Another communication rant, with questions at the end.
If you’ve been with me for a while, you might recall that I’ve mentioned phatic communication in earlier posts, beginning with this one. There are many things we say
that mean little or nothing, and I’ll start with a few examples.
Example (1) Polite, phatic exchange
Most obvious example: polite little nothing phrases that don’t mean anything like what they say literally.
“How are you?”
(translation: “I’m recognizing your presence, but don’t necessarily want to talk to you for any length of time. Just to be fair, I’m giving you an opening to tell me about anything that might have come up, but please don’t.”)
“I’m fine, yourself?”
(translation: I might be dying of cancer, but don’t want to talk about it right now, not with you, anyway. Just returning the salute.”)
Now, suppose that one of them is on the witness stand some weeks later:
Q. Mr Skeeb, I understand that on March 18th, you got into the elevator with your supervisor, Mr. Boohah, as you were leaving work, is that correct?
A. Yes, that’s correct.
Q. Do you recall what your conversation with Boohah consisted of at that time?
A. Nothing much. He said “How are you?”, I said “Fine.” That’s about it.
Q. So you confirm that you said you were “fine” at that time, is that correct?
Q. And we have just heard your co-worker, Mr. Willbash, tell us that as you were getting ready to leave that day, you remarked to him that your back was “killing you”, because of a herniated disk. Is Mr. Willbash reporting that correctly?
A. Yes, that’s my recollection too.
Q. So you lied to Mr. Boohah when you said you were “fine”, is that correct?
A. If you want to call it that, I suppose.
Q. And if you lied about that, do we have any reason to believe any of your testimony here today?
You get the idea by now, I hope. Of all the billions of conversations that happen on this planet every day, very few have participants who are conscious that they might some day have to explain everything they say under oath.
Above is the most extreme case of just saying any old shit to ritually acknowledge someone and get it over with. Less extreme examples happen all the time. Let’s consider this one:
Example (2) Lying to simplify
A sixteen year-old walks in the door and Mom says “Oh, you’re back! Where did you go?” This might not need translation, since Mom really is obsessed with where each of her kids is all the time. She has no life outside her kids, or it seems that way to the kid.
The kid replies: “I went to Staples to get a new notebook for that class where the teacher wants us to turn in our notebooks every week.” Many translations are possible. Here’s just one:
“I just got my driver’s license and a it’s a big deal to be seen driving alone, so I took any excuse to drive somewhere and just get out of the house for a while. While having a frogurt in the mall, I ran into a friend and we spent an hour talking about the virtues of the blood, gore, and sound effects in various video games, then moved on to which are the better porn sites. Mom is the last person I want to talk to about this, so I’m telling her any old thing to end the conversation. If I get around the corner and into my room fast enough, she won’t see that I’m not carrying a new notebook, but had it in my room already.”
Many, many conversations are like this. Any old shit, preferably brief and simple, is said just to appear to settle it when it’s something of a chore to be talking at all. The last thing one wants to do is spend time actually answering the question for someone who, in the speaker’s judgment, doesn’t need to know.
Example (3) Trying too hard, and useless filler
Sometimes a conversation really is significant. That doesn’t mean all its contents will be significant, though. Let’s look at something quite businesslike, where the participants both want to get something done:
Customer: The “Check Engine” light is on. Can you find out what that’s about?
Mechanic: Sure. We’ll plug into the computer and see what it tells us. How long has it been on?
Customer: I first noticed it yesterday, but my brother had the car for a while before then. There’s always something with the car whenever he returns it. First, I have to re-adjust the mirrors and seat, then I have to check for his muddy boots left on the floor and whatever crap he might have left in the trunk… Last time it was a leaky tire. The time before that the brakes were squeaking whenever I stepped on them….
Mechanic: Just sign this estimate and leave us the keys. We’ll give you a call when we know something. Is this the number you’ll be at?
Customer: Yeah, I’ll probably be there. If not, here’s my cell number…. My buddy’s coming to give me a ride. I’ll be going to lunch with some old friends who are just in town for a few days. Haven’t seen them for eight or nine years.
This should be easy to imagine. The customer is throwing lots of irrelevant stuff into the conversation to make the illusion that he’s being helpful when he’s not. It might have something to do with deflecting blame from himself for the problem with the car, or it could be just general bitching about his brother. The lunch with old friends, if it serves any purpose at all, is to fill in empty space in the talk, and maybe he thinks idle chitchat could make the mechanic sympathize with him and maybe give him a better deal. Who knows what he’s thinking? My point is that there’s a certain amount of random content in many conversations that’s difficult to explain.
(4) Chatting up
Can’t let a list of meaningless talk go without mentioning this: low-significance, feelgood chatter such as one might aim at a potential customer or sexual objective. It includes advertising, of course. Spotting the lies, distortions, and meaningless noise in such communication is a basic survival skill.
Stay with me. I promise there’s a point to this.
A little more about “Serial”
Which brings me back to what I’ve written about before here and here. Again, listen to Serial if you haven’t already. https://serialpodcast.org/season-one
There are also several good podcasts about the podcast around:
Cold N. Holefield
Briefly: It’s about the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999 and the ex-boyfriend who was convicted of it.
The debate goes on about guilt, innocence, whether the defendant got a fair trial, and whether the police did anything like a real investigation. One of the recurring themes brought up by the guilters is “He lied about asking for a ride.” Let me summarize this problem as quickly as I can:
The victim was last seen alive at school, and no one saw whether anyone rode out with her when she left school. Speculation therefore settles on whether the defendant MIGHT have got a ride with her.
There are many conflicting stories about how, when, and whether he asked her for a ride that day, and whether it was to be a ride from campus to somewhere far away or a ride from one end of the campus to the other. None report that she agreed to give him a ride and did so, but that doesn’t end the speculation. Much of the idle talk is simply about whether he “lied about asking for a ride”.
– The first “lie” is presumably when the police first called him the day of her disappearance. It’s likely that he was stoned during this conversation, and was trying to simplify things just to get it over with (Example #2, lying to simplify, above).
– The second “lie” is in a conversation a couple of weeks later, when he denied what he ostensibly said in the first instance above. In both cases, the body had not yet been found, and it was simply a missing person investigation. The defendant, if he’s innocent, might have had no clue about the significance of anything he was saying and how his defense attorney might have to explain it later. This is a major reason why I heartily recommend the video DON’T TALK TO COPS
There’s also a question of whether the police notes about this, typed up months later, are at all reliable.
Then there are various versions of the “asking for a ride” story gathered from other students who might have witnessed the asking close up, or might have simply reported “hearing something about him asking for a ride”. These interviews happened at different times, and undoubtedly include some of that “trying too hard” element in Example #3 above.
– One person said “He said his car was in the shop.” which we know it wasn’t, but probably was on a much earlier occasion that the witness might be remembering, or the witness might just be making that up to embellish the story.
– One said that the victim often gave him a ride from one end of the campus to the other, to track practice after school, and then went on to her own business after dropping him. It says nothing about a possible ride away from campus.
– One said the victim said flat-out “no” when asked for a ride the first time.
– Another said that later in the day the victim said “something came up” and she couldn’t give him a ride, though she had agreed to do so earlier.
– Another said she saw the victim at school, alive, long after the prosecution says the murder happened.
It’s all over the place, and treating any of this as reliable at all is like treating Cinderella as history.
Applying this to my usual subject matter
Politics. You knew I’d get around to it eventually, right?
Separating noise from signal is a large part of making sense of anything we do in politics, as in life. Since getting votes and influencing policy involves salesmanship, almost by definition, that #4 “chatting up” category is ubiquitous.
Some examples to contemplate, that we’ve sometimes run into:
(a) That #1 (polite, phatic exchange) often takes the form of something like “We can work together.” It’s almost a way of saying “Hello” for some activists, as I observed long ago.
(d) “I didn’t show up because it was a bad time & place for me” can also be a #2. It’s no guide for action unless one hears it from many people about the same time & place, since any other time & place is likely to be bad for someone else.
(e) “I don’t think your party is a good place for me because I don’t see them working on MY pet issue much.” This can involve elements of #2,#3, and #4. Really difficult to sort out.
(f) “I don’t see people like me (age, gender, color, ethnicity) in your meetings. It just doesn’t seem like I belong there.” This can be a quick and easy #2 for someone involved in identity-based stuff who doesn’t want to think about broader issues, or a subtle #4 (salesmanship) asking for some pandering. Could even be a bit of their own kind of snobbery involved here.
(g) “Your party represents me on the issues best, but I want to vote in one of the big parties’ primaries.” Could be a quite genuine delusion that differences within the big parties actually matter, or another #2. Could be just sticking with old habits, and nothing more.
So tell me your own stories. How do you sort out noise from signal when trying to talk to people about politics? That’s what comments are for. It’s easy to do so anonymously.