I called my wife's cell phone and she answered "I'm at Rhodes Jewelry with Wayne Rhodes, negotiating …" (for all non-Wilmingtonians, it's a top high-end shop, and she was with the owner). I didn't know if I should respond like 90% of the men I know and say, "Uh, Oh," or simply, "Oh, No!" - or whether to go the way of wisdom represented by the shrewd 10% who know what they're doing and respond, "That's great, honey, really great! Say hi to him. I hope you have a wonderful time there!" Instead, I told her to tell him that, depending on how the negotiation worked out, I could just bring him my car as a trade and walk home.
"Uh, Oh," versus "That's great." Our words matter. And they send signals beyond their obvious content.
I've begun this post with a title that reflects the name of a famous little book in linguistic philosophy, by the British writer JL Austin, that was one of the classics of its time, many decades ago. Austin wanted to remind us that linguistic acts, or speech acts, can do more than one thing at the same time. And it's good to remember this in our fraught political time.
When my wife ways, "It's hot in here," I know not to just agree with her and perhaps lament the truth of what she says. I know to get up, walk into another room, and turn down the thermostat. When I say, "It's hot in here," she may simply remind me that I know where the thermostat is. Our reactions are different but both show we understand that more can be going on in such a statement than the mere declaration of fact or perceived fact itself. There is an implicit request or suggestion for an action or series of actions that underlies the saying.
Politicians and their words do that all the time. Journalists talk of "dog whistles" when a political figure by his choice of words or retweets means to be signalling someone of something that's best unsaid. But those same political figures are also most often seemingly unaware that their other words and statements in other contexts send multiple signals beyond their propositional or clear linguistic content. Austin and others have called this "conversational implicature" to distinguish it from logical implication. The lesson for us all is to be careful in what we say and how we say it, for many listeners may hear things we never intended, and before we know it, things are happening that we may or may not have invited with those words, and we're on the way to turn down the thermostat.