linguistic anthropology

Linguistics and “the smell test”

In the last few days, the President of the United States fired the sitting Director of the FBI, who was in the middle of an active investigation against him. And lots of folks are saying this firing “doesn’t pass the smell test.” And a linguistic analysis can help us understand why: taking a close look at the President’s letter reveals his logic.

Note: in the day or so between I started writing this post and finished it, it’s already obsolete from a news perspective, since the President has shifted his rationale. Among the things that have happened since then: the press secretary hid in the bushes “stood alongside tall hedges in the darkness.” But from the perspective of learning about language, it’s still kind of fun.

 

What made people so skeptical?

Here’s the letter:

A lot — if not all — of the early skepticism centered on one sentence:

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”

Here’s why folks were (rightly) skeptical: this sentence seems to treat “telling the President he’s not under investigation” as an aspect of “being unable to effectively lead the bureau.”

How does this work, linguistically speaking?

Language in use is, by its nature, incomplete and ambiguous. Consider the following:

“Do you want to go to the store?”
“Yes.”

You don’t have to actually say the words “I want to go to the store” in order to communicate that sentiment.

That’s because everyone assumes that everyone else’s speech is guided by some social principles, known as conversational maxims. (Note that these are not universal but somewhat culturally and contextually specific.) Paul Grice identified four, and they are all relevant for the U.S. context:

  1. Be informative. Don’t say either more or less than is necessary.
  2. Be truthful. Don’t say something that you know is false, or where you lack evidence either way.
  3. Be relevant. If you don’t have something to say, don’t say it.
  4. Be clear. Avoid ambiguity and circumlocution.

As speakers of a language in a cultural context, we don’t have to think about these explicitly. We just know that these are the social rules, and we use them all the time in order to interpret what someone says. If you ask someone where you can buy batteries, and they say, “There’s a store two blocks up,” you will assume that the store is open — and that it sells batteries.

By the same token, violations — or seeming violations — of these principles often tell us that the literal meaning of the words isn’t the most relevant meaning. A letter of recommendation that waxes poetic about a student’s handwriting … is a letter that tells you how poor a student they are, without having to use those words. How come? Because there’s another contextual maxim that applies to recommendations: be positive. And the reader will correctly interpret that whatever is said in the letter is the most informative, relevant, and truthful thing a recommender can say while remaining positive.

So now we’re ready to come back to that sentence and look at it in the light of those maxims. Here it is again:

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”

The sentence is certainly clear. (Truthful is an overall sticking point with this particular administration, so we’re just going to … leave that one off to the side.) But be informative and be relevant are the real sticking points here — we naturally assume that the first half of this sentence is relevant to the second half, and also that the amount of detail is relevant in some way.

Think, too, about the particular context. When you leave a job, you might soften the tone your resignation by listing out the things you loved; when you fire someone, you might mitigate the firing by noting the places where they exceeded. And thus we infer that the President sees “telling the President he’s not under investigation” as an aspect of “being unable to effectively lead the bureau.”

 

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3 thoughts on “Linguistics and “the smell test”

  1. Good morning Jena. I liked you post but there is one caveat: that’s how many, but certainly not all, Americans talk in public. And outside the USA they are deeply distrusted by that hypocritical stand. Didn’t you hear this already? By the way, I am still patiently waiting for you to return the courtesy and comment one of my blogs dear. Remember the most important maxim we learn in politics( and social media as well)
    Manus manum lavat. Sorry. No kisses whatsoever for you today.
    Arrivederci!

    Like

    • I don’t think you can say *all* Americans do anything! 🙂

      But I’m actually not sure what you’re referring to in particular is “how many but not all Americans talk in public” — say more?

      And … you write about topics I don’t know about, so it’s hard for me to have much to say. 🙂

      Like

      • Hello again Jena. First of all I never said all Americans, I said ” many Americans, but certainly not all of them, bla bla.” Semantics please. Second we read primarily, not to reaffirm what we know, but to learn more and/or engage in fruitful intellectual discussions. I find it hard to believe that my series “Emotional frustration” does not have a single blog with some kind of resonance for a woman’s heart.
        C’est la vie, ma chere amie!

        Like

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