Communication notes: Presuppositions

Before I get to analyzing why I find Robin DiAngelo so toxic I’ll give a little background on communication. You probably know this but… it doesn’t hurt to spell it out.

An important concept in communication is the presupposition which means (roughly) what the receiver of a sequence of language needs to accept as true in order to understand it. This has to do not only with the meanings of words found in a dictionary but also includes lots of other things.

For example, if someone says “Janet’s house is nice” the recipient accepts that the speaker knows a person named “Janet” and this person has a house that can be labelled as hers and that in the subjective opinion of the speaker said house is nice (and that the speaker feels entitled to tell whoever they’re talking to about it and some other stuff that’s not relevant).

Certain structures in English carry with them certain presuppositions. A possessive carries with it the idea that the thing possessed exists. This is not true in all languages and in Hungarian, for example,  “my nice house” (a szép otthonom) doesn’t necessarily exist and in fact “My nice house doesn’t exist” is a normal sentence in Hungarian that doesn’t sound weird as the English version does (A szép otthonom nincs means “I don’t have a nice house”).

Attached to specific words, presuppositions are often called ‘connotations’ and often the ‘same’ word has very different connotations in different languages. The English word adequate has negative connotations and nobody would like their efforts labeled as ‘adequate’ which people understand as ‘barely good enough’. The Polish equivalent however ‘adekwatny’ has none of this negative baggage and the word is used unironically as praise.

Presuppositions can also include things that are part of the meaning of a sequence of language that is not found in the words being used.

For example is someone says “Even Jack could pass that class” (the heavy emphasis on Jack is necessary) the receiver knows that Jack is not a very good student and that class isn’t very hard. On the other hand change the word order a bit and you have “Jack could even pass that class” and suddenly Jack is a star student and the class is very challenging. But in neither sentence is there overt mention of Jack’s abilities or the difficulty of the class.

The meaning of sentences tends to be more than the sum of the meanings of the individual words. All language communities share hundreds if not thousands of presuppositions and native speakers understand them without trying. On the other hand a different language community speaking the “same” language might have very different presuppositions built into their versions of the language (which can make communication tricky for speakers of languages like English or Spanish that are used in different countries).

Also, non-native speakers tend to miss many presuppositions since they tend to focus on the surface meaning of the words and might not realize the additional accrued communication functions they have acquired. This is a frequent cause of intercultural confusion and conflict. If you’re ever speaking a second language with a native speaker and they suddenly start behaving very oddly then chances are that you’ve managed to convey information that you didn’t intend to. By the same token if a non-native speaker of your language says something that makes you start to feel or act oddly then they may not have realized what they said and you might want to give them the benefit of a doubt.

Trying to figure out what went wrong is probably impossible though. I’ve been on both sides of that particular interaction and unfortunately trying to ask questions about what’s just happened generally just makes things worse.

I’ll end this entry on that cheery note.



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4 Responses to Communication notes: Presuppositions

  1. methylethyl says:

    I eagerly await the next installment.

  2. el says:

    // I eagerly await the next installment.

    Me too. I watched Robin DiAngelo’s interview on YouTube, but she said nothing about blacks there, except the case in which a black co-worker called her out for referring to the latter’s hair as a joke in a professional context. DiAngelo and two black woman were working together – giving diversity seminars on race – and then DiAngelo said to a forth (black) woman something like: “They don’t want [co-worker’s name] to give another seminar. Must have been frightened by her hair.”

    Later, DiAngelo talked with co-workers and apologized.

    Now I think her comment was insensitive, considering US history, but I haven’t noticed where she is toxic and disparaging to black people. Hope you’ll give specific examples of her statements in the next post, so I’ll understand what you mean.

    • cliff arroyo says:

      That’s exactly the example I want to analyze – a lot there and none of it very nice.

      • el says:

        // That’s exactly the example I want to analyze – a lot there and none of it very nice.

        I don’t have American sensibilities and socialization, but can imagine saying the wrong thing by accident without thinking too much. Has happened to me in the past, I suppose.

        Her job was literally lecturing others about race non-stop, so no wonder (ironic by intention) joke that popped into her head was about race too.

        Don’t think making one tasteless, insensivite joke brands someone racist.

        Another time she mentioned blacks in the videos I watched was regarding a case of a school teacher calling a female black student “girl”. The student was shocked, yet her female black friend told her this teacher calls students of all races “girls.” I know black men were insultingly called ‘boys’ (thus “I am a man” slogan), but didn’t know about women and don’t know the current connotations of ‘a girl’, so cannot estimate the degree to which the teacher was in the wrong.

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