There is little joy to be had listening to politicians these days. This was confirmed by interviewer David Speers recently as he prepared to take over the ABC’s Insiders.
People are just switching off, Speers noted. His explanation? “Our leaders just don’t talk to us in the way that real people do.”
Linguistics can shed light on what he means by this.
Fifty years ago, British philosopher of language Paul Grice proposed a model to explain how meaningful communication between speakers is made possible.
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Key to this is our dependence on certain co-operative norms. Grice dubbed these the “maxims of conversation”.
He identified four:
- Being truthful (quality)
- Being relevant (relation)
- Saying no more and no less than is required (quantity)
- Being clear (manner).
Many of the less-than-impressive aspects of politicians’ talk can be understood in terms of how these basic principles are violated.
Let me illustrate with examples from our prime minister’s recent communications.
Maxim of quality
Be truthful. Do not say what you know or believe to be false.
While we expect basic truthfulness in conversations with our fellows, this has never been a requirement for a successful political career (see “the Iraqi regime has weapons of mass destruction”).
Our PM is beginning to chalk up something of record in this area. A recent standout case was his claim to have had a conversation with the young pregnant woman during his ill-fated visit to Cobargo. The video evidence shows the PM turning his back on the woman and walking away.
The out-and-out lie is sadly becoming more and more a feature of modern political discourse. Its prevalence in this country would reward greater investigation. The New York Times now keeps a tally of Trumpian untruths.
Arguably more common, however — and probably more insidious — is the carefully concocted half-truth. Our PM has a particularly assured and forceful way of delivering these. Thus, the following from his recent National Press Club address:
Question: So why did you [administer the sports funds] that way?
PM: To support local communities … and to ensure that girls didn’t have to change out the back of the shed.
Linguistic studies have shown that acts of verbal deception are often associated with certain give-away voice cues: hesitations, speech errors, pause frequency.
It seems a particular talent of the PM that these are rarely detectable in his delivery.
Maxim of relation
Be relevant. Talk about what is pertinent to the conversation.
David Speers notes the entrenched techniques of politicians used to subvert this maxim of relevance: scripted messages and talking points, sometimes repeated at absurd length.
The PM has honed his own particular techniques here. One of the more notable ones is to pivot quickly away from giving any account of his actions (a past tense timeframe) and to move straight into the realm of the present and future.
Thus, at the National Press Club, the first question he faced was an invitation to reflect on his handling (or mishandling) of events over the summer:
Question: … if you had your time again, what would you have done differently?
And the response:
PM: … Well, what I tend to do is focus on the tasks that I need to do each and every day.
The impression intended in such a switch is of a man unencumbered by the past, whose gaze is always fixed on the nation and its future. In short, an action man.
Maxim of quantity
Say no more and no less than what is required.
The commentaries of politicians invariably give us the inverse of these two requirements — too much of what we don’t want (verbiage), and not enough of what we do (genuinely important information).
Scott Morrison has shown himself an adept violator of both these principles.
Regarding the former (a surfeit of information), the PM has a particular gift for simply running on, the function of which is to run down the clock in interviews, so limiting the number of questions that can be asked.
However, it is in avoiding giving information that the PM really shines. These are the now notorious ScoMo shutdowns.
Thus, along with the standard clichés — e.g. “I reject the premise of your question” and “I don’t respond to hypotheticals” — Morrison draws on a range of unique slogans coined over his career: “on water matters”; “that’s a bubble question”; “that’s gossip”; and “that’s not even a debate”.
British linguist, Peter Bull has identified 35 different ways that politicians avoid interview questions. Many of these feature in the PM’s playbook.
Maxim of manner
Be clear, avoid ambiguities, organise your thoughts in meaningful ways.
We all struggle to be clear in the messages we convey. For politicians, the struggle often seems to be in achieving the reverse effect.
How else are we to explain the following construction from the PM when asked at his Press Club appearance about his office’s involvement in the Bridget McKenzie sports rorts affair?
PM: All we did was provide information on the representations made to us.
What many assume to have been the active involvement of the PM’s office in the rorts affair here becomes the “providing of information on representations”. It will be the task of journalists in the days ahead to uncover what that tortured phrase might actually mean.
The public’s faith and trust in politicians seems in terminal decline nowadays. One way to arrest this decline would be to simply require them to speak more like real people.
Timothy Moore is a lecturer in linguistics and literacy at Swinburne University of Technology.