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Friday, February 25, 2005

I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But

Simon Cowell of American Idol fame has published a new book titled I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But. The surprising thing is not that he has written such a book -- Who else knows more about being rude than Mr. Cowell? -- but that Oprah, who is the quintessential nice person, has given her imprimatur to Cowell's book.

Examples like

1. I don't mean to sound rude, but we sure get a lot of really inane posts here
2. I don't mean to interrupt but did you hear that Sam married Sally?
3. I'm not trying to tell you what to do, but you should consider acting a little nicer to your boss.

are very strange for in saying or writing them, we commit the very offenses against our norms of politeness -- Don't be rude; Don't interrupt; Don't tell people how they should act -- that we say we don't intend to commit. Compare an example like (1) with (4) to get a sense of why they are odd.

4. I don't mean to say that Mr. Cowell is rude but Mr. Cowell is rude.

Sentence (4) makes no sense whatever. Though it looks a bit like a contradiction it isn't one. However, like a contradiction, it doesn't communicate anything -- at least not anything specific. On the other hand, (1)-(3) are perfectly comprehensible.

To understand what is going on here we have to recognize that when we speak (or write) we are doing things (see Wikipedia on Speech Acts) besides simply talking. In the case of (1)-(3), we actually are doing two quite distinct things. With the second part of these sentences we are saying something that would normally be taken to be offensive. With the first part, we are trying to mitigate this offense by saying that we do not intend to be committing the very offense we are in fact committing. What is interesting is that we normally do not take offense when something like (1)-(3) is said to us. We seem to have a social convention that legitimizes them.

This will not always work. Suppose I am a stranger to you and that I say (5) to you.

(5) I don't mean to be rude but you are exceedingly fat.

I feel pretty confident that you would not give me a free pass in this case. It is more likely that you would coldcock me.

Examples like these are just one small case of the politeness phenomena that abound in the use of English or any other language. We will have occasion to touch on many others in later blogs.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

I love the premise of your blog. Our language is assaulted from all sides these days and we need someone willing to defend it. It disturbs me that our language, the key of communication, is mercilessly manipulated with such frequency. As for Ms. Winfrey's book selection I think there may be more to the choice than actual content. Sometimes we have to look at who is behind the curtain and pulling the strings to find the truth. I have the suspicion that Oprah may have her money where her mouth is. It may be interesting to know who owns the production company of American Idol, or the publisher of the book in question. All too often it is money making the world go around.

12:04 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Thanks for your kind words.

As far as I can tell after a bit of web searching, Oprah has no financial interests in the publishing world. In fact, if she were to be caught promoting books she had a financial interest in, I suspect her pristine reputation would take a nasty hit.

12:24 PM

 
Blogger Jonathan Benda said...

I think some of the examples you describe (such as (1) and (3), and maybe (5)) are examples of a rhetorical figure known as parrhesia, defined on Silva Rhetoricae as "Either to speak candidly or to ask forgiveness for so speaking. Sometimes considered a vice." In instances like (1) and (3) (especially 3), there seems to be a sense of duty on the part of the speaker to make a comment that the listener might consider offensive, so the speaker asks forgiveness (directly or indirectly) to mitigate the offense. But the speaker still feels a responsibility or a need to say what s/he says.

Perhaps part of the reason that (5) is so offensive is that most people, I'd suspect, wouldn't be able to accept the stranger's presumption that he or she has a duty or responsibility to comment--and comment so bluntly--on the listener's appearance. This, I suppose, is when this rhetorical figure would be considered a vice.

9:57 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The shall we say correct and sensitive intention behind the formula is to acknowledge and leave open to judgement your bending of the rules.

However it can sometimes be used with the opposite implication, along the lines of "my behaviour may appear to be rude to little people like you, but ultimately I decide what's rude or not, and I decide whether you're right to be offended or not".

6:40 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I am quite ignorant of rhetoric as a discipline. It is not something that we linguists get involved in. I have encountered academics who have an interest in it in literature and communication departments. From reading about parrhesia at the site, I can't quite see how it bears on the issues being discussed. But, then, this view of communication is foreign to me.

7:56 AM

 
Anonymous Audrey said...

This is an interesting post, but I have to agree with Jonathan Benda, that these are indeed examples of parrhesia and so, very germane to the topic under discussion, if only as a pragmatic facet.

The other thing that caught my eye is Sentence 4. I think this sentence is perfectly comprehensible in context; if a speaker utters it to call attention to the parrhesia he/she is committing or add emphasis to the embedded statement "I think Simon Cowell is rude". To say it makes no sense whatsoever veers towards prescriptivism. Perhaps it's easier to think of the semantic value of the statement as a contrast between semantics and pragmatics.

9:51 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I think we are running afoul of how different disciplines approach linguistic issues. I don't mean to say that these examples are not instances of parrhesia. The problem for me is that within the pragmatic framework I work, rhetorical notions like this one and others at the site referred to don't figure into our accounts of language use. That doesn't mean they are defective concepts.

One of the things about theories is that they necessarily slice the world up in somewhat arbitrary ways. The up side of that is that there is always room for competing views of lingusitic and behavioral issues. And that would include rhetorical approaches.

While I would agree wholeheartedly that context is always critical in language understanding (my book Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction is predicated on just that assumption, I struggle to think of a real world conversation in which it might plausibly occur except to make a joke. Nevertheless, my claim was over strong.

10:51 AM

 
Anonymous Kung fu Librarian said...

We (former) English majors call this "apophasis," but I'm sure you already knew that...usually employed during grand apostrophe (often political).

Love your site.

-KFL

2:18 PM

 
Blogger Renaissance Scientist said...

I think this method of starting off a sentence with "I don't mean to be rude to you ..." is very powerful and wise too. I mean, come on, if your boss came to office one day without taking a shower and you sincerely wanted to let him know that he is creating more chaos than usual, then how else would you pass the message to him than the following wonderful statement?

"Hi Boss, I don't mean to be rude to you, but you stink like a rotten egg."

12:08 PM

 

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