Conspicuous Communication

The shorthand for the meaning of an utterance is communicative intent in the form of new information or a desired reaction in the interlocutor. To see why a deeper notion of communicative intent is needed, let us consider Conspicuous Communication, when communication-like rituals take place in order to have such experiences “on record” rather than to communicate information. For example:


You’re hanging out with your friend, peeling and eating some mandarin oranges. You get caught up in talking and eating finally only one is left: your friend is someone who will not take the last one even if you insist; you know this from previous experience. Therefore you say “Hey do you mind if I eat this one?” to which your friend happily responds “By all means!”


You are at a restaurant, sitting next to a table where a parent is chastising their child for behaving badly. The parent is incredibly loud, the child complains loudly back, and the parent looks around, makes accidental eye-contact with you, and begins to blush. To the child, but loud enough for you to hear, the parent says “Come on now, you don’t always act this way, what’s gotten into you?”


You cross the border between Canada and the US in early 2020 when the worry about COVID-19 is growing. The border guard asks you some basic questions, where are you going, why, and finally:
“Are you sick? Have you been around anyone sick in the last two weeks?”

In all of these cases, a communication-like exchange is taking place, which is not meant to transfer unexpected content, but signal willingness to abide by the principles, responsibilities, and norms of the given environment. These signals are a type of communication, but they have a number of properties that make them hard to describe.

  1. Many of the times the purported recipient of the communication is not where new information is being directed. In case 2, it is arguable that the final statement is not intended for the alternate party in the discussion, but to you, the protagonist of reality.
  2. These communications rarely bring information to the table, but instead signal acceptance of certain responsibilities, norms, and laws. While “signaling” is a perfectly adequate description of these cases, it is incomplete, because these communications are parasitic on real rituals that communicate information, so we must explain: how do the participants come to treat them as appropriately hollow?
  3. Another question we have to ask ourselves, is under what calculus does an individual use to discover the pressure to conform? Case 1 relies on individual knowledge, while Case 3 is a second-order tragedy of the commons “No one would be honest here, so why should I be?” Under what processes do people become aware of these relations?
  4. Case 3 is especially interesting, because Border Control asks such questions to reduce liability, but individuals realize that enforcement is impossible, and are also in a situation where there is “no benefit to going back”. How does Border Control decide to institute such a policy despite its unenforceability? COVID-19 is an especially intense PR disaster waiting to happen, but how much pressure causes such a checks to pop-up and which ones win and are made part of policy?

How would we go about making a predictive model of such behavior? Take Case 1, where “one orange left” has to be encoded as a socio-cultural event that requires response. What kind of description of such a cultural event should we give?

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