Cracking the Code

People say one thing but mean something else

Posted Mar 06, 2015

In the 2014 film The Imitation Game, the young Alan Turing is flummoxed by human interactions. “When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean,” he laments to his only friend, Christopher. “They say something else and you’re expected to just know what they mean.”

During World War II, the grown Alan Turing led the team that cracked the Enigma code. For the last years of the war, the British not only heard what the Germans were saying over the wireless, they knew what it meant.

Alan Turing
Source: Wikipedia

A couple of decades later, the philosophers of language J. L. Austin and John Searle were influential in shifting the then common view of language as primarily a mechanism for transmitting information to a new perspective of language as a social activity. Together, they developed speech act theory, which posits that the value of an utterance lies not in the literal meaning of its words but rather in the intention of the speaker and the effect it has on the listener.

Imagine a family dinner with Mom, Dad, Daughter, and Son. Dad looks at Daughter and says, “Could you pass me the salt?” Daughter replies, “Yes, I could,” and continues eating. Mom casts an angry glance at Daughter and gives a disapproving grunt. Son rolls his eyes and hands poor Dad the salt.

If we judge utterances by their literal truth value, this father-daughter exchange should be deemed a communicative success. Dad inquired about Daughter’s ability to pass the salt, and Daughter responded truthfully. However, if we think in terms of speech acts, this exchange carries an entirely different set of meanings.

Dad’s intention behind his utterance was a request, even though there’s nothing in the literal meaning of what he said to suggest this. By responding to Dad’s literal as opposed to intended meaning, Daughter has communicated something about her current emotional state. (Dad’s a dolt, this family is stupid, or something like that.)

National Cancer Institute / Wikimedia Commons
An everyday event fraught with the danger of misunderstanding
Source: National Cancer Institute / Wikimedia Commons

When the literal and intended meanings don’t match, the result is an indirect speech act. Although it seems counterproductive to say one thing and mean another, social constraints often compel us to do so.

At the family dinner table, Dad politely used an indirect request, which gives Daughter a way out by interpreting the utterance literally. Of course, social norms dictate interpreting the request according to its intended, not literal, meaning. But Daughter flouts the norm. Given the social dynamics in this family, Dad may have gotten a better result from a direct request like “Pass the salt.”

Building on the work of Austin and Searle, philosopher of language Paul Grice added to speech act theory by proposing the Cooperative Principle. In a nutshell, this is the proposal that speakers should follow social norms to tailor their utterances to fit the current needs of the conversation.

It’s important to understand that Grice isn’t describing how conversation actually works or making prescriptions for improving communication. Rather, what he means by the Cooperative Principle is that any violation of the principle is meaningful. That is, as listeners we take what the speaker says at face value unless we have reason to suspect the literal and intended messages don’t match. This suspicion then triggers thought processes that lead to inferences about what the speaker really meant.

When Dad politely asked, “Could you pass the salt?” he violated the Cooperative Principle by not being clear and unambiguous. This doesn’t mean he violated the rules of conversation. Rather, the ambiguity signals the listener to look for an underlying intended meaning instead of relying on the literally meaning of the utterance. 

In their daily interactions, people rarely mean what they actually say. We’re all code breakers, trying to crack the enigma of other people’s minds, every time we talk with them.


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David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).