Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Does conversation skirt the border of incomprehensibility?

Here’s an interesting post by Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex: CONVERSATION DELIBERATELY SKIRTS THE BORDER OF INCOMPREHENSIBILITY

Alexander starts off by quoting a post about autism and the problem with taking comments and questions literally when they aren’t meant that way:

If a neurotypical asks you, “What game are you playing?” they’re not asking you to describe the game.

They’re asking you if they can play too.

If a neurotypical asks you, “What are you watching?” they’re not asking you to explain the plot of the movie/tv show to them.

They’re asking if they can watch it with you.

Then Alexander says:

I don’t think this is always true – and when it is I would describe it as more of an open-ended attempt to start a fun conversation than a demand for participation – but I agree that it’s not just a straightforward request for information.

And there was some interesting discussion about this on Autistic Tumblr, which centered around: why would someone do this? Why can’t people just say what they mean?

And the best answer I saw – sorry, I can’t find it right now – explained that people were trying to spare their friends the burden of rejecting them. Say Alice is reading a book, and Bob asks “Hey, do you want to talk about that book?” Maybe Alice doesn’t want to talk about it. But the following conversation…

Bob: Hey, you want to talk to me about that book?
Alice: No

…sounds really rude. So by Bob saying his line, he’s putting a lot of subtle pressure on Alice to agree. Bob is a good person and he doesn’t want to do that. So instead he asks “Hey, what are you reading?”

Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
Alice: Not much. Just some random novel.
Bob: Oh, well, enjoy!

Apparently it’s important in conversation to provide plausible deniability for everyone, thus avoiding making people explicitly reject each other.

Bob has to operate as close to the border of “inscrutable confusingness” as possible without crossing it. He wants Alice to know he wants to talk to her, but he doesn’t want Alice to know that he knows she knows he wants to talk to her …. As long as Alice doesn’t know he knows she knows he wants to talk to her, Alice can give a non-answer, pretending that she believes Bob will believe that she just didn’t realize he wanted to talk to her.

And not only that, but if conversational cues become too well understood, everyone has to step a little farther into confusingness in order to get back to this situation where everyone enjoys plausible deniability and no one knows for sure what anybody means, and it’s quite tiring even to think about it, really. No wonder people who operate a bit more literally have trouble.

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