Jeffrey Paul: On Communicating Accurately With Americans

Jeffrey Paul

On Communicating Accurately With Americans
1 December 2019
( 1836 words, approximately a 10 minute read. )

“I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms—or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality.”

— George Carlin

I’ve come to notice a phenomenon that I only seem to encounter in the United States. (It’s possible this happens elsewhere, but I can only speak to my own limited experience.) I find it fascinating, because it’s the only case where I have seen intelligibility meaningfully break down between groups of speakers of a language that share grammar and lexicon! Perhaps the linguists among you can write to me and tell me how I’m incorrect.

Perhaps it’s due to the increased reverence and respect paid toward euphemism1 in the US, but it’s common for people there to communicate primarily by implication rather than by direct statements, even when they may potentially contradict. It’s become so prevalent and commonplace as to be the default: if you speak directly, what will be heard by your listeners is whatever your statements are presumed to imply, not what is actually stated—regardless of whether or not those implications are intended or not. It is extremely disconcerting for someone not fully steeped in this type of culture.

I think it comes as an outgrowth of the American mode of communication where direct, plain statements are assiduously avoided: the normal way of speaking is to first estimate what your listener will presume and formulate a statement that says something orthogonal, but will be presumably received as directly indicating the unsaid thing: e.g. “That doesn’t look great on you”, knowing that the listener will make the assumption that you were attempting to communicate “that looks bad”, despite the speaker saying no such thing. Sometimes it can be explained as an attempt to be polite, by custom-crafting a euphemism intended to express concern for the emotions of the listener, but due to the impossibility of fully comprehending the mind of another, this semi-frequently has the opposite effect, as the “presumed implication” of a statement can vary wildly based on time, place, listener, and speaker.

The California Yes

This doesn’t pose much of a problem in a lot of cases, but when discussing matters that require accuracy, a lot of ambiguity has to be addressed. It’s very common for both parties to converse in this oblique mode, viz:

Speaker 1: “Do you want to come over tomorrow?” (Will you be present at my house tomorrow?)

Speaker 2: “Yeah!” (I’d wish to, time and convenience permitting, but can make no promises about whether or not that will actually happen.)

This leads naturally to what I’ve come to call the “California Yes”: seeming to agree to a social appointment in plain words, but intending to express only the desire to attend (as to not disappoint the asker), but decidedly not a commitment to do so.

In some weird coincidence, they’ve both wrapped around to 180 degrees of what is being said and the exchange makes logical sense again, if viewed through the lens of literal interpretation: “Yes, I do want to come over tomorrow.”

Common Issues

This leads to a very common issue with listeners tuned to this mode of conversation when encountering someone who does not communicate this way, due to circumstance, habit, differing local culture, or personal choice: when direct statements are made and interpreted, a spurious assumption will be instantly generated as to the implication (and intended meaning) of those statements, and, most importantly, the listener will believe that those implications are the intended statement! This can, in the worst cases, be catastrophic, but is usually just a standard miscommunication akin to “talking at cross-purposes”.

Personal Experience

Feedback I recently received:

So, if it is not intentional, then you should really re-read not just what you wrote, but how everyone reacted to what you wrote. the way you write definitely comes across as very antagonistic and with the intention of causing conflict. whenever someone makes a point, you seem to react to a very specific, narrow, and marginal interpretation of that point, seemingly at odds with what they actually intended.

I personally find this rather frustrating, as someone who embraces precise communication: frequently, what I choose not to say is on equal footing of importance of what I do communicate. This leads to a chronic issue where listeners inaccurately infer my meaning or intent (often in direct contravention of what I have plainly stated) based on their own assumptions of my state of mind or intent when making the statement, which are almost always fundamentally at odds with what I am truly thinking or feeling. Their map doesn’t match the territory, and instead of focusing on the data that they do have (what has been stated plainly), they plow ahead with the inaccurate interpolation, substituting speculation for fact. Sometimes I find myself repeating myself, which is itself a gamble: occasionally people find it exceptionally patronizing and antagonistic.

The important part of all of this is that the listener is not consciously aware of this process. The communication that they heard, orthogonal or even contradictory as it may be to what was actually stated, is, to their comprehension, what the speaker was actually intending to communicate. It’s entirely automatic, and happens naturally below the level of conscious processing. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Anecdote

I vacationed in Mexico a few years ago. Upon landing, everyone aboard the aircraft queued for the Mexican government’s customs and immigration checkpoint with their luggage. Several hundred people snaked through an array of tension barriers toward plexiglass windows staffed by uniformed men wearing body armor and carrying light carbines.

A middle-aged white American woman and her companion were in the line behind me, and despite appearing to be vacationing, seemed in a terrible rush. Several times she closed the distance between us, banging into my wheeled hand luggage next to me.

Now, in normal circumstances I wouldn’t say a word to someone being rude in a queue, however, those present circumstances mandated that my freedom and indeed even my physical safety hinged upon maintaining sole and exclusive control over my luggage and being able to testify to same just a few minutes later.

The third time it happened, I turned to her, and, as politely as possible said:

Excuse me, ma’am. It seems to me that you’re in a hurry. I don’t know how long this line will take, however, I am reasonably certain that it will take the same amount of time for you to reach the head of it whether you stand 5, 1, or zero meters away from my bag, so I must request that you please stop touching it.

To her, this was a rude and aggressive statement, and she responded abusively. I think perhaps her assumption was that I intended to belittle her, versus my actual intention of reminding her that she could stand back as far as she wishes and use as much space as we both would like with no time or queue length penalty.

Other Cases

“Conflict” has as one of its definitions “a serious disagreement”, but I think that that may be slightly inaccurate. If I have a new friend or acquaintance who happens to be, for example, a practitioner of Islam, and they say to me “There is no god but Allah” and I say “I don’t believe things that cannot be detected or measured can be said to exist”, we very obviously disagree on some fundamental things about the universe, but these statements alone, made serially, do not constitute an argument or conflict (other than perhaps a purely logical/philosophical one)—certainly not, in isolation, a personal or social conflict. I can think them a ridiculous theist and they can think me a misguided infidel, and we can still be good friends and show each other mutual respect and collaborate and conversate.

However, in the American mode of social interpretation, following one statement with the other very strongly appends an implicit “…and I think you must be wrong/mistaken/bad” at the end of either one if you don’t happen to agree with that particular worldview (bless your heart). Appending perceived implication onto each statement in this way can easily escalate a simple matter of getting to know another person’s belief system (and share your own) into what seems a bitter debate, even though no such adversarial intent or implication is stated—or intended.

Blameless Postmortem

It’s easy to say “well, if you’re speaking, and you intend to communicate X, and your listener hears Y, then you, the speaker, have failed to communicate.” I even think there’s some credit to the argument. But, let’s attempt to be objective here: if you say “X” but “Y” is heard as your statement, and “Z” is what must actually be said to imply “X” for “X” to be heard (but you must guess at the Z-to-X mapping based on an imperfect model of the listener’s mind), then it’s not a failure of the speaker as much as a bad system of communication.

I, personally, opt out. I prefer to plainly state what I mean. Some may incorrectly assume aggression, antagonism, arrogance. I will not blame the listener, but I will blame the system of interpretation that they have adopted. After all, I know plenty of Americans (myself included) that have intentionally opted out of this imprecise mode, either for speaking, for listening, or both.

Solutions

There are a few possible solutions to this problem.

I wish it were reasonable to tell people to listen or read more carefully to what is actually being said. It is possible, of course, to make an attempt to estimate the listener’s interpretation of the implication of a given statement, and craft a statement that points at the true meaning without stating it. The extremely lossy and error-prone nature of such an undertaking is evident.

It was recently said to me “and if everyone else is reacting the same, perhaps you are not behaving by commonly accepted rules and interpretations.”

I think that’s the issue right there: the “commonly accepted interpretations” of American communication are themselves trending toward imprecision and implication, and I deliberately avoid this.

Instead, I choose to educate people on an alternative mode: plain speech. Make sure you are reading what is written, and be consciously aware of what takeaways from that are a) supported by the text or speech, b) implied by the text or speech, and c) assumed by yourself.

In the oft-ignored parlance of Wikipedia’s guidelines: assume good faith.


Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

  1. US english commonly uses “go to the rest room”, as the statement “use the toilet” is slightly vulgar to native speakers. Other oft-cited examples are “african-american” for “black”, “passed away” for “died”, et c. 

About The Author

Jeffrey Paul is a hacker and security researcher living in Berlin and the founder of EEQJ, a consulting and research organization.

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