It was a russet!

« previous post | next post »

Today's Dilbert exemplifies a "Rule of Polite Discourse" that's missing from Wikipedia's version:

Presenting commonplace and obvious things as if they were worthy of note might be construed as a "face-threatening act" in the sense of Brown & Levinson's politeness theory, on the grounds that it implies an offensively low level of knowledge. But I don't recall having seen an account of this particular Gricean violation in politeness-theory terms — or for that matter in Gricean or relevance-theory terms either.

Perhaps some commenter can make up for my ignorance…

Update — the next installment:


  1. Rubrick said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    Ignorance implies a lack of knowledge!

  2. Brett said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

    I don't see any reason why Dilbert and Asok should know anything about the particular potato incident being mentioned. That means that assuming their ignorance doesn't seem, to me, to insult them, any more than it would be an insult to you to assume that you don't know that I had pancakes for breakfast yesterday. The facts are perfectly mundane, but nobody who was not directly involved in the incidents in question could be expected to know them. Dilbert and Asok are getting new information (assuming that the blond guy had not, in fact, told them this story before), but it is information of zero value. So these seem like perfect example of the kind of utterances which the Maxim of Relation was meant to rule out.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 5:57 pm

    I think I prefer the theory in Norman Kagan's 1964 SF story The Mathenauts, in which such people with the ability to perceive commonplace and obvious things as if they were worthy of note are essential to the 'psychic ecology' of a ship travelling in mathematical space:

    "You know that Premedial Sensory Perception, the ability to perceive the dull routine that normal people ignore, is a very delicate talent!" Pearl was well launched. "In the dark ages such people were called dullards and subnormals. Only now, in our enlightened age, do we realize their true ability to know things outside the ordinary senses — a talent vital for BC- flight. The tedium and meaninglessness of life which we rationalize away — "

  4. Breffni said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    I'll have a go. The basic principle of relevance theory (as applied to communication) is that, roughly, every communicative act carries with it a promise of optimal relevance for the addressee, where 'relevance' is proportional to number of inferences generated (in a kind of inferential chain reaction), and inversely proportional to the mental effort involved in pursuing those inferences. You can generate inferences out of any new fact, but there are rapidly diminishing returns.

    So every time someone addresses you, there's an implicit undertaking that it'll be worth your while to pay attention. If a communication fails to live up to that promise, then the listener has been imposed upon – they've wasted cognitive resources on the basis of the speaker's implicit promise. And that, I guess, is a threat to negative face (the desire for freedom from imposition) in Brown & Levinson's terms.

    More obviously, talk that barely twitches the needle on your relevance meter is boring by definition, and that's also an imposition. But to show your boredom would be a massive threat to the speaker's positive face (roughly, desire to be approved of), one you may not wish to inflict. So you're cornered.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    I agree with Brett with respect to the first frame: "So these seem like perfect example of the kind of utterances which the Maxim of Relation was meant to rule out."

    The third frame seems to violate something else (persisting to develop the subject in the face of a clear statement of disinterest). That might be Brown & Levinson.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

    Presenting commonplace and obvious things as if they were worthy of note … implies an offensively low level of knowledge.

    I don't think this remark applies to the blond guy's utterance, which is the question Did I tell you about the time I saw a potato?. From this question and the reaction of the listeners, it is probable that the blond guy has told the story or a similarly uninteresting one before, even more than once. The embedded clause I saw a potato describes a situation which is indeed commonplace and unworthy of note, but it does not imply anything about the level of knowledge of the listeners, whose likely reaction could be a bored So what? rather than a defensive You think you know more than we do. Replace potato by hippopotamus and the situation might be quite different (unless the speaker had told the story before) but the original question would still not be insulting to the listeners.

  7. D.O. said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

    I took it (saw potato — Russet) as a well-worn joke. But judging by other commenters' reaction it is not, at least outside the Dilbert strip.

  8. Gene Callahan said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 12:38 am

    @Brett: "I don't see any reason why Dilbert and Asok should know anything about the particular potato incident being mentioned."

    Well, the thing I think we are supposed to infer is that there is nothing "particular" about this potato: it was a russet, a very common variety. That's it: not a giant russet, or a bright pink russet, or a blighted russet. The guy just saw a plain old potato and wants to describe it as if he had seen a gorilla at the grocery story.

  9. Tungsten said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 3:07 am

    Gene Callahan – I'm UK English speaker – to me "russet" is a variety of apple with a rough, dull skin, so this baffled me, until I saw your post.

  10. Dick Margulis said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    @ Tungsten:

    The word is simply descriptive in the case of apples. It is the name of a variety in the case of potatoes (but named as such descriptively).

    This has been a Cliff Clavin moment, brought to you by the blond guy. I had nothing to do with it.

  11. Flex said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 6:25 am

    I feel for the guy.

    There is a porridge-like blandness in some lives where a story of a russet potato might be a life-altering event. Similar, but maybe not as dramatic, as the girder falling in Hammett's, The Maltese Falcon (the book).

    Then there is the problem of fabricating interesting conversations out of whole cloth, which Blenkinthrope experiences in Saki's short story, The Seventh Pullet. When something noteworthy does occur in an otherwise placid life, no one takes any notice.

    Sometimes I think Gabriel Syme from Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday is correct. The most sublime poetry is that of the mundane.

    But then, I like potatoes.

  12. Poiuy said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    There are people whose theory of mind is deficient, and who cannot compute what Breffni (above) calls "optimal relevance for the addressee". I was in a meeting with one of them yesterday. The stories they tell are not any kind of violation, as Mark and Asok take them to be. They are just the result of a disability. I think Asok's reaction to the disability is funny, but Mark's is not. In my meeting one of the other participants had obvious difficulty knowing how to react to the stories. I thought that was quite funny too, but I've had a word with her boss about it.

  13. Brett said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    In today's strip, Alice reveals that everyone in the office calls the blond guy "Plantkiller" (which I have a hard time not reading as "Planetkiller").

  14. Walter Burley said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    No luck googling this _Pogo_ vignette from the 50s (corrections of my imperfect recollection are welcome):

    Some swamp denizen (Churchy LaFemme-?) is trying to get a newspaper (_The Okenenokee Bugle_-??) going. Another character (Rackety Coon Chile-?) bursts on scene with a hot story: "My daddy seed a cat last year."

    Churchy: "That aint hardly news. Everybody must of is seed a cat some time or other."

    RCC: "Well, this wasn't exackly a cat, more of a armadillo."

    Churchy: "Armadillo! Why didn't you say so?"

    RCC: "Uh, kin you spell 'armadillo', Chief?"

    Churchy (after a pause): "Hold the presses! We got a great cat story for page 1."

  15. Rick said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    My mother in law does this all the time. The last time I saw her, she had brought us some honey. At some point, she saw it and asked me, "Do you know the story behind this honey?" I immediately had the feeling expressed in the second panel above, and then she regales me with a five minute discourse, where the final and only "story behind the honey" is that they know and got it from the person who made it.

    This happens all the time, and it would be OK, if she would say, "You know, we got this honey from some friends who raise the bees themselves." But instead, there's a "hook" as if there's an actual anecdote to tell, and then waaaay more information than needed: There are these people we know, this is how we know them, this is our shared history, they have kids, this is what their kids are doing now, this is where they live, we've visited them recently, well, they actually raise bees…" Father-in-law finally interrupts: "We got the honey from them!" End of "story."

    I cry.

  16. Jim said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    @Brett: "I don't see any reason why Dilbert and Asok should know anything about the particular potato incident being mentioned."

    I don't think it has anything to do with what they they about a potato but whether or not they care. This is about this guy inflicting boredom on these guys.

    It's odd that this joke doesn't immediately resonate with linguists, who certainly have plenty of real-life experience of seeing how bored the rest of the world is with the minutiae of language we all find so fascinating.

  17. Brett said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    @Jim: Exactly so. I was arguing against the idea that Plantkiller is rude because his utterance "that it implies an offensively low level of knowledge." It's not rude because it assumes that Dilbert and Asok don't know something mundane; it's rude because it assumes they are interested in something that is not interesting.

    And just to clarify, I am not a linguist. I'm a physicist.

  18. KevinR said,

    March 27, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

    @D.O.: "I took it (saw potato — Russet) as a well-worn joke. But judging by other commenters' reaction it is not, at least outside the Dilbert strip."

    I keep on reading it like a 'German' joke:
    "Did I tell you about the time I saw a peanut? … It was assaulted."

  19. Colin Fine said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 5:25 am

    Dick Margulies: the Wikipedia article supports your statement in respect of apples. But it does not agree with my personal experience where "russet" is the name of a variety (my favourite variety) of apple, formally known as Egremont Russet. If I asked a greengrocer for russets and was offered anything other than Egremont Russet apples, I would be surprised.

RSS feed for comments on this post