Just Saying What You Mean is Impossible

Response to: Conversation Deliberately Skirts the Border of Incomprehensibility (SlateStarCodex)

“Why don’t people just say what they mean?”

They can’t.

I don’t mean they don’t want to. I don’t mean that they choose not to. I don’t even mean they have been socially conditioned not to. I mean they literally have no way to do the thing. 

I don’t even mean that they don’t know how in some sense, that they have not realized the possibility. It is literally impossible to “just” say what you mean. With work, you can mostly just say what you mean, but even that is hard. 

This is because humans are not automatically strategic or automatically scientific but by default humans are automatically doing lightning fast implicit probabilistic analysis on social information in the background of every moment of their lives. Most of them would not describe it that way, but that is a thing that is going on.

So let’s take the example that starts the quote in Scott’s article: Bob is watching a television show and Alice asks what he is watching.

My experience says that most of the time, this primarily really is a request for information. Alice wants to know what show Bob is watching.

It also raises the probability that Alice will want to watch the show with Bob, conditional on what show Bob is watching; there is even a chance that Alice knows what show it is, and is using the question to open the conversation for this purpose. Certainly, this would be a reasonable thing to do, were Alice potentially interested in watching with Bob. Alice could also simply be making conversation, and want something else entirely. For all we know, she just wants to make a new friend, or plans to distract him and stab him with a knife.

Alice is providing at least very weak evidence in favor of those possibilities, and many others, while providing evidence against everything else.

That doesn’t mean Alice wanted to send all of those messages, but whichever one Alice had in mind, there was no way for her to send only that message – any other thing she could have said would also have had lots of likelihood ratios attached to it.

Then, in turn, Bob’s response does all of these same things. Telling Alice what the show is gives her that information, which may or may not have been what she wanted. It also indicated that Bob was willing to talk to Alice and to spend minimal effort to give her information, and the tone and detail of how he did that will also be information. It also means Bob turned down the opportunity to interact in some other way, which is information.

The majority of the time, Alice primarily wanted to know what Bob was watching, but to find out, she had no choice but to send out a message with all these other implications as well. Bob was happy to provide the name of the show, but in doing so is also leaking tons of information, no matter how he does it.

There is no such thing as someone just saying what they mean in a normal social context. None.

None of that requires any ulterior motives on Alice or Bob’s part, either selfish or selfless. Alice and Bob can both want to have the literal ask-then-answer interaction on its own level with no implications, but that only happens if at least one of them is blindly throwing out tons of evidence that humans do not naturally throw out.

If Alice is sufficiently blind to social cues and these sorts of implications (no need to put a label on this) and Bob knows this then Alice can ask not knowing about the other implications of the question, and Bob can know that Alice doesn’t know those implications, which in turn means that Bob only has to update on the information that Alice wants to know what show Bob is watching enough to ask Bob for that information, and Bob can then answer knowing that Alice won’t update on the fact that Bob is answering, so Bob doesn’t have to worry about the other implications of what Alice is saying, so no information leaks from either side and you can have a ‘clean’ transaction born of a combination of ignorance and knowledge of that ignorance (the reverse case, or both being blind to cues, also work).

Mostly. You still can’t actually get the name of the show without Bob updating on the fact that Alice asked the question, and Alice updating on Bob being willing to answer. You can only contain that effect.

That’s the best case scenario for isolated communication, where everyone involved wants it to happen, and isn’t worried at all about putting someone else in an awkward situation or needing to make sure the other party has an easy way out or what not. In the normal case you are completely screwed.

Of course, when I say completely screwed, I mean forced to engage in all of this hyper-rich communication with lots of detail and implication that allows the parties involved to accomplish a lot with few words and little time. If all of the moves available to you chance a thousand variables, that is both blessing and curse, and the better you know the game and the other players, the more the game becomes efficient and positive-sum.

The option you do not have, unless you want to take your ball and go home, is not to play.





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23 Responses to Just Saying What You Mean is Impossible

  1. John Nerst says:

    I think this is broadly correct, although I’d object that its usually possible to be more or less clear even if perfect clarity (complete formalization) is impossible.

    The fact that all verbal statements comes with an “aura” of indirect messages whether we like it or not is, I suspect, one of the reasons online discourse is so often terrible.

    When there is barely any context and no social cues or personal history, we default to stereotypes, clichés and self-serving preconceptions to interpret what others say (“just saying something like that makes you one of THOSE people”). Instead of using knowledge about a person to interpret their words we use our preferred interpretation of their words to interpret who they are, causing us to interpret further statements by the same people or even others who say similar things in line with that. It’s a vicious cycle. Hell, I even do this myself even though I try no to.

    Ideally we should only engage with the direct words of others and not make assumptions but that’s impossible for the reasons you give. It wouldn’t be so bad if there was at least some mutual good will and charity in most interactions, but when there aren’t things predictably turn bad. I don’t know how to fix it.

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  3. Peter Gerdes says:

    I appreciate the point that every time we communicate our interlocutors will take that communication as evidence for a variety of things that we have no control over.

    However, when you say that its impossible to “just say what you mean” you are confusing the meaning of our language and the inferences one is likely to draw from it. If its april fools day and I tell you “I left a piece of cake for you in the fridge. Feel free to have it.” you might suspect that my motives are to position you for a prank I have planned but that doesn’t change the fact that the *content* of my statement is only that there is cake in the fridge and you can have it.

    I think a fair interpretation of the extortion “just say what you mean” is: please ensure that the actual content of your statement includes whatever message you *intend* for me to understand you to be communicating (and perhaps doesn’t include any message you don’t intend for me to infer). In other words it was never a demand that the inferences you draw because I made the statement exactly match the inferences I want you to draw.

    So when Alice asks “What TV show are you watching?” and doesn’t intend that Bob understand this as a request to join she is “just saying what she means” *even if* she asked the question in the hope Bob will invite her to join. Note that even though Alice’s statement is made with an ulterior motive (getting invited to join) this doesn’t cause autisticish (bad description but everyone uses it) individuals any problem. If Bob doesn’t realize that Alice would like an invitation and simply answers the question Alice might be disappointed and she might even be upset that Bob isn’t sufficently attuned to her feelings to suspect that if she asked about the show she might want to watch but she won’t be offended that Bob snubbed her or understand his response as saying ‘No, you can’t watch with me’ since she didn’t intend he understand it as such a request.

    However, Alice might ask “What TV show are you watching?” not merely thinking it might raise Bob’s probability she wants to watch with him but also communicating the non-literal content of “can I watch too?” In such cases not only does one have the harms mentioned above but adds the additional harm that Alice will feel offended/snubbed at being rejected since she understands her initial question to communicate (not merely potentially make salient) a request to join him. (Though of course in the real world the distinction between these two cases can be somewhat vague/fuzzy I do believe there is a genuine psychological difference in how we treat these two cases not merely a continuous scale based on how strongly we expect an utterance to affect someone’s probabilities).

    You are correct that it is impossible to avoid the issue inherent in the first example. People can’t include all the effects they hope their utterance will have on the listener’s probabilities in the explicit content. However, it isn’t impossible to avoid the second situation (though in practice normal humans won’t) and ensure that all the content you take a communication to have is conveyed via the literal meaning of the words. This doesn’t really change the practical implications of your point but I do think it behooves us to separate the effect we hope a statement will have and the content we ascribe to it.

    • Peter Gerdes says:

      Oops when I said “I think a fair interpretation of the extortion “just say what you mean” is: please ensure that the actual content of your statement includes whatever message you *intend* for me to understand you to be communicating (and perhaps doesn’t include any message you don’t intend for me to infer). ”

      I should have said “literal content of your statement” not actual content of your statement though even that is a little confusing since I don’t mean that it can’t involve metaphorical language but I think the distinction I intend here is clear enough.

    • Peter Gerdes says:

      And “doesn’t cause autisticish individuals any harm” should have been doesn’t cause them any *extra* harm over and above the harm they might receive if Alice gets angry they aren’t paying attention to her feelings.

    • TheZvi says:

      I agree that “just say what you mean” can still have useful and worthwhile content, despite the fact that you can’t actually convey only and exactly the thing you want to convey. It is still sometimes the right thing to say, in a given context.

      I don’t actually think we disagree much about what is going on.

      • Peter Gerdes says:

        Yes, and to the extent it seemed like I was disagreeing that was my bad for poor writing.

        I was mostly just trying to make a narrow technical point about distinguishing the meaning of an utterance from things the audience will impute about the speaker since I felt that a natural misunderstanding of your post would be to identify the two. Not because I disagree with the points you were making but just because I think this is an important and useful distinction.

  4. noumenon72 says:

    Fix the typo in the first italicized phrase, it kills the emphasis when you have to stop to figure it out.

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  6. waltonmath says:

    Hm, this is maybe one reason why talking to kids is so delightful. You don’t have to manage as much in your head.

    On a different note, when ideas like “just saying what you mean is impossible” come to my conscious attention in a conversation, they seem to make everything feel harder. “Oh no!”, I think, “Where’s my control?” I guess I want to understand all the calculations I’m doing while they’re being done, which probably doesn’t make sense (I think it leads to an infinite regress, maybe you can use self-reference to get out of it?).

    • TheZvi says:

      One thing I do appreciate when talking to my son is all the layers of what I am saying that he totally 100% does not get. It always makes me smile; I have Slack there to play with the form. So that resonates a lot.

      The analysis paralysis problem is real, you can almost think of that instinct as out to get you in a way that requires compactness in the moment, and getting got pretty good in between takes when you have time, at least if you’re one of us. I think you need to cultivate good instincts/virtues/habits in these spots, and then trust your instincts (mostly) to carry you through. They’re designed for this, and trying to do it all consciously with raw G is Shut-Up-And-Do-The-Impossible level hard.

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  8. Elenor says:

    “However, Alice might ask “What TV show are you watching?” not merely thinking it might raise Bob’s probability she wants to watch with him but also communicating the non-literal content of “can I watch too?” In such cases not only does one have the harms mentioned above but adds the additional harm that Alice will feel offended/snubbed at being rejected since she understands her initial question to communicate (not merely potentially make salient) a request to join him.”

    Perhaps y’all know and ignore/discard/don’t find worthy of mentioning, but in general — and, I’d suggest, by biology — when a woman asks another woman “what show are you watching?” — the assumption (for both) is that, unless the watching-woman truly does not want company, she will automatically extend an invitation to watch. This is a very common cross-sex ‘problem’ — because there are huge sex-linked differences in communication. (Suzette Hadyn Elgin, esp. her “Gentle Art of…” series; Deborah Tannen, etc.; and not the ‘feminist implication/explanation bits’ {eyeroll} — but the real science/experimentation they report.)

    E.g., a study showing that boys and men, left to wait in a room “before the experiment starts” will generally draw two chairs to face the same direction and their topics of discussion can generally be put in the basket of ‘doing’: what they have done, what they will be doing, what they saw a sports team do. Two girls or women, generally, will draw chairs to face each other and discuss people and feelings (this show, that book, this incident in the news (and how it felt); things that are or might be emotively provocative). (Bastardized explanation; but the general idea.)

    So, women (generally, unless tipped to this sex-linked stuff) won’t (directly) ask: “can I watch the TV with you?” She will ask “what are you watching?” — unconsciously ASSUMING the watching-person will invite her to join (because “of course” she would invite the other). This (generally/often) causes ‘connection’ between women, and ‘friction’ cross-sex.

    • TheZvi says:

      So she’ll feel snubbed by simply getting the information requested, never asking if she can join? That’s obviously valid to some extent – if he actively wanted her to join he would likely have asked, and he didn’t, so she was snubbed at least somewhat. I wouldn’t want to take that too far. What’s surprising to me is, if women are this tuned into such dynamics, that they don’t pick up on the differences in behaviors, and adjust their reactions accordingly.

      The study is interesting to me because the two people drawing chairs and talking, at all, is surprising to me. Not that it would never happen, but by default I would assume both people would be on their phones. But that’s likely just because the study is old, and people didn’t used to bring books with them, so I guess people were that bored. The follow-up weirdness is that to me the experiment itself is obviously the thing you’d talk about, and starting anywhere else seems odd….

  9. Elenor says:

    “So she’ll feel snubbed by simply getting the information requested, never asking if she can join? ”

    Yes of course — because (in girl-brain) it’s polite to see if the person wants to be alone. And a girl would invite you to join, because she appreciates the consideration that maybe she doesn’t want someone to join her (or she’d say, “no sorry, I’m watching this show for homework” or whatever). You wouldn’t just intrude without making sure it’s okay! He wouldn’t ‘actively ask her to join’ — because, generally, men NEVER state the obvious… (Drives women nuts, cause “it ain’t obvious to US!”) To a man, it’s obvious that he was fine with her joining him (indeed, he might even prefer her to join him) but why would he say so? She ‘should already know’ that he’s happy to have her join him! (Alison Armstrong – -brilliant relationship educator — says “men are calorie-conservers” — they only spend calories when they sense it’s worth their while. “Saying the obvious” usually isn’t — they believe — because another man would already know cause: “It’s obvious!” Not necessarily to a woman!)

    I’m reminded of a little girl I knew who married (in her early 20s) and was having a problem; not sure he was a good choice because she wanted to be doing things with her new husband. So, she’d be embroidering or knitting or whatever, next to him on the couch, as he was watching TV… And she was feeling ignored and snubbed and like maybe he didn’t want to be with her. So, she’d get up to go somewhere else, and he’d say” don’t leave! I like having you here.” I pointed out that — for a man — sitting in the same room, doing two completely different things, *separately*, WAS ‘doing things together’! (There’s probably not a woman on the planet who sees it that way; but it’s how men view the world.) I told her if she wanted to “do things together” — she needed to pick one and invite him to join. (Preferably not during the Superbowl!) (Worked out great; helped the marriage.)

  10. Elenor says:

    “What’s surprising to me is, if women are this tuned into such dynamics, that they don’t pick up on the differences in behaviors, and adjust their reactions accordingly.”

    Oh, and Alison Armstrong also uses this:
    Women view men — that is — attribute to men the same motivations and decisions/choices that another woman would make, because they view men as “big hairy women who misbehave.” (And, of course, men always behave like men — so: “big hairy women *who misbehave*.”) MEN view women as emotionally overwrought men without honor (that’s not Armstrong’s actual phrasing, I can’t remember it at the moment — but the big-hairy-men phrasing is accurate. The other is my phrasing for her concept.)

    (Emmerson Eggerichs — also excellent — says men have blue hearing aids, blue megaphones, and blue sunglasses; women have pink ones. So a man says something through a blue megaphone, and the woman hears it through pink hearing aids! (oops!) I recommend his book — despite his Christian basis — because he also includes all the science and experimentation that correlates with the Biblical direction. I’m not religious and still reccie his book to everyone!)

    Unless (and until) women are tipped to this stuff (as I was not till I married and became a relationship educator), they only know to “adjust their reactions” to be more “pink.” And that only makes the men’s “blue” perceptions (and attempts to interact) worse! And yes, it’s mostly the women who need to learn — and adjust — because we can! Lots of my counselees would whine: “well, *I* will change when he does!” Nope. This ‘relationship mgmt’ is a girl-thing. It’s amazingly helpful if the man will get educated a bit in this stuff and discover that men and women really ARE different, so the men will be able to give the women a break! (Why do you think the active destruction of our civilization and the nuclear family is pushed by blinding us to the once-common knowledge that men and women are SO different?!)

    My late husband was brilliant at advising our foster daughter — and her suitor, later husband — on making the adjustments necessary for a relationship across the sexes. (He’d had some years practice with me: “taming his feral female,” he called it!) (Yeah, WE called it… ) He was, however, finally put off and discouraged because she wouldn’t accept and act on his (obvious!) advice. The fellow was willing, and was pretty good at working on the relationship/marriage, because he really did want it to succeed. Example: she wanted him to join her in recycling cardboard (she was a bit of an eco-nut). He was perfectly willing to indulge her by doing so (as was my husband, at my request! ). That was not enough for her, she wanted — she insisted! — that he had to WANT to recycle cardboard for the same reasons she wanted to; and not merely to indulge her. {sigh} And, alas, after a year of advising her (and him) BEFORE they married — we insisted, urged, demanded, plead that she NOT marry him, cause it was NOT going to work — he was sad but had to divorce her after one year. He was and is a good guy — but not capable of bending himself into a pretzel to make her ‘happy’ … as if any nutty liberal can ever reach ‘happy.’

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