A few days ago, about 20 million people watched James Comey testify in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The questioning leaned heavily on why, precisely, Comey interpreted the president’s words the way he did. Since linguistic anthropologists study language in social context, seeing this much explicit discussion about how language works was both a dream come true — and a frustration, since so many people insisted on getting it so terribly wrong.
Some background, in case you missed it the first time around
On January 27th, the president invited then-FBI Director Comey to dinner and kicked everyone else out of the room. This set off Comey’s Spidey-sense, as he mentioned in his written testimony: “My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status from the executive branch.”
And Comey reaffirmed this sense of impropriety to Senator Heinrich during questioning:
|HEINRICH: How unusual is it to have a — a one-on-one dinner with the president? Did that strike you as odd?
COMEY: Yeah, so much so that I assumed there would be others — that he couldn’t possibly be having dinner with me alone.
According to Comey’s written testimony: “Near the end of our dinner, the president returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me … He then said, ‘I need loyalty.'”
Two weeks later, on February 14th, the president again requested that Comey speak to him alone. Multiple people – including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump advisors Reince Priebus and Jared Kushner – tried to remain in the room, and the president dismissed them all. After the door was closed, the president said to Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Twenty-eight words — and two understandings of language
In his written testimony, Comey characterized those twenty-eight words as follows: “I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.”
And the committee was positively obsessed with those words. In fact, more than a third of the 17 senators who questioned Comey asked about those words or mentioned them in some way.
- Senator Risch used most of his questioning time on those three presidential sentences. Risch underlined that the president did not “direct” Comey to let the matter go. (In response, Comey made his understanding of the matter explicit: “I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, ‘I hope’ this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”)
- Senator Feinstein also asked Comey to explain why he understood these words as an order: “But you also said, in your written remarks, and I quote, that you had ‘understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December,’ end quote. Please go into that with more detail.”
- So did Senator Rubio: “And as you perceived it, while it was a request that — he hoped you did away with it, you perceived it as an order, given his position, the setting and the like, and some of the circumstances?”
- And Senator King: “But when you get a — when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or — or ‘would you,’ do you take that as a — as a — as a directive?”
- And Senator Lankford.
- Senator Harris didn’t ask about it, but she spoke up in defense of Comey’s interpretation.
Comey’s written testimony was seven pages long. So why did twenty-eight words taking up less than two lines dominate so much of the questioning? Because the meaning of Comey’s testimony hinges on what those words mean. There are two very different ways of understanding those words — and they’re based on two very different understandings of language.
- Many of the senators, particularly the president’s supporters, took a referentialist approach. Meaning, they suggest, is a question of literal referential content. In this worldview, words mean one single thing, and they always mean it: if the president said, “I hope,” he meant that he hopes. If he’d wanted to give an order, he’d have said “I order you to…” or “Let it go.” And because Trump didn’t say it was an order or explicitly threaten Comey’s job, there can’t have been an act of coercion.
- Comey, on the other hand, had a more context-sensitive reading — as did Senators Harris and King. Who says something changes what it means. And so does when they say it, where they say it, and how they say it. It’s a reading that’s intuitive for most of us. We all know that when our boss says, “I suggest you do X,” we had better do that thing — or give a damn good reason why we aren’t going to.
Spoiler: the linguistic understanding is much more in line with Comey’s understanding of how language works. I’m going to explain why.
Can a hope be an order or a request?
You’re probably familiar with the term saving face, which refers to holding others’ respect or saving oneself from embarrassment. And social scientists, beginning with Erving Goffman, have borrowed this concept of face to talk about self-image, public image, and dignity. We do a lot of work, Goffman says, to avoid and correct threats to our face.
And we can’t understand politeness without understanding face. According to Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, who wrote a classic book on politeness, politeness is a set of strategies that speakers use to save their own face — or the face of the people they’re talking to. Here’s an example: letting someone walk around with their fly unzipped threatens their face. But telling them something embarrassing also threatens their face. What’s the best solution? We pull them aside and tell them privately, which minimizes the threat.
Among the many things we do with language, requests can be particularly tricky for our face. They can damage the hearer’s face, because they impose on the hearer. And they can also damage the speaker’s face. Think about what happens when you turn down a request — you may be violating the expectations of a position or relationship, and it can be embarrassing or harmful to the person who asked. So it’s quite rare that we outright demand something from one another. In fact, many of us were taught that imperatives (“Come here!” or “Give me your pen.”) are always rude. Instead, we do quite a bit of politeness work around requests. In many cases, politeness creates plausible deniability for the speaker — and gives the addressee room to say no without threatening the speaker’s face.
According to Brown and Levinson, there are four types of politeness strategies. We’ll consider what each looks like for requests, and the situations where they’re used:
- Bald on-record: A bald-on record approach is the most direct way of making a request. We tend to see it in situations of urgency or desperation (“Watch out!” or “Help!”), as well as in task-oriented situations (“Pass me the scalpel.”) and situations where whatever is being requested is in the interest of the hearer (“Come in!” or “Eat!”)
- Positive politeness: These strategies express interest in the hearer and make the hearer feel good about themselves. The use of kin terms and other in-group terms is one of many ways to do this (“Brother, spare a dollar?” and “Do me a favor, pal.”), as is the use of explicit politeness words (“Please pass the salt.”).
- Negative politeness: These strategies avoid imposing on the hearer, often by framing the request in a way that is somewhat ambiguous. That way, the speaker can save face if the hearer rejects the request — by not acknowledging it as a request. Among the ways we do negative politeness are using questions instead of requests (“Could you lend me a buck?”), minimizations (“If it’s not out of the way, would you take me to the store?”), and apologies (“Sorry, but…”). And one important one is to bury the request in an optimistic phrase (“I hope you haven’t taken offense.”).
- Indirect: These requests rely heavily on implication. Sometimes “Gee, it’s cold in here” means “Shut the window.” Sometimes “I could really go for a beer right now” means “Pass me a beer.”
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to phrase a request, and only a very few of them use bald imperatives or include explicitly ordering someone to do something. Consider a few more examples in the table below.
|What people say||What we understand|
|“I hope you’ll come to dinner tomorrow.”||“Come to dinner tomorrow.”|
|“Sorry, but I’d like to get to my desk.”||“Move over.”|
|“Do you mind if I use your pen?”||“Let me use your pen.”|
But he’s the president — why wouldn’t he just give an order?
Some requests threaten our face more than others, and these requests are typically made more politely.
Brown and Levinson argue that determining the seriousness of a face-threatening act relies on (at least) three factors:
- Social distance between speaker and hearer: how close are the people involved? The closer you are to someone, the more you are able to impose on them. For example, your spouse will probably drive you to the airport no matter how you ask, but a friend-of-a-friend you’ve met twice is much less likely to do so.
- Power dynamics between speaker and hearer: is one person in a position of relative power? If so, the more they are able to impose. All other things being equal, parents can tell their children what to do more directly than the other way around.
- Cultural ideas about rudeness and imposition: of the many ways your face can be threatened, which are the most serious? It’s hard to talk about this one in the abstract, but here are some examples. Is it ruder to arrive late or early to a business meeting? Is it more offensive to insult someone’s work or their mother? Are certain types of work particularly low-status in a way that makes it a particularly difficult favor to ask for? These questions are not culturally universal, and they help determine the severity of a threat to face.
To understand what Trump said to Comey, we need to think about these concerns.
Let’s talk power. On the one hand, it’s significantly less face-threatening for a superior to give a bald on-record request to an inferior than vice versa. On the other hand, we’re more likely to understand even the most indirect request as a request when it comes from a superior.
We can include ethics in this third bucket of cultural norms about rudeness. I noted earlier that people use politeness to save both their own face and the face of the people they’re speaking to. If you’re doing something you know isn’t on the up and up, you might have a particular need to save your own face. And in that case, indirection and negative politeness can provide you with an out. Have you ever told someone their behavior was inappropriate and gotten the response “I was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” That’s a prime example.
And power itself is more complex than you might thing — it’s contextual. As Brown and Levinson note, “A bank manager might be given a high ranking, and a lowly worker a low one. But when the worker pulls a gun, or sits on a jury trying the manager, or represents his union, the power may be reversed.” Similarly, if an employer were to try to enlist the employee in some questionable behavior, the power relations are reversed, in that the employee may now have the ability to blow the whistle. And that description fits what actually happened perfectly.
Context matters, and the committee itself showed it
Senator Harris noted that context matters: “I just want make a statement that, in — in my — my experience of prosecuting cases, when a robber held a gun to somebody’s head, and — and said, ‘I hope you will give me your wallet,’ the word ‘hope’ was not the most operative word at that moment. But you don’t have to respond to that point.”
And Senator King noted that even the vaguely stated wish of a powerful leader is often understood as a command: “In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and then, the next day, he was killed — Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation.”
And this is precisely why linguistic anthropology can be so valuable. It gives us a way to understand what our common sense is telling us. Language isn’t a question of adding up the denotation of each word to some particular sum. Instead, we bring in all kinds of social context as speakers and as hearers. And when the thing being hoped for is within the control of the hearer, our common sense tells us that “I hope” is probably expressing something more than a hope.
In an ironic twist, the committee chair used almost the exact construction the committee spent so much time questioning. In his opening remarks, Senator Burr noted: “There are several outstanding issues not addressed in your statement that I hope you’ll clear up for the American people today.” This is, itself, an indirect way of directing Comey to testify in a particular manner. But Burr was hardly expressing a wish in the abstract; he was speaking directly to Comey. Indeed, his entire opening remarks constitute an indirect directive to Comey, couched in terms of what “the American people need.” We need hardly look further to understand that orders need not be explicit to carry weight.
Note: All transcripts come from the New York Times.