Magic Words

One of the classes I’m taking this semester is “Technology and the Law”, for which we occasionally have to read legal cases. One of the ones we had to read recently, PG&E vs. Thomas Drayage & Rigging Company, was surprisingly entertaining and interesting, so I’ve been meaning to write something up about it.

The reason that the case is interesting to me was that the judge decided that a contract must be interpreted based on the intent of the parties who signed the contract, and not just based on the contract itself. In other words, he decided that he had the right to interview the parties about what they were thinking when they were writing the contract, rather than restricting himself to studying the contract in isolation.

But the part that cracks me up is his little digs he puts in to ridicule the idea that a contract can be interpreted from the piece of paper alone.

The exclusion of testimony that might contradict the linguistic background of the judge reflects a judicial belief in the possibility of perfect verbal expression. … This belief is a remnant of a primitive faith in the inherent potency and inherent meaning of words. …

Some courts have expressed the opinion that contractual obligations are created by the mere use of certain words, whether or not there was any intention to incur such obligations. Under this view, contractual obligations flow, not from the intention of the parties but from the fact that they used certain magic words. Evidence of the parties’ intention therefore becomes irrelevant. …

If words had absolute and constant referents, it might be possible to discover contractual intention in the words themselves and in the manner in which they were arranged. Words, however, do not have absolute and constant referents. “A word is a symbol of thought but has no arbitrary and fixed meaning like a symbol of algebra or chemistry, …” The meaning of particular words or groups of words varies with the “… verbal context and surrounding circumstances and purposes in view of the linguistic education and experience of their users and their hearers or readers (not excluding judges). … A word has no meaning apart from these factors; much less does it have an objective meaning, one true meaning.”

The idea that words do not have an objective true meaning is unsettling to many people. How is it even possible for us to communicate if words don’t mean the same thing to each of us?

And yet what the judge says makes a lot of sense. We’ve all been in situations where something we said got twisted to mean something completely different than what we intended because the listener interpreted the words we used differently than we did. What seems so clear in our own head, once translated through the imperfect medium of words, becomes a misinterpreted muddle to our listener. This is something that I’m still learning to be aware of, both in my speaking and my writing.

To some extent, communicating one’s intentions perfectly and unambiguously is impossible, which is one of the points the lawyers teaching the class are trying to make. All contracts will have ambiguities, and they want us aspiriing executives to realize that if the contract is ambiguous on any point, then a judge can interpret it however they want to. While we all moan about legalese and five hundred page contracts, they are necessary to try to remove as much ambiguity as possible from situations, so both sides are clear on their legally binding commitments.

I think it’s also a good lesson for our personal lives. If somebody doesn’t understand what we are trying to say, repeating it using the same words will generally not help – there’s often some differing interpretation of those words that is provoking the misunderstanding. We have to back out and come at it from another angle to make it clearer. By using a couple different angles, we can start to triangulate on the actual intent of the communication rather than getting hung up on the words being used.

And oddly enough, I think this all ties back into my last post on dilettantism. Experts in a field often have only one way of viewing the world, as they have had to be single-minded to advance in their field. For them, words truly do have an objective, unmistakable meaning. Unfortunately, that meaning may be different from field to field, making it very difficult for them to communicate with other experts. It’s only those of us who tread across contexts, who shift between disciplines, who can present concepts from a variety of perspectives, that can bridge the gap and provide the impedance-matching for the experts to communicate.

It also reminds me a post I wrote years ago on why I hate meetings, where I discuss similar issues involving the preferred methods of information transfer for different people. One of the concepts I mention in that post is a meme I picked up from a sci-fi novel called Beggars in Spain where the most powerful technology developed was a method for translating one person’s thoughts into the framework of another’s. Take the word-nets and associations that I have and transform them into the word-nets that make sense to you. Obviously that wouldn’t be necessary if “words had absolute and constant referents”. But they don’t, and occasionally it surprises me that we still have so much trouble really internalizing that idea, when a judge made that point so eloquently in the 1960s.

P.S. Since it’s become clear that I’m way too tired and braindead by the time I get home from work to do anything resembling thinking, I’m trying a new theory where I blog in the morning, and leave the email and websurfing to the evening. We’ll see if it lasts more than a day.

P.P.S. It’s really cold here.

4 thoughts on “Magic Words

  1. I went to an interesting talk yesterday by Julie Kientz, who’s working on technology for supporting therapists working with autistic kids. One of the things she pointed out was that groups of therapists working with the same kid agree on what words they’re going to use for certain tasks. So if they’re working on a particular skill, they may agree to always say “Hand me the purple pen”, rather than “Give me the purple pen”, or “Can I have the purple pen.”

    But that seemed to assume a way in which the words themselves are the most important part of communication. Sure, the next therapist may say the same words, but what about their body language, what about their eye contact? What if they’re too tall or have a beard or are too woggle for the autistic kid to understand?

    Now, obviously, everyone’s trying their best here to make it a learnable experience for the kid, and once the kid’s out of this teaching, they need to be able to respond even if the person asking them for the pen is too woggle for words. But there’s a way in which I was a bit disappointed in that emphasis, because it suggested that they were missing, perhaps, the ethnomethods of the kid: the way in which they make sense of the world. I feel like the judge above is doing a tricky but laudable piece of work, figuring out how the two sides are trying to make sense of the world.

  2. I am slowing working on a blog entry about fluidity of words, inspired largely by this one. 😀 I’m tossing it around in my head on my commute to and from work and it’s slow going.

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