Words That Lose Hearts: What I'm Saying Is.....

Words have caused wars, racial hatred, international incidents, civil conflict and the division of our communities. Words, and our structure and interpretation of them have also awakened the entire index of honourable human emotions and actions. Powerful things, are they not? Depending upon whose minds and mouths structure and deliver them and whose ears and brains hear and process them, words can make us soar with the eagles and hunt with wild dogs.

An evolutionary prank seems to have been played on the human race during its development of language. As you are about to discover, you can’t help but communicate deception even when intending to deceive, you can’t usually resist communicating hypocrisy when it’s present and you can’t help communicating the importance or unimportance of relationships and objects. You’re often grossly inadequate to the task of hiding your prejudices, foibles, misgivings and desires. You truly are your message.

Over time on this blog, we’ll review a broad range of words that win and lose hearts. The examples you encounter in this post will, hopefully, encourage you to open up your earlids to track the barely hidden meanings found in everyday speech patterns.

Several years ago a world class athlete was tested for drugs and registered a positive result. When the scandal erupted he went to ground, leaving others to speak on his behalf. The media pounced on the story and, as is its custom, formed a pack and hunted down the athlete’s parents. Resistance was futile. His parents went into damage control and called a press conference. Below is a segment of what they said:

“What we are saying is that **** is not into drugs. He is telling us that he is not a drugs cheat. We’re saying he has absolutely no reason to take steroids. It doesn’t make sense.”

The parents were either lying or suspected their son had in fact swallowed performance pills. How can you be so sure? The answer is that when people tell the truth about serious matters they close off all other options. Normally if an individual is innocent, or known to be innocent, a strong, unequivocal denial will be made. If the athlete’s parents had said “He didn’t do it.” or “He is totally innocent” then you could assume an absence of deception.

Instead, the parents told audiences what they were ‘saying’ and what the athlete was ‘telling’. This can be seen to be an unconscious ‘leakage’ of the truth behind the matter. The parents chose not to commit to a complete lie, as in “He didn’t do it”, but to say something that required substantially less commitment either way.

There is a two-part principle in psycho-linguistics that states that when people make a truthful denial about an event that occurred in the past they will make an unambiguous commitment to their innocence. Secondly, their language will reflect the true tense of the situation. If they are talking about a past event they will deliver their statement in either first person singular past tense, “I didn’t do it”, or second person singular past tense, “He didn’t do it.

There is no commitment present in the answer the parents gave and their tense is inconsistent. “**** is not into drugs” is second person singular present tense. In other words, **** is not into drugs now, but may well have been yesterday or at the time the test was taken. The supporting statements are simply an attempt to give plausibility to the lie and contain no commitment to the truth.

The “What I’m saying” manoeuvre is a favourite of politicians and other players in social and political debate. You can speculate that they’ve used it so frequently in place of what they really ought to be saying that it’s become an habitual part of their linguistic behaviour. It never-the-less remains a marker for deceit deep in the memories of those who hear it, and often it serves to reinforce the cynicism people justifiably harbour towards their elected representatives.

(c) Desmond Guilfoyle 2006

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