Communication games

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "You're saying that the responsibility for avoiding miscommunication lies entirely with the listener, not the speaker, which explains why you haven't been able to convince anyone to help you down from that wall."


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 6:03 pm

    I'm normally a great fan of XKCD, but this seems to be based on a misunderstanding of Lewis Carroll. Humpty Dumpty isn't saying that the *listener* can interpret the communication however they want, but that the *speaker* can choose the meanings intended.

    [(myl) I believe that you, Lewis Carroll and Randall Munroe are all in complete agreement.]

  2. Michael Watts said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 8:29 pm

    Jonathan Badger:

    The strip is illustrating the obvious consequence of that viewpoint; given that the meaning of Humpty Dumpty's words cannot be known by anyone except Humpty Dumpty (since there is no way to know what he meant except to be him and therefore control the choice of what his words mean), the girl is free to supply any guesses she feels like.

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 2:29 am

    There is a theory that Alice in Wonderland is a mathematical polemic. If we read Humpty Dumpty's idiosyncratic definitions as a pastiche of non-Euclidean geometry then the objection is not to using words with hidden meanings but to redefining words which have had a generally agreed meaning since time immemorial. (Non-Euclidean geometers, of course, would not have agreed that they were redefining words: rather they were investigating the consequences of removing non-inherent restrictions on the objects represented by the words).

  4. Jenny said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 3:03 am

    My dad thinks communication works like this cartoon. He thinks the listener is responsible for repeating back whatever he said in order to be clear that they understand his meaning, including his definitions. If anyone "misinterprets" what he says, it is their fault for not confirming a signal they acknowledged. Needless to say, everyone ignores this fantasy of his, but it meant this was a particularly funny xkcd to me.

  5. peterv said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 9:21 am

    One of the challenges – and glorious wonders – of communication is that speaker and hearer may agree on the meaning of each word, each phrase, each sentence, and each paragraph and yet still disagree about the overall meaning of the entire discourse.

  6. D.O. said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 10:56 pm

    …the girl is free to supply any guesses she feels like.
    Uh, no. The goal is to understand the speaker. If the goal is to steal the car then just go steal the damn car.

  7. Rubrick said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 1:32 am

    What the fuck are you all talking about???

  8. Speedwell said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 2:35 am

    That goes for you double, Rubrick.

  9. Keith said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 3:13 am


    Sometimes, your dad's technique is perfectly justifiable.

    If I give a complicated or unusual instruction to somebody, I don't ask "do you understand?" afterwards. The person can believe sincerely that he or she has understood, but be mistaken.

    I try to get the other person to confirm what is to be done, not just by repeating the instruction but by adding detail or correcting the instruction (maybe change the order of the steps) or asking for clarification of something.

    That way, I can be sure that the person really understood, and is not going to do the complete opposite (as happens, sometimes, with the ambiguity of human natural language).

    But to insist on this for every last thing seems like overkill…

  10. Adam Roberts said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 4:17 am

    XKCD is funny as ever, but this one does kind-of miss the point. H-D is demonstrably comfortable with the conventional meanings of almost all words. His entire conversation with Alice shows that. When he says 'when I use a word …' etc he is attempting to reserve the right to deploy certain specific words in an idiosyncratic manner, not to render all his discourse uninterpretable. This seems to me (a) kind of self-evident from the episode in Carroll's novel, and (b) very common among human beings. We all accede in the conventional meaning of most of the words we use but have idiosyncratic meanings for some words (especially politically-coded terminology, but also ingroup slang and individual idiolects)

  11. Breffni said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 5:37 am

    What I don't get is how a take-down of Humpty Dumpty is meant to be funny. Behold: communication can't proceed on the principles he espouses. Well spotted. Next, it will be revealed that the Queen of Hearts is undemocratic, that Mr Gradgrind's pedagogy is ineffective, and that the Galactic Emperor's policies have a chilling effect on free trade.

  12. Q. Pheevr said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 7:21 am

    There’s glory for you!

  13. Daniel Milner said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 8:17 am

    And yet, Randall is under the impression that Humpty Dumpty is an egg – something which is not said in the nursery rhyme.

  14. Idran said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

    @Daniel Milner: But it is in Through the Looking Glass, which is what this comic is specifically referencing.

    "HOWEVER, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and, when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was HUMPTY DUMPTY himself. 'It can't be anybody else!' she said to herself. 'I'm as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face!' "

  15. Jenny said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 1:05 pm


    Yes, sometimes confirmation is necessary. Everyone does that when things are complicated or ambiguous.

    My dad, on the other hand, uses the technique as a combination of "I am the world's greatest communication expert" (which he has said in my hearing) and "Misunderstandings are always someone else's fault." Truly, he thinks he is a peerless communicator, when the truth is he is below average. For example, he has trouble giving compliments.

    He will say something like "You look really good for someone so overweight," and expect them not to get mad. He hopes the other person will say, "I heard something that sounded like a potential insult, because commenting on someone's weight is culturally charged – did you mean to insult me?" Then he could reply, "No, it was a compliment. I was making an observation about your weight so that you knew why I was impressed with how you look." Then the other person could say, "Oh, I see you did not intend any insult, so I am happy to have received that compliment."

    This is not an exaggeration, just a mundane example of how he thinks the world should work. Although he has instructed me my whole life in this kind of sample dialog, I just get mad at him when he says something stupid, and so does everyone else. He genuinely doesn't seem to understand how people can misinterpret him so much.

  16. fiddleplayer said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

    And this is of course what we're experiencing in American politics: definitely "Through The Looking Glass" material.

  17. Guy said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

    I admit I'm not familiar with the Galactic Emperor's trade policies, though I do know he rose to power in part through dealings with the Trade Federation. It's actually unclear what most of the Emperor's objectionable policies were, though I suppose dismantling democratic institutions and being pro-blowing up planets is enough and further grievances are superfluous.

  18. KeithB said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

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