punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Liars vs. The Gricean Maxim of Quality

I keep getting burned by the same problem: liars. Oh boy, this will be long.

While cleaning out my mailbox this weekend, I came across a few letters where people had very obviously lied to me about something or another. I mean, most of it I was totally unaware of it while it was happening, but now two years later, I look back on the whole thing and get pissed off. Like So-and-so says one thing, and then a year later, claims another thing, or worse, like I made it up. I forgot I had some of the evidence in my mailbox I could have used. "Uh, no," I could say, "on January 23rd, 2001, you said it was true, and swore to me that yadda yadda yadda..." but then the whole incident was over by late 2002, and I don't want to bring it all up again. And knowing some of these people, they'd still claim they never lied to me.

Or worse, and I find this REALLY irritating, they try and "call me out" like I am the liar. My father's second wife did this in a letter which I fumed about for years, then forgot, and now I am fuming again. A game they played was, "Let's not allow Grig access to his old stuff." They lived in the house I grew up in for 12 years, and I was only allowed in once, and even though my Christine was really pregnant at the time, they wouldn't even let us past the living room to use the bathroom. My father never allowed me back into my old room, which he said he used for "storage." Of course, some of my stuff was stored there. Same with the attic. I could have come over one day, helped them clean up, and been on my way. I wasn't going to walk off with anything else that wasn't mine, or plant a bomb or something. Christ, Arvid, I lived 20 minutes away from you, if I wanted to harm you I would have done so. Why were you so afraid of me? Okay, I know. You were afraid of the truth. You always have been, which is why you are afraid of confrontation and when we do confrot each other, you are the first to claim I'm some sort of liar. That's probably what Nicole thinks, too. The example was when I said I wanted some of my stuff from the attic, you said, "Squirrels got in and ate everything." Yes, that was a pathetic excuse, but hell, maybe they did. I was willing to go along with that because, hell, why not? Of course, when Nicole said she'd send some of my old baby stuff they found in the attic, and I said, "I thought you said squirrels ate everything?" she replied with, "You have a very fertile imagination." That so sounded like my father; patronizing and dismissing. I was FUMING because I didn't make it up, they did, and if I WAS going to make something up, I'd have picked something better than "squirrels ate it." So I get lied to once, and when I go along with it, I get lied to again. I had to let it drop, because she was holding some memories hostage. The end joke to this is that she obscured the return delivery address on the package she sent, like if I found out where they live, I am going to... what would I do? I dunno. I didn't do it when they lived in McLean, at an address I knew, and I sure as hell won't fly to San Diego and do it there. My father knows I represent a truth he can't face. Hence, I am a liar. I mean, I have to be. The implications of what he did to me for 18 years is pretty horrible, so maybe if he acts like it never happened, it will go away. Of course, I have court papers, eyewitness accounts, and a huge paper trail to back me up, but maybe I just made those up, too. I am crafty that way.

That brought me to a point I hate about some liars: you could have documented hard-core evidence right out in the open, and they still deny it with a straight face. Maybe I am jealous I don't have the balls to do this, but I am always floored when someone lies that boldly. I think I was kind of led to expect that in the real world, people speak the truth most of the time, and now I don't know at all. Some of the most traumatic experiences I have had were due to someone lying to me or about me, and while I can logically say, "Oh, that person was an idiot, or young, or chemically imbalanced, or whatever," but deep down, I still question, "Is it me? Did I make this up?" I hate that. Especially now that I am older and my memory is going a bit fuzzy. I have always tried to lead a life of truth, no matter how painful, because I feel if I lie, I am giving up something pretty vital of myself. Maybe I fear I will become "one of them."

On a related topic, while Neal was visiting, he said some incredibly fascinating stuff about four laws of debate, where the first law is that you have to assume the speaker is telling the truth as he or she knows it. I am not quite getting this right, and he sent me a link which I bookmarked ... on my other computer. But a search on the web brought links on Pragmatics and Gricean Maxiums, which I think is the same thing. There are four maxiums, which I will attempt to make interesting (I am going to try and avoid big fancy-sounding words these sites usually are written in so I don't come off as some elitist snob that gives the illusion I know more than I actually do), and show how a lot of lying is lookd at by linguist. This has been studied in depth by linguists and debaters for a long time, since at least 1975, when H.P. Grice introduced them at his lectures at Harvard.

There are four "maxiums" (rules) which attempt to define a conversation. You are to assume that the speaker is following these rules in order to have an intellectual debate of some kind. There's something called "The Cooperative Principle," which is a kind of moral rule of conversation, stating that participants expect that each will make a "conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange." That means you expect that the reason you are talking to this person is for sharing what you know, the reason anyone has a conversation. Of course, people don't usually follow the proper rules in real life, which can lead to confusion and intentional misleading statements. But knowing this can call your liar out in the open.

Rule 1: Maxim of Relation: Be relevant.
Rule 2: Maxim of Quantity: Be only as informative as required for current conversational purposes.
Rule 3: The Maxim of Quality: Say only what you believe to be true and adequately supported.
Rule 4: The Maxim of Manner: Be clear: be brief and orderly and avoid obscurity and ambiguity.

It's so hard to define what this means, because a lot of them sound the same. Rules 1 and 2 are hard to say why they are different. Relevant means on topic, right? It's easier to explain with examples of thing that violate these rules. These conversational rules are exploited in at least two ways to a normal listener, who, though growing up in a normal world, would make two assumptions. First, when the listener assumes that the speaker is obeying the rules, he or she assumes what they say is true as far as the speaker knows. Second, if the speaker violates some rules so flagrantly that the hearer must conclude that the violation was purposeful, this is where the "red flag" of lying comes up (or should, unless you are me, and are still stuck on the first rule until I am hit with a clue-by-four).

Clever and cunning linguists (har har, me make joke) say there are two ways someone disobeys the rules. One is by "violating" the rules, meaning the speaker doesn't know he or she is breaking conversational rules, and certainly doesn't mean to. But the more commonly used "flouting" the rules means that the speaker wishes to sway the listener's opinion on purpose. Many comments can break several rules at once. Let's look at some things a speaker might say, and why it breaks the rules.

In a job reference, a former employer states, "Margaret was a very punctual secretary, who always dressed well and typed neatly." That does sound like a form of praise, until you realize it "flouts" Rules 1 and 2. It flouts rule 1, because while these statements may be true, it's not relevant to what kind of work Margaret produced. It flouts rule 2 because it is assumed that any secretary should dress neat, type well, and is on time, and you really didn't release any helpful information.

A comment like, "Damn, Bill, Use salad tongs! What, were you raised by wolves?" is a flout of rule 1 on purpose, because Bill was probably not raised by wolves. Bill knows this, obviously, and knows the speaker is not asking in ernest if he was raised by wolves, but alluding to something else: Bill's social faux pas with his unhygienic practices at the salad bar.

"Your son has such a regal shape," is considered a form or irony called "sarcasm," something most are not a stranger to. Sarcasm and irony is a flout of rule 3, because it is a form of lying meant to deliver a subtle blow by saying something quite opposite to the truth. The speaker did not mean that your son's shape was akin to royalty, except possibly to King Henry the Eighth. Sometimes, the subtlety is so slight, in group conversations the speaker flouts rule 3 simply by a slight flatness in the tone of the praise, like "This is a lovely party," said by a flat tone of voice is quite opposite to the normal exuberance that goes along with such a comment.

Choice use of pronouns is also subtle, like "You must be very proud of your work," will flout rule 3 and 1. It singles out the listener away from everyone else and states not what was good about the work, but that the listener probably did his or her best, but would be the only one who noticed.

I am still wondering about which was meant by "You have a very fertile imagination."

Flouting rule 4 is something I hear a LOT of in the tech world. For instance, when getting an RFO (Reason For Outage) on a ticket, we would sometimes get, "Technician went on site, and traced the wiring to a failed singularity on a CCS 2674. He then power cycled the unit, and tested for throughput until all was clear." What that really means is "We sent a guy out there, he found a problem led to a switch, which then turned off then on again. Then he asked if we still saw the problem, and when we said no, he left." The first phrase makes it look like the tech was really skilled, but when you dissect the tech speak, it's just the same fix some average Joe might do if their computer froze up: wiggle the mouse and reboot. You also see it in stock reports and political "state of the union" speeches with words that don't appear in dictionaries, but almost sound like they do. Another method is to use words in a different context, or "verbalize nouns," as the joke goes. "Our new CEO has declared a new 'Financial Strategery' with a declared cost-reduction plan for the new fiscal year." Another violation of this is when you "say a lot of nothing," which can flout rules 1 and 2 in the bundle. "The management has heard your complaints, and will address them at a joint meeting with other vendors."

Deliberate lies are flouts of one of these four rules, which are used for misinformation or to use the listener's assumptions in your favor, even if they aren't necessarily true. I saw that a lot in President Bush's speech last night, but I am not surprised because almost all presidents and their speech writers do this. Some are just bad speech writers, and some are trying to placate the ignorant. For example:

"America and a broad coalition acted first in Afghanistan, by destroying the training camps of terror, and removing the regime that harbored al-Qaeda."

"Broad coalition" almost violates rule 4 and 1 because it's a vague statement that doesn't seem relevant. Who is in this coalition? Makes it sound more unified than "Us and Britain, without the UN's approval." Same with "training camps of terror," because it's not even defined, and the "regime that harbored al-Qaeda" flagrantly violates rule 3, because it isn't really removed or else we'd stop sending troops there, and send the red cross and Jimmy Carter instead. The whole thing seems to violate rule 2, because it seems irrelevant to the current "state of the union," which is what the speech is supposedly about. It seems more a "state of stuff we did a few years ago that we're trying to gloss over."

Of course, all THAT could be debated as well. I am still learning.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000205.html
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