists will come up with, to lend their cause support and energy.





Westchester Widow

20 05 2010

Unpacking Personals: Westchester Widow

This advert appeared in the Personals  of The New York Review of Books, October 8-9, 2009, Vol LVI, No 15.

Westchester widow seeks friendship with man, 75-85, who loves Mozart, especially the Marriage of Figaro. Contact etc.

Google tells me that “Westchester County is a suburban county located in the U.S. state of New York. Westchester covers an area of 450 square miles and has a diverse population…” There’s another such place in Pennsylvania, but it’d be less likely, all things considered. Being an outsider, I’m not sure what socio-economic cue “Westchester widow” would give off for an insider, but I’d guess (it’s only a guess) something like “of comfortable, independent means”. It feels rather formulaic – like she’s giving out her gender (female), her marital status (widow) and socio-economic class. And if she’s travelling down to the Met for her regular opera fix, she’s likely to have a healthy bank balance. Note she’s seeking “friendship”, a loose term if ever there was, especially so since the advent of electronic social networking, though I doubt our widow is using it in the Facebook sense. “Friend” can suggest with or without benefits.  All things considered, it probably means companionship –  “a person to attend opera with”. Given that the few words of a Personals ad are all the space she has to present herself and her quest, what does her love of Mozart say about her? Because we surely have to infer that she herself feels the love of Mozart that she wishes her quarry to have. Does she perhaps identify with Mozart’s Countess, sadly recalling a philandering husband,  urging all to be festive and merry, while an accompanying solo oboe almost weeps as she sings? What might all this, the passions as well as the tensions, convey to her would-be companion?  Note too how few stipulations she has: all he has to be is elderly and love Mozart, especially Figaro. What if he loves Mozart, but not particularly Figaro? Would he have a chance? What would a love of Figaro actually mean, in terms of human characteristics? What if he had such characteristics, but still didn’t love Figaro? Is a love of Mozart able to be faked? My issue with this ad, apart from the above ambivalences is: surely an elderly widow of refined musical taste would in reality harbour more must-haves and must-not-haves than what she’s stated? What if he has all the requirements… plus nose hair? Unlikely, I’m informed by one-who-knows, who says a love of Mozart and the presence of nose hair are mutually incompatible.  What if he has all requisites, but  also a police record (say, for axe-murdering)? The essential question, then, becomes: At what point of personal unpleasantness does the love of Mozart etc cease to forgive all else?





Politeness Can Be Toxic

19 04 2010

There’s a linguist in the USA, Charlotte Linde by name, who’s done some very interesting work on cockpit conversations. You know, in planes, between pilot and co-pilot. Not just any such conversations – her specialty is cockpit conversations just prior to a crash.

In other words: What’s going on in the talk at the point of the nose-dive? Recovered from the black box, and analyzed post-crash, these dialogues have a great deal to reveal. No doubt this is why such extraordinary efforts are invested in preserving talk that might otherwise be highly ephemeral. Like most talk, here today, gone tomorrow.

In a nutshell, they show that politeness is incompatible with emergency. This is because politeness is wordy and wordiness gets in the way of clarity. And when the going gets tough, clarity is what you want.  It’s the same reason, theatre surgeons don’t say things like, “I wonder, nurse, if you’d mind checking the range of scalpels you have at your side there in that tray, and passing me one, when you’re ready.” Likewise, in the army, especially in combat scenarios, commands are given briefly, minimally and unambiguously. You’d never hear: “Corporal, go over that way, see how many enemy soldiers you can kill, look out for snipers, and take care of yourself. We don’t want you getting hurt.”

However, it’s not only in life-and-death contexts that politeness can be clumsy. Take the following conversation I had at a Sydney theatre box office, a far cry from a plane crash or a surgical procedure or a combat zone. Well, under usual circumstances, anyway.

It’s a real-time, face-to-face conversation. What we call “transactional”, rather than “interpersonal”. I’m not trying to get to know the chap working there. I’m just trying to get some information, and maybe then, if all goes well,  acting on the information. In other words, this is about goods-and-services, not relationships.

I’ve come in to the theatre to ask a question about my subscription. I want to know if I can transfer some of my tickets to someone else.  The conversation is not without its own challenges, however. In order to be heard, I have to lean in quite some way; and the glass screen separating us is tinted, so the visuals are also compromised.

This is what ensues. The box office man starts off, replying to my inquiry.

I think you can’t do that.

I can’t?

Mmm, I think you can’t.

You think, but you don’t know?

Well, I do know, that’s what I’m saying, I think you can’t do that.

You’re not sure, though, are you?

Well, I am sure, actually.

So you know that I can’t do it?

That’s right. You can’t.

So why did you say you “think”  I can’t?

Because that’s what I think is the case.

But it’s not just your opinion. You seem to know that this actually is the case.

Yes, that’s right.

So, there’s a policy about this and you know what it is.

Yes that’s right.

So, if someone comes up to you, in the box office, to ask about this policy, and you’re there and you know the answer, why would you compromise your assertion by saying “I think”?

Um, because I’m giving my opinion on the policy.

But the policy is a matter of fact, not opinion. It’s fixed and un-negotiable, surely.

Yes, that’s right.

So what is wanted in such a situation, is the policy, not your take on the policy.

Yes.

Where you have a knowledge of the facts and that’s all you have to transmit.

I think that’s what I did, isn’t it?

No, you didn’t, you phrased the information in such a way as to create doubt.

Did I do that?

Yes, you did.

I think I didn’t.

There, you’ve done it again. You know that you didn’t, but you persist in using “think”.

I’m just being polite.

Ah “polite”. Yes. But have you thought about what you might lose as a consequence of your politeness?

No, I don’t think I have.

Written out like this, it seems interminable; and I can’t say I came away confident that I had a convert to the cause of clear communication.

Linguistic politeness has multiple roles and they’re mostly valid and purposeful. In essence, it comes down to showing respect and/or avoiding abrasion between people engaged in the complex work of verbal interaction.

It’s possible to keep it clean and clear, without sacrificing quality or causing offence. Though sometimes, as with my conversation with the box office man, polite and clear seem destined to collide.

PS Since writing this blog, I’ve been alerted to the fact that Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers had a chapter on this very topic.

PPS Since writing the above PS, I have read the Gladwell book and highly recommend the chapter on fatal cockpit talk.