Do People Mean Everything They Say?

Well, do they? I’m not talking about figurative language or your “little white lies” or even the irreversible bullets that slip during arguments. At times, certain language is used to communicate meanings that do not match up with what is being said- and this is what pragmatics, a subfield of linguistics, is all about. 

The study of pragmatics revolves around language use within various contexts. We’re (somewhat subconsciously) familiar with ‘code-switching’ and altering the register we use when communicating depending on our audience and the purpose of the interaction. For example, you wouldn’t talk to your boss in a work meeting the same way you would your friend at a party. But is there more to it than just formality? Well, yes. Aside from observing political correctness, especially in more professional environments, we tend to not say what we mean as bluntly as we otherwise would in order to be ‘polite’ and to conform to the widely accepted social norms of spoken communication. Before we delve into the specifics of ‘polite’ speech and what is considered socially appropriate, it is worth examining why we use language in the first place. Surely, if it is worth looking at how we convey a message, the message itself must be of importance. 

Why do we use language?

As infinite as language is, and as limitless as the ideas we can push out into the world can be, most (if not all) of what we communicate can be sorted into one of seven groups. As learners of language for the very first time, children are great models of what the basics of language look like. And it was upon researching the purposes of speech children produce that Michael Halliday found the seven main functions of speech (which can be applied to adults too). They are:

  1. Imaginative, used to explore the imagination and play, e.g. wondering what would happen if the sky were a different colour
  2. Interactional, for developing social relationships and easing interactions, e.g. giving someone a compliment or engaging in conversation about their weekend
  3. Instrumental, to fulfil a need, e.g. ordering food (this applies more to children, as they rely on a caretaker for their basic needs)
  4. Representational, to exchange information, e.g. stating facts
  5. Regulatory, used to influence others’ behaviour through requests and demands, e.g. asking someone to shut the window
  6. Heuristic, for exploring the world and learning, e.g. looking at and commenting on a bird building its nest 
  7. Personal, used to express oneself, e.g. telling friends how you felt when you finally handed in that assignment you’ve been stressing about

In short, the most frequent types of language adults use narrow down to two: interactional and transactional language, and their purposes are to connect with others and to get things done with a specific purpose respectively. 

It is important to note, however, that neither is more important than the other and that all language carries purpose, even if the message is seemingly meaningless. In a BBC programme, as a guest star, David Crystal, British linguist, academic and author, gave the example of texting someone, “I am on a train”. He comments that this is an uninteresting and “trivial” thing to tell someone, but highlights that it still holds meaning, as the sender chose the recipient specifically- “They sent it to you. They’re thinking of you. For that moment in time, there’s that little rapport between you and that person…” and that that in itself can be very telling. This exemplifies how language could have one manifest function (in this case, to inform) and a latent one (to connect). It also pushes further the question… What else are we saying without actually saying?

The mismatch between speech and meaning

Has anyone ever approached you, dropped a “Y’alright?” and continued to walk straight past you without waiting for an answer? In the UK, that is a common way of greeting someone rather than an actual question, and tends to confuse non-British people who aren’t familiar with this norm. Expressions such as “Y’alright?” and “How’s it going?” are but examples of the many things we say without really meaning. Often, this type of language, along with other examples of small talk (such as your common mini-seminar about the weather and more recently, COVID-19), are categorised as “phatic communion”. Phatic expressions and small talk in general have widely received a bad rap for being too shallow or general. 

Despite how we all love to hate small talk, however, it serves a purpose greater than most are willing to give it credit for. In many scenarios, this kind of discourse is used to break the ice before the speakers delve into more thrilling and/or personal topics. Moreover, even if no real connection happens via verbal small talk, people can connect through unspoken language: body language and paralinguistic features, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, pitch, volume, the speed of a person’s speech and intonation, as the subconscious and instinctive is what we usually build our impressions on. 

Politeness, maxims and conversational face

As mentioned previously, a great part of the mismatch between what is said and what is meant occurs in an attempt to be polite. Paul Grice, philosopher of language, outlined principles, now known as Grice’s maxims, that allow for adequate communication and which align with the ‘cooperative principle’ that assumes that speakers mean what they say and that hearers will strive to understand their interlocutors. They are the maxims of quality, quantity, relation and manner and they make note of how the most successful conversations do not hold false information or unevidenced claims (quality), contain too much or too little information (quantity), offer irrelevant or off-topic talk (relevance) and are comprised of speech that is not obscure (ie, free of jargon or slang), unambiguous, brief and orderly (manner). 

Robin Lakoff integrated Grice’s work into her own, setting two basic rules of conversation: be clear (which is what Grice’s maxims revolve around) and be polite. Thus came her Politeness Principle. The politeness principle is, in short, an elaboration of her second conversational rule of politeness: don’t impose, give the receiver options and make the receiver feel good. For the first of these sub-rules, it is not uncommon to encounter ‘negative politeness’ through phrases such as, “If it’s not too much trouble…” in requests. The second sub-rule, giving the receiver options, does just that- for example, asking your host for “Green or black tea” when asked what you’d like to drink, as it allows your host the leeway to choose as they please. Asking someone what they’d like to do or whether they’d like to go first if you’re in a turn-taking situation also achieves the same goal. As for “make the receiver feel good”, simply show appreciation! Compliment the other person; if you’re asking for advice, tell them that you really appreciate their opinion, or slip in a “What would I do without you?” 

Geoffrey Leech introduced similar maxims of his own (known as the ‘politeness maxims’) to summarise and amalgamate all of the above. His four maxims of tact, generosity, approbation and modesty all follow a similar pattern: to minimise one thing to one party, while maximising another to the other. As a part of the tact maxim, one should minimise cost to other and maximise benefit to other; his generosity maxim: minimise benefit to self, maximise cost to self; approbation: minimise dispraise of other, maximise praise of other; and the modesty maxim: minimise praise of self, maximise dispraise of self. This concept of glorifying the other is present in Lakoff’s idea of “making the receiver feel good”, but his emphasis on self-effacing language and behaviour is designed in such a way that honours cultures previous research may have marginalised due to their being based solely on Western culture, as some of the above maxims and outlines are not present globally. 

To summarise all of the above, the core of all politeness is to honour your interlocutor, a notion which Brown and Levinson’s ‘conversational face’ theory secures. While the above maxims and conversational rules focus on describing and even prescribing speech norms and laws, Brown and Levinson sought to uncover the reason behind all of this, and, surely enough, it’s all about “saving face”. 

While the expression “to save face” hasn’t derived from this concept specifically, it is almost identical in its capturing of its essence. In truth, it’s all about identity and how we see ourselves, in this context, as conversationalists and as a part of a social group. This part of you is called your “conversational face”- or just “face”. There are two types of face, a positive one and a negative. The positive face embodies “an individual’s desire to be liked and to be approved of by the others”, while the negative refers more to the individual’s desire to ‘not be crossed’ and an individual’s freedom of action and freedom from imposition (for instance, by face-threatening acts). In conversation, we aim to keep ourselves and others away from face-threatening acts, which are anything that could appear to threaten the self-esteem of a speaker in conversation. To do this, we use positive and negative politeness, positive politeness being strategies that actively seek to minimise the threat to hearers’ self-esteem, while negative politeness avoids offending via showing deference. Positive politeness would sound like something along the lines of “Would you be so kind as to make me a cup of tea?”, whereas negative politeness would typically hold negation of some kind and/or an apology- “I’m terribly sorry but you wouldn’t mind making me a cup of tea, would you?”. 

Who even speaks like this?!

As you have probably already noticed, things are starting to sound exhausting, as though an act as simple as speaking has turned into a collection of hoops one must jump through- and do so perfectly, or risk a dreaded face-threatening act, but the truth is that these things often come naturally, especially when the context calls for it. Nevertheless, these speech patterns are more prevalent in certain demographics than others. 

To illustrate, in her research, Lakoff found that women are more likely to be polite and cooperative in conversation than men. Her findings show a trend among women in which they apologise more, use more ‘super-polite forms’, speak less frequently, curse and swear less, use more tag questions (such as “do you?” at the end of a sentence, thus involving their interlocutor) and “speak in italics”, i.e. use tone to add emphasis to certain words. Moreover, they were found to use more hedges (words that soften speech, such as “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”, etc) and more descriptive language than men, including “empty adjectives” (e.g. “divine”, “adorable”, “gorgeous”) and words like “really” and “very” to embellish their speech. Most interesting of all, however, is their use of indirect requests, such as commenting on how cold it is when they are actually asking for the windows to be shut or how thirsty they are when they, in fact, want a drink. Before jumping to conclusions, it is crucial to note that these linguistic ‘quirks’- especially ones found in large social groups- are due to socialisation, making linguistics and sociology interrelated fields; but this brings in another question: if so many people aren’t saying what they really mean, why is that- and what have we done as a society to cause a whole group of humans to feel forced to speak a certain way?

A modern twist

This kind of speech isn’t just limited to women though; it is a common and very human thing to care about one’s image and have that shine through in one’s speech. As a matter of fact, you do it too- and not just in formal situations, as noted prior. While you may not use these exact forms of language, hedges are a feature of language everyone uses- young people in casual settings included! By using ‘crutch’ words (in a grammatically incorrect way) such as “basically”, “literally” and “actually”, you can add a conversational and colloquial tone to your speech without even having to use slang. The same applies to modal language and elisions, which is the shortening and merging of a word and/or syllables, such as “gotta” instead of “got to”, “kinda” and “‘know what I mean?” (this last one doubles as a tag question too). Through hedging, we create a calmer environment in which we can negotiate informally and disagree while still being “chill”. (In other words, we may not say exactly everything we mean, but that doesn’t make it all “cap” either.)

What’s even more interesting is the fact that not all hedges or all that is ‘implied rather than plainly said’ needs to be spoken. Texting is an ever-dynamic form of communication, and thus, language specific to texting can go through semantic change. Usage of “lol” used to be exclusive to funny or at least humorous situations, but now, sticking “lol” at the end of a text can milden the whole tone- or, on the contrary, make it sound passive aggressive, depending on the texters and the conversation. In fact, “lol” has become so versatile that it is now used when people text each other about their inconveniences. John McWhorter comments on this and calls the modern “lol” “a marker of empathy- a marker of accomodation”. 

He also notes that text indeed has alternatives for paralinguistic features, like the ones commonly used to switch a subject of conversation- he gives the amusing example of replacing the face-to-face “patting your thighs and looking wistfully into the distance” with texting the word “Slash”. 

Nevertheless, there have been very recent changes to internet language that are specific to the virtual realm. One such fascinating trend is the ironic use of star, heart, blushing and/or fairy emojis. While these used to be ‘cutesy’ things with positive connotations, they are now being used sarcastically along with brutal comments, at first in TikTok comments sections, but now, virtually everywhere. This not only adds a shamefully deep sense of satire to the tone of the comment, but it is also comical in how incongruous a tiny, smiling fairy looks right next to texts of verbal abuse nobody should be sending or receiving. Regardless, it is a brilliant although scarring example of how language (extending as far as emojis too) is ours to decide how to use, and how things do not always mean what they seem to from the first glance.

The Verdict 

We’ve seen how indirect language and even text forms can say or appear to say one thing, yet mean another, be it for the sake of politeness or its polar opposite. But if the message gets across anyway, aren’t people saying what they mean? Upon getting asked whether the world would be a much better place if people just said what they mean, linguist Deborah Tannen gave an unexpected and groundbreaking response: 

“We do. We say what we mean, but we say it by our own conversational style and using the conversational rituals that have come to us to seem self-evidently right.”

Deborah Tannen discussing gender-specific language rituals.

At its core, language is for communication- and there are endless ways of doing that, but it’s essentially up to you to decide what you do with the options you have, keeping the context and social signals you’re sending out in mind.

Leave a Reply