Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

This is a transcript of the Steven Pinker video here:

Language is a window into social relations.

I’ll begin with a puzzle in language.

This one is taken from the movie Fargo, from a scene early in the movie in which a kidnapper has a hostage tied up in the back seat of a car and, inconveniently, is pulled over by the police because he’s missing his plates.

The police officer asks him to show his driver’s license.

He proffers his wallet with a license showing and a $50 bill extending ever so slightly.

And he says to the officer, I was thinking that maybe the best thing would be to take care of it here in Brainerd, which the audience and presumably the officer recognize as a veiled bribe.

This is an example of what linguists call an indirect speech act, a case in which we don’t blurt out what we mean in so many words, but we veil our intentions in innuendo, hoping for our listener to read between the lines and infer our real intent.

This is something that we do all the time, often without realizing it.

For example, if you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.

Now, when you think about it, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But we effortlessly recognize it as a polite request.

We’re counting on you to show leadership in our campaign for the future.

Anyone who has sat through a fundraising dinner is familiar with euphemistic snoring like that, which can be translated as, give us money.

Would you like to come up and see my etchings?

That has been recognized as a sexual come on for so long that in the 1930s, James Thurber drew a New Yorker cartoon in which a man says to his date, you wait here and I’ll bring the etchings down.

Then there’s a nice story you got there.

It would be a real shame if something happened to it, which any viewer of The Sopranos can recognize as a veiled threat.

The puzzle is, why are bribes, requests, seductions, solicitations, and threats so often veiled when both parties presumably know exactly what they mean?

Language has to do two things.

It’s got to convey some content, such as a bribe, a command, or a proposition.

At the same time, it’s got to negotiate a relationship type.

The solution is to use language at two levels.

The speaker uses the literal form to signal the safest relationship to the listener, while counting on the listener to read between the lines to entertain a proposition that might be incompatible with that relationship.

And politeness is a simple example.

What’s going on with, if you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome?

I think everyone would agree that it’s a bit of an overstatement.

And also, it’s not clear why you should be pondering counterfactual worlds right there and then at the dinner table.

Now, the listener thinks, assuming that the speaker has not lost his mind, the speaker says an outcome is good, therefore he must be requesting it.

The overall effect is that the intended content gets through, namely the imperative, but without the presumption of dominance that would ordinarily accompany an imperative, namely an expectation that you can be commanding some other person to do what you want.

Well, according to the anthropologist Alan Fiske, there are only three major human relationship types across the world’s cultures.

Each prescribes a distinct way of distributing resources, each has a distinct evolutionary basis, and each applies most naturally to certain people, but can be extended through negotiation to others, and that’s where language comes in.

So there’s dominance, as I’ve mentioned, whose logic is, don’t mess with me, and which presumably we inherited from the dominance hierarchies that are ubiquitous among primates.

Very different from that is communality, the ethos share and share alike, which evolved by a different route, namely kin selection and mutualism, and therefore is extended by default to kin, to spouses, and among close friends.

Finally there’s reciprocity, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, which pertains to the business-like tit-for-tat exchanges of goods and services that characterizes reciprocal altruism.

Now behavior that’s acceptable in one relationship type can be anomalous in another.

For example, at a drinks party you might go over to your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend and help yourself to a prawn off their plate, but you wouldn’t go up to your boss and help yourself to a prawn off his plate, because what you can get away with in a communality relationship you can’t get away with in a dominance relationship.

Likewise, at the end of a dinner party, if you pulled out your wallet and offered to pay the host for the dinner, that would not be perceived as fair, that would be perceived as crass, because of the clash between reciprocity, which is what would be appropriate, say, at a restaurant, and communality, which is what we deem appropriate among friends.

Now those are cases where everyone knows what’s appropriate, but in cases where the two sides aren’t sure that they’re on the same wavelength, a divergent understanding can lead to an unpleasant emotion, the one that we call awkwardness.

For example, there can be awkward moments in a workplace when an employee or a student doesn’t know whether to address a supervisor by their first name or to invite them out after work for a beer, because of the ambiguity as to whether their relationship is governed by dominance or friendship.

It’s a well-known bit of wisdom that good friends should not engage in a major business transaction, like one of them selling his car to the other.

The very act of negotiating a price can put a strain on the friendship, because what’s appropriate in a reciprocity relationship is not appropriate in a communality relationship.

The contrast between dominance and sex, as when a supervisor solicits sex from an employee, defines the battleground of sexual harassment.

And even the two kinds of communal relationship of friendship and sex give rise to the anxieties of dating.

One remaining problem, which is why we resort to indirectness even when there is no real uncertainty.

For example, when the listener knows the speaker’s intent.

People aren’t naive, and it’s hard to believe that any grown woman could be fooled by the line about the etchings.

Nonetheless, there is something that is more comfortable about asking to see etchings than asking for sex.

So what is going on there?

The deniability is not really plausible.

Why should an obvious innuendo still feel more comfortable than a direct overture that is in some sense on the record?

To illustrate the problem with a scene from the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, where in an early scene in the movie, Harry makes a remark that Sally interprets as sexual, and she accuses him of, you’re coming on to me.

So he says, well, what do you want me to do about it?

I take it back, okay?

I take it back.

She says, you can’t take it back.

Why not?

Because it’s already out there.

He says, oh, geez, what are we supposed to do, call the cops?

It’s already out there.

Well, what is the psychological status of an overture that we feel to be out there or on the record that makes it feel so much more awkward than a veiled overture that’s conveyed indirectly?

And I think a key to this paradox is a concept that economists and logicians call mutual knowledge, which they distinguish from individual knowledge.

In individual knowledge, A knows X and B knows X. In mutual knowledge, A knows X, B knows X, A knows that B knows X, B knows that A knows X, A knows that B knows that A knows X, ad infinitum.

And this is a difference that has profound consequences.

For example, why is freedom of assembly enshrined as a fundamental right in a democracy?

And why are political revolutions often triggered when a crowd gathers in a public square to challenge the president in his palace?

Well, it’s because when people were at home, everyone knew that they loathed the dictator, but no one knew that other people knew that they knew.

Once you assemble in a place where everyone can see everyone else, everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone else knows that the dictator is loathed, and that gives them the collective power to challenge the authority of the dictator, who otherwise could pick off dissenters one at a time.

Another example is that the emperor’s new clothes is a story about mutual knowledge.

When the little boy said the emperor is naked, he wasn’t telling anyone anything that they didn’t already know, anything that they couldn’t see with their own eyeballs.

He was nonetheless changing the state of their knowledge, because at that moment, everyone now knew that everyone else knew that everyone else knew.

Once again, that gave them the collective power to challenge the dominance of the emperor through their laughter.

The moral of the story is that explicit language is an excellent way of creating mutual knowledge.

Here’s the hypothesis.

Innuendos, even obvious ones, merely provide individual knowledge, whereas direct speech provides mutual knowledge, and relationships are maintained or nullified by a mutual knowledge of the relationship type.

If Harry were to say, would you like to come up and see my etchings, and Sally says no, then Sally knows that she’s turned down an overture, and Harry knows that she’s turned down a sexual overture, but does Sally know that Harry knows?

She could be thinking, maybe Harry thinks I’m naive.

And does Harry know that Sally knows that he knows?

He could be wondering, maybe Sally thinks I’m dense.

There’s no mutual knowledge, and they can maintain the fiction of friendship.

Whereas if Harry were to say, would you like to come up and have sex, and Sally turns him down, now Harry knows that Sally knows that Harry knows that Sally knows, they cannot maintain the fiction of a friendship.

And I think this is the basis for our intuition that with overt language, you can’t take it back.

It’s out there.