Why Explicit Language is an Excellent Way of Creating Mutual Knowledge

Mutual Knowledge vs individual knowledgeLanguage reveals and subtly shapes the ways the human mind makes sense of the world. This is true of body language, which affects how others see us and how we see ourselves as social psychologist Amy Cuddy's research demonstrates. When it comes to what we say, things become a little more complex.

A leading authority on language and the mind, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker says language is a window into human nature, and thus into social relations. In the RSA animate below, Steven Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings.

He starts by providing the example of a scene in the movie Fargo. A kidnapper has a hostage tied in the back of the seat of a car. Alas the police pulls him over as he's missing his plates. When the police officer asks to see his driver's license, along with it, the fugitive opens his wallet with a $50 bill slightly protruding.

Fargo sceneThe audience and presumably the officer recognize this as a veiled bribe. Pinker says:

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 our listener will read between the lines and infer our real intent.

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

We speak indirectly to each other, often alluding to what we mean to say. Why say: if you would pass the guacamole that would be awesome,” when we really mean “pass the guacamole.” The answer lies in our complex social brain: and our desire to get on with others by removing the power implications of a direct order.

A polite request?We can find many examples of indirect language in business settings. Why say: we're counting on you to show leadership in our campaign for the future,” when we really mean “give us money.Pinker calls it euphemistic schnorring.

Give us moneyThe next example is probably as old as human race and fairly self-explanatory.

Would you like to see my etchings?

Yet it does set the stage for asking a bigger question:

Why are bribes, requests, seductions, solicitations, threats so often veiled when presumably both parties know exactly what they mean?

Pinker says language has to do two things:

  1. it's got to convey some content — such as a bribe, a command, a proposition
  2. at the same time, it's got to negotiate e relationship type

The solution is to use language at two levels:

by using the literal form, we signal the 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.

Request without expectation

Politeness in the guacamole request above is a simple example. 

Anthropologist Alan Fiske says there are only three major relationship types across the world's cultures:

  1. dominance – whose logic is “don't mess with me
  2. communality – where we share and share alike, evolved from kin selection and mutualism. Extended, for example, spouses and close friends
  3. reciprocity – as in “you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours,and pertains to business-like tit for tat exchanges of goods and services that characterizes reciprocal altruism

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

Behaviors don't cross over from one relationship type to another. It might be acceptable for a husband to pick at the food plate of his wife at a party. Something we would likely not do with a boss. Relationship type determines appropriateness.

What happens when the two sides are not sure they are on the same wavelength? Pinker says ambiguity between dominance and friendship creates a divergent understanding that can lead to an unpleasant emotion, the one we call awkwardness.

Circling back to the example of the veiled sexual overture, the central question is:

Why do we resort to indirectness when there is no real uncertainty?

For example when the listener knows the speaker's intent.

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

The key to this paradox is a concept that economists and logicians call mutual knowledge as distinct from individual knowledge.

The difference in one person knowing that the other person knows something has profound consequences. Take for example, the difference between freedom of assembly — a fundamental right in a democracy — and political revolutions triggered when crowds gather in a public square.

If people are in a place where they can see that everyone else is also there for the same reasons, when everyone knows that everyone knows, collective power forms. Caesar's “divide et impera (divide and rule) comes to mind.

Another story of mutual knowledge Pinker brings up is that of the emperor's new clothes. Changing the state of everyone's knowledge gives people the collective power to (in this case) challenge the dominance of the emperor. The moral of the story, says Pinker:

is that explicit knowledge creates mutual knowledge.

The hypothesis then is that:

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

Which allows people to maintain the fiction of however they define their relationship. Because when something is “already out there you can't take it back.

Watch the RSA edited version of the video below.