Office

“Would you like to come up and have a drink?”

One of the fascinating aspects of my job is listening to what patients don’t say, or to be more specific, what they are trying to say but don’t do clearly or directly. This is called an “indirect speech act”. People do this all the time. We veil our statements in innuendo and hope the listener will read between the lines and get our point not bluntly stated.

An iconic example is the question ‘Would you like to come up for a drink?” which everyone knows means ‘Would you like to come up and have sex?”

Language has two functions: it has to convey some content and negotiate a relationship type. But why do this when there is no uncertainty? It is hard to believe anyone is so naif as to not recognize being asked to come up for drink is anything but a proposition.  Yet it is more comfortable to ask someone to come up to see my apartment  than a direct overture for sex. In an unclear relationship, a blunt proposition may be not polite.

There is individual knowledge and mutual knowledge. In the former ‘X” knows something, and “Y” knows it too, but does “X” know that “Y” knows? In mutual knowledge ‘X” knows that “Y” knows, and “Y” knows that “X‘ knows that “Y” knows, and so on.

Innuendos provide the safety of individual knowledge, while direct speech conveys mutual knowledge.

I recently saw a drama where Henry VIII uses indirect speech acts to propose marriage to Catherine Parr. She knows he is asking, but doesn’t go with his innuendos. He suggests he would bring his children back to court ‘if you would mother them”. She responds in a bewildered tone “Sire?”  He finally resorts to direct speech and creates mutual knowledge: “God’s death! (he exclaims) Are we playing tennis? I’m asking will you marry me?”  There is no negotiation now, ‘it’s out there’.  She has to  say yeah or nay.

Back to the ‘Would you like to come up for a drink?” example. If you say ‘Would you like to come up and have sex?” there is mutual knowledge and you can no longer maintain the fiction of friendship.

Think of this next time you are texting on Grindr. 🙂

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