Did you say something?

There is often a lot more to conversation than meets the ear -hidden things, unstated things- but for some reason, we usually still understand the message. I’d never really thought about this, to tell you the truth, although I was an unwitting acquiescent, I suppose. It’s  easy enough to assume that everything is context driven… until it isn’t, that is. So, sometimes an explanation of the rules can be helpful.

How, or why I stumbled over an essay by the philosopher Maria Kasmirli from the University of Sheffield, I’m not certain, but I was fascinated by the subject: conversational implicature: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-we-say-vs-what-we-mean-what-is-conversational-implicature

Maybe it was the idea of implicating someone in something without their knowledge or consent that intrigued me, although to tell the truth I was just curious about the process rather than the crime. I really had no information on the nature of conversational implicature.

Kasmirli starts off with an example of a letter of reference that merely suggests that the applicant is a nice person. It does not say whether or not they would be suited to the job. The dilemma that this raises for the interviewer then, is whether the reference deliberately avoided mentioning whether the applicant was suitable (because he wasn’t), or whether, in fact, he was. The inference was, of course, that he wasn’t suitable; the meaning of this indirect message is an implicature.

This term was apparently coined by the British philosopher Paul Grice who ‘distinguished several forms of implicature, the most important being conversational implicature... [which] depends, not on the meaning of the words employed… but on the way that the words are used and interpreted… conversational implicatures arise because speakers are expected to be cooperative – to make contributions appropriate to the purpose of the conversation in which they are engaged. More specifically, they are expected to follow four conversational maxims: (1) give an appropriate amount of information; (2) give correct information; (3) give relevant information; and (4) give information clearly.’

‘According to Grice, a conversational implicature is generated when an utterance flouts one or more of these maxims, or would do so if the implicature weren’t present. In such cases, we can preserve the assumption that the speaker is being cooperative only by interpreting their utterance as conveying something other than, or additional to, its literal meaning, and this is its implicated meaning.’ That makes sense, I suppose…

So, in the example of the letter of reference, ‘the information she (the letter writer) gives is obviously insufficient, flouting the maxim of quantity. Hence, we infer that she is trying to convey something else, which she doesn’t wish to say directly, and the obvious conclusion is that what she’s trying to convey is that Smith [the applicant] is unsuitable for the job.’

Unfortunately it sometimes suggests something else, though: ‘sometimes an implicature arises in order to prevent a flouting. Suppose you need petrol and someone tells you: “There’s a garage around the corner”… If the speaker did not believe that the garage was open, then their reply would violate the maxim of relation, so to preserve the assumption that they are being cooperative we must assume that they do believe it is open.’ Context is everything, I suppose. And anyway, ‘conversational implications can always be cancelled by adding a further statement.’ Like, Smith is not only a nice person, but he is also well qualified for the job. There could also be some legal implications if you equivocate, or deliberately don’t mention something of course.

I imagine that most of us have an intuitive grasp of conversational implicature however, although I suspect that much of it is probably culturally driven. Grice’s approach is also much more complicated and disputed than was evident in Kasmirli’s essay, but nevertheless she simplified the concept enough that non philosophers (like me) could understand the basics.

The article was particularly relevant to me as I reminisce about the many letters of reference I was asked to write for my undergraduates over the years. I am a retired Ob/Gyn now, but looking back, I’m not entirely sure that I grasped the importance of all of Grice’s conversational maxims; I’m sure that I inadvertently flouted more than one of them on occasions. Of course, I always tried to respond truthfully, but as to clearly… Well, sometimes I felt it more appropriate to approximate my assessments of the candidate’s credentials, but gently, and carefully, so as not to negate them. Of course, neither did I wish to unleash someone on the public that the program would regret. Sometimes it’s a fine line…

I can still recall one inventive student in his final year of training who always seemed to be trying to find unusual ways of practicing the specialty in order to resolve some of the obvious difficulties inherent in a male having to understand, let alone solve, female issues. It caused no end of puzzled smiles whenever he entered a patient’s room as they wondered how he would try to ingratiate himself and his gender with them. These were harmless, if not actually humorous attempts, but the nurses, who were used to dealing with a new batch of trainees rotating through their wards every few weeks, were concerned that he would be misunderstood and complained to me. And yet the patients, when I saw them in my office after their discharge from hospital, were more sanguine about him -amused more often than not.

So, when he asked me for a letter of reference after successfully passing his exams a few months later, I was unsure what to write about him. His theory and OR credentials were satisfactory, but apart from his obvious enthusiasm, whether I could honestly recommend him, given his behaviour with patients, was more difficult. In my opinion he was competent to practice my specialty, and I saw no deficiencies in his knowledge -it was just… well, his interpersonal skills were unusual.

I decided to waffle -perhaps that’s why I still remember a lot about how I phrased the letter I wrote to his prospective hospital.

‘Dr. James [I have changed his name, for obvious reasons] has successfully completed his training from our program and in my dealings with him, I have found him to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic. You will realize, of course, that as is usual in Residency programs, I was his supervisor for only a limited time.

During the time I worked with him however, he proved to be very competent in the operating theatre, with a quick grasp of newer techniques he learned from my younger colleagues who were also responsible for his instruction. And if I seemed puzzled, he was quick to revert to my more traditional surgical approach without complaint.

And he was also quick to respond to any post-operative problems whenever they arose, and explain them to the patient with knowledgeable clarity and what seemed to be heart-felt empathy.

He was also able to adapt to changing moods and preferences in the birthing rooms, while continuing to adhere to strict best-practice guidelines. The case room can be an emotionally fraught region, but he usually managed to assuage most of the conflicts between the demands of what he felt was required in the circumstances and the birth plans of either mother or midwife.’

I remember that I was quite proud of the letter but not sure how to end it, so I just left it like that. Thinking about it now, it seems to me that I had more or less covered Grice’s four conversational maxims and I don’t think I flouted, but I’m not sure what the implicature was that I conveyed. I’ve not heard anything bad about my referenced candidate, or whether he actually got the job -but neither did I receive a thank you letter from him. Maybe that isn’t expected for conversational implicatures, though.

At any rate, he didn’t ask me to write another of those letters, so I have to assume the best.

Acknowledging the Mind’s Eye

Sometimes, in the midst of a problem –in the midst of an era- the resolution derives not so much from the answer as from the acknowledgement that there is an issue to begin with. I find it interesting that Nature has given us an ability to adapt more efficiently -to ignore, I suppose- that which arises gradually than that which falls upon us as an event –interesting, because that allows us to discount something until it results in complications. Difficulties. It is the Janus view of evolution, I suppose.

An article in the BBC news alerted me to one novel approach to encourage acknowledgment of an issue that has plagued some societies for what seems to be millennia: sex selection –or perhaps, more honestly,  destruction:  www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-37034444

It got me thinking… We tend to cherish and preserve what we value; we neglect, or abandon that which we don’t. Denigrate it, even. Perhaps an occasional nudge in the ribs may cause us to look around and see where we have wandered –realize that there is really no need to stand so close to the edge.

But it does give one pause for thought –how do some of these things become imbedded in a culture? Surely they don’t start out as intentionally malevolent. Or is that being revisionist and unduly naïve? I’d like to think that some of the customs, however egregious we find them now, were products of a different time when other priorities required precedence. Confusing times, perhaps, when we barely knew who we were in our overarching need to identify and fend off them. Troubling times beneath the roiling waters in which we are just beginning to be able, however slowly, to surface for air.

And the problem, as always for those of us less afflicted, is acknowledgement –recognition that there is more to do. There is always more to do…

Despite being a gynaecologist for more years than I can remember, I suppose I have always lived in a man’s world. It’s hard not to wear the clothes you were assigned. And yet, every so often, that usually-locked door is knocked ajar briefly, and the light from within is blinding. Unintentionally heuristic.

I was sitting in a busy coffee shop recently and managed to find a tiny unoccupied table against a windowless and shadowed wall in the corner. Perhaps it camouflaged me -made my presence less noticeable, my gender less obtrusive- but as I sat there staring silently at the busy room, fragments of conversation from the next table floated past like dust motes in the feeble light. Two women were catching up on their lives. I didn’t mean to listen, but sometimes words are beacons: currents, vacuuming up the air between –meant to be heard, meant to inform. It’s hard to ignore words when you sit in shadows.

“And so how is Janice doing now?” a grey-haired woman in pigtails wearing black track pants and a yellow sweat shirt asked between gulps of coffee and grabs for the oversized chocolate cookies she had balanced precariously on her plate. She clearly had little need of more calories, but the presence of her more sizeable friend likely justified the debauch in her mind. It works for all of us, I think.

Her friend just shrugged amicably. “You know what it’s like, Dory,” she said, and launched into her bagel as if she were packing a box. “Kids are kids…”

Dory munched softly on a cookie and considered the issue. “She’s hardly a kid, now, Alice. She’s, what, seventeen?”

Alice nodded her head equally thoughtfully and her long dark hair slid back and forth over her shoulders like a wash cloth. Although considerable larger than her friend, she carried her weight gracefully, and with the gravitas that suggested a person of authority. Dressed in what seemed in the dim light to be an expensive white silk blouse I could make out little ruffs on each wrist. I don’t normally notice such things, but with each movement of her arms, they risked coating themselves with cream cheese from an impertinent bagel, now lying in fragments in front of her. “Eighteen…” She took a delicate sip from her coffee and sat back on her chair as if the subject required a little more thought.

“Still, she should know where she’s headed by now…” Dory left the question of direction open, but her eyes betrayed her opinion. “I mean, who she is…” she added, italics begging for attention.

Alice sighed and leaned forward again to pack another item into her waiting mouth. “I think she’s always known.”

“And how about you?”

Alice smiled and nodded. “Some things a mother just knows, Dory.”

Dory was obviously trying to understand, but her confusion was apparent, even to accidental eyes watching from the shade. She shook her head, disapproval hovering over her like a cloud. “Did you ever to speak to her about it, Alice?”

Alice’s eyebrows both rose at the same time. “Whatever for, Dory?” she said, genuinely puzzled at the remark.

It caused Dory to sigh rather more loudly than necessary. “Well, I would have thought…”

Alice refurbished the smile she’d sacrificed to the bagel and leaned an elbow on the table. “Thought what?”

Dory straightened her back like a boxer ready to receive a blow. “Well… that…”

“That my daughter would think the same way as her mother? She learned the Theory of Mind when she was five, Dory.” Her friend visibly winced at that. “The world is different for each of us, Dor,” she said, reaching out and grasping Dory’s hand. “And the question should not be why, but rather, how can I best negotiate it…?”

Dory tried to smile, but even from the shadows I could see her lips twitching with the effort. “Do you think if…” But she was clearly too embarrassed to finish her thought –and anyway, I could see Alice shaking her head and squeezing her hand affectionately.

“Somethings just are, Dory. And my main duty as a mother is to help her to accept them.” She let go of Dory’s hand and picked up her coffee for a sip. “And to help others to accept her…”

“But…” There was a hint of helplessness in that one word.

“But what’s not to love, eh?” she said, glancing towards the door and standing up to wave at a smiling teenager gliding towards them like a boat about to dock. And then Janice waved back, just like anybody else…