Implication vs insinuation

by Hazard

I’ve been leading Suspended on a bit lately, telling him I’m going to write something about how frames and context interact with communication. My main interest writing that piece was to clearly pinpoint and differentiate the subset of implication that is insinuation, so that I can talk about fuckey dynamics around insinuation without people going down the garden path of telling me that you can never eliminate context. So, briefly, implication. And then, insinuation.

In The Literature TM, Grice is known for bringing the idea of implication/implicature into linguistics (yes, it took till the 70’s, be patient, they’re academics). The classic example, someone stops at a convenience store, tells the clerk I’m out of gas” and the clerk responds There’s a gas station around the corner.” That the traveler was looking for help finding gas was not explicitly communicated, but was implied via the context. Various words can be contextual to the speaking context, words like me” and now” and this”. But besides resolving the referents of particular words and phrases that are ambiguous without context, there’s a broader way in which all communication is contextual to your understanding the world, your interlocutor, and what you think you’re both trying to do by saying words. The clerk understands the empty tank traveler because why else would someone say they’re out of gas if not to inquire about where to get more? The clerk knows how being out of gas” works and is responding to The Situation. Non-sequiturs can only be a thing because people are always attending to what is The Situation and what are we both doing here?” in a very general sense.

There’s a sort of figure-ground dynamic where the shared understanding of the pre-linguistic Situation” is the ground that allows explicit communication to even be a figure. I love Crispy’s snap-to-grid” analogy. Explicit communication provides a set of structured references that pair down possible things you could be talking about and doing via talking about them, and it’s the ground, the Situation, that allows your utterances to snap-to-grid” and form a coherent unit of communication that another person can interact with. Without the so what?”, no communication really makes sense. The only reason this isn’t always obvious is because the so what?” can be so simple, general, or obvious that it barely feels worth mentioning. If I shout Fire!” the so what?” is so patently obvious to any person who’s flammable, the snap-to-grid happens so instantaneously, that it barely feels like a step” in the process of understanding. If I’m just shooting the shit with my friends, the so what?” can be so casual and general (we enjoy each others company and like saying funny things and sharing what’s been on our minds), that it doesn’t even feel goal oriented” or purposeful”, especially given how people tend to only use the languages of goals” and purpose” in stupidly narrow contexts (“babe, you haven’t even touched your OKRs this quarter”).

So Grice has claimed the terms implicature and implication for this very broad aspect of communication. Colloquially, when I hear people use the word implication they’re often talking about what’s better described as insinuation. Oh yeah? And what exactly are you trying to imply, huh?” I’d characterize insinuation as leaving core pieces of what you want to communicate in implicit channels, and refusing to clarify or disambiguate what you mean if another party inquires. Insinuation is the commitment to keeping your communication implicit.

It’s impossible to entirely eliminate context and implication from your communication. And there’s nothing particularly admirable about unconditionally striving for more explicitness (though there are many conditional situations where it is useful and admirable). Insinuation, on the other hand, does not hold such a privileged position. The core function of insinuation is to be able to communicate without taking intersubjective responsibility for your communication.

One key weakness of insinuation as a tool is that, for the most part, you can only use it to check if someone else already understands something. You can’t really create new understandings between people with it. You can do game recognizes game” like checks with subtle subtext, but you can’t teach someone a game with it. And that puts a serious limit on your ability to coordinate and solve hard problems with people. An example from the dark-side. There was an interview with Julian Assange where he mentioned how the manual for prison guards at Guantanamo Bay included lots of explicit instructions for fucked up shit like falsifying records for the Red Cross. Why would they do something so incriminating? Because insinuation through subtext is a very limited tool that isn’t up to the task of even something as simple” as teaching a bunch of guards how to run a prison camp. If a guard already knows the ropes, already shares all the context, yes you can give them non-incriminating orders to do fucked up shit via insinuation. But you can’t create context.

There’s no existing context in the world that I’d be simply content to just sync up with others on. Most things I care about doing involve creating new contexts with people, learning from each other, and organizing complex shit. So I’ve got a pretty low opinion of insinuation as a tool, and an abysmal opinion of contexts and institutions where insinuation is the M.O. for communicating.