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.

Spend, Spend, Spend…

21 03 2011

I just received a note in the mail from a clothes label that I tend to buy.

It said:

Dear Ruth,

Your 12-month Loyalty Status anniversary date is coming up soon and our records show that your spend has yet to reach $750.

Yep, that’s right “your spend”.

Well, call me oblivious, but up until this moment, I hadn’t really registered that I was on their Loyalty program, nor what this meant, nor that to maintain my status, I needed to spend $750 before my one-year “anniversary”.

The note included a “Snapshot of (my) Spend” – this showed how much I had spent since 8 May 2010, how much I had to reach ($750) and my “anniversary date” – 8 May 2011. I note they didn’t tell me the gap – how much I still needed to spend, leaving the maths to me. Nice. Politeness through omission or obliqueness.

My point in mentioning all this is to remark on the unusual use of “spend”  which I mostly know as a verb (eg spend money, spend a holiday, spend time). The dictionary agrees with me, but does have one citation for spend as a noun namely, “an amount of money spent, esp regularly, or allocated to be spent”.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that this unusual form of expression masks a certain discomfort. There’s a tension here. On the one hand they have lots of “purr” words – loyalty, rewards, anniversary etc; but the core ugly truth is that I have not spent enough, that I need to spend more if I want to stay on their database of much-loved people.

I imagine they sat around for a few hours, maybe with a bottle of red, brainstorming ways of saying  “You haven’t spent enough” without being too in-your-face; and finally came up with using “spend” as a noun, to take the edge off. Well, it certainly took the edge off for me, because it took me a few moments to work what they were trying to say, all of which is inherent in the politeness process, where you might dither about a bit (linguistically or physically) and that very behaviour is positively decoded as the effort to be polite.

Well of course, I’m not so keen to be part of this elusive Loyalty Program (elusive because even when I was having it I didn’t know I was having it) that I’m prepared to fork out hundreds of dollars that I might not otherwise have spent, just to stay on the cool-people database.

It all reminds me of the well-known slogan at a well-known department store whose signs often announce “You’re Invited to Save”, when what they mean is “You’re Invited to Spend”.

George Orwell, you can come out now from under that rock.


Negotiation at the heart of interaction. The case of Sasha and the car

25 04 2010

Here is a conversation between myself and my son, Sasha, from some 15 years ago. I’ve often used it for teaching purposes, most especially to demonstrate the effects of pragmatics, negotiation and face-saving elements of interaction.


I (R) am upstairs in my study, Sasha (S) is downstairs, heading towards the front door, about to leave the house, so it is not face-to-face but within earshot.


R’s car is often used by S but not without prior permission and arrangements having been negotiated.  Usually he has it back by 3 which allows R to go pick up her daughter  from school.

L1        S:  OK I’m off. See you at 3.

L2        R:  Are you taking the car?

L3        S:  Can I?

L4        R:  Are you?

L5        S:  Do you want me to?

It is significant that R raises the topic of the car (L2) after S has effectively closed the conversation and is on the point of leaving.

R responds not by saying something like “see you” but by asking a question. The question however targets a range of speech acts: it could be a simple inquiry about the means of transport; or it could be a warning that he has not obtained permission (c.f. `you’re not taking the car, are you?’); or it could be an offer (c.f. `do you want to take the car?’).

On this particular occasion R had thought S was using public transport. When, however, he said `see you at 3′, R was alerted to the possibility that he might have intended to use the car. Thus when S said `see you at 3′, R wanted to confirm that the car wasn’t being used because on this day she needed it before 3 as well.

The question actually meant `I hope you’re not intending to use the car because you can’t’. R used an indirect form so as not to appear too `heavy’ – i.e. to protect his face (against attack)  and her own face (against making false accusation) in case he had had no intention of using the car. She does not want to come down heavy on him if it is undeserved. Hence the pragmatic ambivalence  of her question which will allow her retreat-ability in the event that it turns out he has been falsely accused.

In fact, S had had no intention of using the car knowing that it had been needed, and knowing that he has to establish prior permission. However, in hearing R’s question `are you taking the car?’ he realises that it might actually, unexpectedly, be on offer. Ever the pragmatist when it comes to car use, he chooses to interpret it as an offer. His bald-on-record `can I?’ (L3) is designed to confirm the offer and score points by reinforcing how he plays by the rules in always asking for permission.

However, the question is not without its own risks: it challenges R by answering her question with a question.  R, however, has now realised that S had not intended to use the car but is now angling to get it. Busy and a bit irritated (caused in part by his not answering her directly),  she is unwilling to begin now to renegotiate the use of the car.

At the risk of further escalating tension by not responding to S’s question and returning to insist on an answer to her own question (an insistence that may be construed as face threat), she sticks to her guns, demanding a straight answer (yes or no) to the original question inquiring about his intention to use the car.

Meanwhile, S is still positioning himself to maximum advantage for the chance to get the car. To keep the hope alive, he cannot answer `yes’ or `no’. If he responds with `yes’ and it turns out he had not sought permission, then he’ll be in trouble, which itself may impact on future car use.

If he answers `no’, then it means he was planning to go without it and this will undermine the current urgency of need and the eleventh-hour possibility of getting the car. He therefore is trapped – forced into a corner where only a yes/no will suffice but either will condemn him.

One of the few options left now is to side-step the issue of what he has done and what he should do. He does this by effecting a radical shift in agency and process. In his response (L5) he switches agency to R and introduces the new process `want’. In so doing he has shifted responsibility to R as agent and re-defined the entire exchange as one in which permission to use the car depends not on his asking for permission or the car’s availability but on R’s desire for him to use it.

It’s risky. The continued delay in his answering her question augments the tension. To off-set this, he probably realises on some level that the act of highlighting R’s wants also serves as an act of deference to R’s power in an essentially asymmetrical relationship: it allows S to position himself as lowly and dependent.

He must also realise that anointing R in this way – i.e. by reminding R of her power – may accrue him some benefit: best case scenario is that, cued to her power, R may subsequently choose to exercise it through magnanimity.

And what would be more appropriate in this context and on this occasion than granting him use of the car?

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.


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.