When Literal Honesty Goes Awry

When is it NOT appropriate to bluntly speak the truth? We’ve all heard someone be insulting and resort to the defense of “Well, it’s true!” Even boring, inoffensive facts can become offensive if brought up inartfully. I think this is a perfect example, illustrated by the hilarious comedy team of David Mitchell and Robert Webb:

I mean, technically it’s true. The literal fact that “anyone we know is unlikely to be the most attractive person on earth” shouldn’t hurt feelings. Nobody should think that much of themselves!

…And yet, it’s rude to say. Why?

I think that’s because nobody took Robert’s original statement “this is the most beautiful woman in the world” at its face value. It violated the maxim of quality – the literal meaning was clearly false so people look for alternative interpretations (“She’s beautiful and I love her” or “She’s very attractive in a combination of ways”).

Since nobody took it seriously at face value, challenges to the claim are perceived as challenging the alternate interpretations rather than the literal meaning. The very decision to call attention to it makes a statement. Why would David be so motivated to discuss her beauty unless he strenuously disagreed with her beauty? So, in essence, he’s saying “No, she’s not very beautiful.”

Yes, David’s literal content is true: she’s not the most beautiful person in the world. But so much of our reaction to a statement is is really a reaction to its implied meaning, and it’s tough to get around that. Initial gut reactions can be powerful.

But it’s possible to do it right. I love having the opportunity to share the awesome and incredible Tim Minchin song If I Didn’t Have You:

Somehow, when Tim does it, the honest approach works better. People often claim that they DO have a soul mate, so it isn’t automatically interpreted as a figure of speech for something more casual.

But it’s particularly important the way he addresses the literal meanings. Compare “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but not off the charts” with “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but you fall within a bell-curve.” It’s a strange enough statement to make people think about it harder and realize he’s not being snide.

I found myself thinking of something Steven Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought:

The incongruity in a fresh literary metaphor is another ingredient that gives it its pungency. The listener resolves the incongruity soon enough by spotting the underlying similarity, but the initial double take and subsequent brainwork conveys something in addition. It implies that the similarity is not apparent in the humdrum course of everyday life, and that the author is presenting real news in forcing it upon the listener’s attention.

Pinker was writing about using new metaphors to emphasize non-literal meaning, but it works the other way as well. Fresh phrasings – in this case gloriously nerdy ones – make listeners pay more attention to parsing the intended meaning, metaphorical or literal.

If you’re worried about being misinterpreted, try a creative way of expressing the same thought. Protesting “But I was telling the truth!” won’t always be enough.

10 Responses to When Literal Honesty Goes Awry

  1. Great post – really intersting 🙂

    Also – that Tim Minchin song is brilliant – I’m glad you shared that!

  2. kitchenmudge says:

    Random visitor here.

    I made a somewhat related observation in my own blog a while back, about literal meaning vs meaning that the cultural context gives it.


  3. We’ve all heard someone be insulting and resort to the defense of “Well, it’s true!” Even boring, inoffensive facts can become offensive if brought up inartfully.

    I don’t think anyone doubts this. I don’t even see how it’s an issue.

    In the episode of The Office where Michael tells Creed (the oldest employee in the office), “The older you get, the more likely it is you’re going to die,” I’m pretty sure everyone watching realizes that this comment is inappropriate even though it’s true.

    The problem is when people insist a statement is false because it’s offensive. Steven Pinker himself has made this point, saying that it’s a category error to deny a statement on the grounds that it’s offensive.

    To the extent that you’re suggesting that some people are in favor of saying any true statement in any context no matter how offensive it is, I think you’re attacking a straw man. I don’t know of anyone who takes this position. The interesting, prevalent fallacy is that offensiveness equates to falsity.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      The interesting, prevalent fallacy is that offensiveness equates to falsity.

      That IS an interesting question! Off the cuff, I wonder how motivated reasoning influences people’s perception of offensive claims. Are people more likely to believe offensive statements about someone they dislike than a friend?

      And you’re right, perhaps I should have made it clearer that I was referring to statements which, literal-content-wise, really aren’t insults, like “there are people on Earth more attractive than her”. Rather than “Well, it’s true!” the better retort to examine in this context would be “It shouldn’t be offensive!”

      Even with the example from The Office, I’m fascinated by the social dynamic that makes Michael’s statement inappropriate.

      I’m interested in when the literal meaning shouldn’t offend but the implied meaning does, and how to convey the literal meaning without offense.

  4. Steven Brent says:

    Great post, thanks. I’m finding that the more I strive to be rigorous in my thought, and the greater the effort I make in expressing my thoughts accurately, the harder time I have being understood by those around me. So much of communication seems to be heuristic and based on an unspoken agreement not to think too deeply about what’s being said. Some slack-giving is probably warranted among friends, but still…..

  5. Tim Minchin was asked on the Jonathan Ross chat show if his wife was upset about that song and he answered something like “well yes, because at first she thought it was about love, but once she understood it was a song about maths she was OK”

  6. PepGiraffe says:

    Is anyone else thinking, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”? Or is it just this one lone English major?

  7. Jimmy says:

    He said she was the most beautiful woman in the world to them about her.To him she is,not to us all.Everyone views everything differently.Everybody does not drink soda nor go to auctions.Everyone prefers different hints which is why all are unique and that s why the world has more than one religion and more than one style.Everyone needs to be themselves or else everyone would be trying to be like everyone and that would not be fine at all unless we agreed to give each other space and not confuse each other and mix up each others job descriptions and lives.Otherwise anarchy would be occurring in a lot of places world wide.

  8. Jimmy says:

    I learned that Ricky Nelson was right when he sang in his ong “Garden Party” that “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself” is one of the most universally true line of any tricks ever written and that it never changes regardless of the ages or the times unless everyone compromised their ethics,morals and values to get along which won’t happen unless everyone wanted it to happen.

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