Tag Archives: Language

Data On Sarcasm

Our capacities to communicate covertly, out of view of social reporting, are central to our abilities to coordinate to hypocritically pretend to support norms while actually evading them. Like laughter and eye-contact, sarcasm seems a central supporting skill. Here is some of what we know about sarcasm:

According to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. … Brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. …

Lsten[ing] to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line, … students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. … The mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is [sometimes] perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. … “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.” …

We’re more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than our enemies, … [New York students] were more likely [than Memphis students to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation. Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny. …

Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. … Expressions around the mouth, as opposed to the eyes or eyebrows, were most often cited as a clue to a sarcastic statement. (more; HT David Brin)

Note that higher status and IQ cultures tend to use sarcasm more, just as smart folks tend to lie more, even though they are no better at discerning lies (source: Triver’s new book).

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Is Confidence Social?

Consider some uses of the word “confident“:

Tom is confident the bus will arrive soon.

This is often interpreted as Tom assigning a high probability to the bus arriving soon. But then what about:

The CDC is confident this diseases poses only a moderate risk.

Is there a high probability that moderate risk is the correct risk assessment? But what can it mean for an estimate to be “correct”? Is this about the robustness of estimate to analysis variations? Now consider:

Sam took me into his confidence.

Perhaps this means Sam assigned a high probability that I would not betray him. But then what about:

Bill’s manner is more confident these days.

Perhaps this means Bill assigns a high probability to his having a high ability.  But this last usage seems to me better interpreted as Bill acting higher status, and expecting his bid for higher status to be accepted by others. Bill does not expect to be challenged in this bid, and beaten down.

If you think about it, this status move interpretation can also make sense of all the other uses above. Sam taking me into his confidence might mean that Sam didn’t expect me to use his trust to reduce his status. And the CDC might expect that its risk estimation could not be successfully challenged by other parties, perhaps in part because this estimate was robust to analysis variations. Similarly, Tom might expect that his status won’t be reduced by the bus failing to show up as he predicted.

Yes, sometimes confidence can be in part about assigning a high probability, or about the robustness of an analysis. But more fundamentally, confidence may be about status moves. It is just that in some circumstances we makes status bids via asserting that some event is high probability, or asserting that variations of an analysis tend to lead to similar results.

If you ever offer advice, to someone who asks you how confident you are in your advice, try to remember that this may at root not be a question about probabilities. It may instead be a question what can happen socially if your advisee follows your advice. How easily might others might challenge that advice, perhaps then lowering your advisee’s status? To figure that out, you may need to look beyond probabilities and analysis robustness, and consider who might want to challenge this advice, what might make them want to launch such a challenge, and what resources they might bring to such a fight.

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Pronoun Inflation

A striking example of how powerful signaling can be in forming language:

Not so long ago—just a few hundred years—thou and its cousins thee and thy were the words to use when addressing one person, while you and ye and your were reserved for more than one. … But later in the Middle Ages, … it became the custom, not only in English but in most European languages, to show respect by addressing someone as you, even if the person was singular. Perhaps it was the inverse of the royal we, used by a ruler in public utterances as if to speak on behalf of God or of all his or her subjects. The subjects would show respect by responding to the plural we with the plural you. … Because you was a sign of respect, thou by contrast became a sign of disrespect, at least in public. … Gradually politeness spread so widely among speakers of English that you entirely displaced thou. … Even with you usurping the whole of second-person pronouns, the impulse to distinguish between singular and plural remains. That’s why we have plural locutions that prompt purists to gnashing of teeth: you all, y’all, yous, you’ns, and of course that all-time favorite … you guys. (more; HT Virginia Postrel)

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Concept Inflation

Many places in the world claim to make the “world’s greatest hamburgers.” So many places, in fact, that one is tempted to conclude that many folks have adopted some new meaning for the phrase “world’s greatest.” OK, the temptation is weak in this case, but I suspect that such meaning drifts are common, and that they make positive concepts less positive, and negative concepts less negative. Let me explain.

Many words, like “excellent”, “genius”, “rude”, or “tyrant” have ambiguous borderlines, so that it isn’t clear to what cases the concepts do or don’t apply. In such borderline cases, we should expect people to choose their words strategically, to make they and their allies look good, and to make their rivals look bad. That is, we expect people to try be especially generous and loose in order to let them apply positive words to themselves or their allies, but to be especially strict and stingy in order to avoid applying such words to their rivals. For example, my modest insight seems “genius” to me, but your modest insight seems to me insufficient for such a lofty title. We also expect negative words to be applied reluctantly to allies, but generously to rivals. You were “rude,” but I was merely “thoughtless.”

If the tendencies to apply a concept generously are not equally balanced by opposing tendencies to apply that concept strictly, then its meaning should drift in one direction or the other. For example, if people more often use a certain positive concept to describe themselves and their allies, and less often apply the concept to rivals, then we should expect its perceived meaning based on recent usage to drift to cover more cases. And since we expect the newly covered cases to be intrinsically less positive, we expect the concept to drift toward a less positive connotation. When more students get “A” grades, then “A” is less positive a distinction. Similarly, if we use negative concepts more often on rivals, we should expect those concepts to drive toward a less negative connotation.

We do seem to use positive concepts to describe ourselves and our allies, more often than we use such concepts to describe rivals, mainly because we talk about ourselves and allies more than we talk about rivals. So we should expect such positive concepts to broaden and become less positive with time. Yet we still have many concepts with both ambiguous borderlines and substantially positive connotations. So there must be some opposing tendency that makes positive concepts get more positive. What is that tendency?

Our tendency to talk more about ourselves and our allies than our rivals should make it more possible for negative concepts to retain a narrow application and strong negativity. Is this what we see – do negative concepts tend to be stronger and more restricted?

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What The Eyes Say

Compared to other primates, human muscles are rather weak. In hand to hand combat with a chimp, humans don’t stand a chance. It seems that because we are so good at using tools, we could avoid paying for expensive muscles. Similarly, compared to other animals, language lets humans talk more precisely, and talk about things not in our immediate view. So you might expect we’d get worse at non-language communication. You’d be wrong:

Humans are known to have the largest and most visible sclera – the “whites” of the eyes – of any species. This fact intrigues scientists, because it would seem actually to be a considerable hindrance: imagine, for example, the classic war movie scene where the soldier dresses in camouflage and smears his face with green and brown pigment – but can do nothing about this conspicuously white sclera, beaming bright against the jungle. There must be some reasons humans developed it, despite its obvious costs. In fact, the advantage of visible sclera – so goes the “cooperative eye hypothesis” – is precisely that it enables humans to see clearly, and from a distance, which direction other humans are looking. … Chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos – our nearest cousins – follow the direction of each other’s heads, whereas human infants follow the direction of each other’s eyes. (The Most Human Human, p. 39).

Note that most of what we learn via looking at each other’s eyes is hard to verifiably say via language. You might feel he is laughing at you with his eyes, but it will be hard to make that laugh the basis of a group response – others probably didn’t see his eyes at the right moment, or might interpret what they saw differently.

Language was a big innovation, but my homo hypocrites hypothesis is that we humans are now actually post-language in important ways. Language let us express and enforce social norms, but we’ve since developed powerful capacities to coordinate outside the scope of language, to evade those norms. The whites of our eyes seem a key part of that norm-evading capacity.

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