One of the main sources of uncertainty in our lives is the medium we use to communicate about that world: our language. There are many pitfalls to clear communication among which is the problem of implied meaning and subtext. Below is an excerpt from a chapter of The Certainty of Uncertainty entitled “The Slipperiness of Language” reflecting on this very point:

Implied Meaning and Subtext

As I sit here writing this chapter, there is a young college student across the table. It’s that time of year when colds are making their rounds and this young man is sniffling. Repeatedly. I reach into my bag and pull out one of those travel packets of tissues. “You need a Kleenex?” I ask him. “No, thanks. I’m good,” he responds. He has misunderstood my statement; it wasn’t a question. It was a face-saving declaration to him that he needed a Kleenex. He understood the text of my question but neither the subtext (your constant sniffling is driving me crazy) nor the implied meaning (please blow your nose).

This kind of miscommunication happens all the time, and the difference in the perception of a subtext between two speakers can make the dynamics of conversation very different. Consider these two different exchanges:

Alex: What are you doing tonight?
Pat: I’m going to the movies with my friend Chris.
Alex: That sounds like fun.

Alex: What are you doing tonight?
Pat: Nothing. Probably just sitting around and watching TV.
Alex: (Dejectedly) Oh.

In the first example, there is little subtext other than Alex’s interest in information. When the information is received, Alex feels satisfied. In the second example, Alex is disappointed with this exchange, even though, on its sur- face, the question is identical to the one in the first example. In theory, Alex should feel the same satisfaction felt in the first example.

However, as you’ve probably already figured out, the question “What are you doing tonight?” was not a request for information in the second case. It was a prompt for invitation and, unlike a neutral request for information, this question has a right answer. The question really means “Why don’t we do something tonight if you’re not busy?” and the exchange is expected to go like this:

Alex: What are you doing tonight?
Pat: Nothing. Why don’t we go get some dinner and see a movie?
Alex: That would be great.

This is a satisfactory exchange from Alex’s point of view because the implied meaning of the question has been addressed. Individuals get into trouble when they fail to perceive the hidden question behind the question, as did a former student of mine who upon being asked to “come over and see” the new apartment of a female friend, did exactly that: he went over, looked around, commented approvingly, and left. He did not, as his friend expect- ed, hang out, stay for dinner, watch a movie, and then go home. He wound up in the doghouse for a few days—never understanding why.

Sometimes, the error lies in imagining there to be an implied meaning that isn’t there. That too happens all the time, occasionally with dire consequences.

In the middle of the twelfth century, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, found himself in a feud with the reigning king of England, Henry II. After serving a brief time in exile abroad, Becket returned to England at the king’s invitation. After his return, he excommunicated a bishop loyal to the king. Frustrated, Henry stalked the halls of his palace and lamented out loud. According to one tradition, he said, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” [8] Or, according to other historians, “What miser- able drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric.” [9] In either case, a group of knights understood the king’s ranting to be giving them a command and immediately rode to Canterbury, where they brutally and very publicly murdered Becket in the cathedral. In this instance, the knights interpreted the king’s statement as having an implied meaning: go kill the archbishop.

The question of subtext and implied meaning is present in another very common kind of speech: indirect speech. In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David and his wife, Cheryl, have gone to an exclusive restaurant where the wait for a table is nearly an hour. Larry approaches the maître d’:

Larry: I’m curious; about how long is the wait?
Maître d’: I’m afraid it looks like forty-five minutes to an hour.
Larry: Forty-five minutes . . . no way to get in—
Maître d’: No, we’re very crowded this evening, sir.
Larry: Nothing else can be done?
Maître d’: Nothing that I can think of, sir.
Larry: Things are done, right? I hear things are done.
Maître d’: From time to time.
Larry: (Surreptitiously sliding his palm across the host stand and dropping something in the maître d’s hand) Anything you can do…
Maître d’: Actually, I think we can accommodate you right now. Would you like to follow me? [10]

The entire content of this conversation is taking place on an indirect, im- plied level. Larry does not approach the maître d’ and ask whether he can bribe him for a table. Nor does the maître d’ ever directly suggest that he try. [11] The reasons for indirect speech are complex and frequently involve all manner of social implications, particularly the desire for all parties involved to save face. [12] What is clear is that there are not only utterances that depend on reading the subtext, there are also entire conversations that require careful attention to subtext and implied meaning. Misunderstanding can occur when one party or the other to a conversation is oblivious to the implied subtext or supplies subtext when none exists.


8. Ibeji, “Becket, the Church and Henry II.”
9. Caris, “10 Tiny Miscommunications.”
10. Gordon, “Affirmative Action.”
11. It turns out in any event that Larry slipped the maître d’ his wife’s prescription for skin cream, rather than the $20 bill he had stashed in the same pocket.
12. Pinker, Language, Cognition, 304.

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