“Dad’s driving” – a tale about meaning and context in communication
This post is inspired by a comment made by my elder son some years ago:
“Dad’s driving” he said.
A simple statement, one would think, with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding. Yet, as I’ll discuss below, the two words had deeper implications than suggested by their mere dictionary meanings.
The story begins in mid 2010, when I was driving my son Rohan back from a birthday party.
I’m not much a driver – I get behind the wheel only when I absolutely have to, and then too with some reluctance. The reason I was driving was that my dear wife (who does most of the driving in our household) was pregnant with our second child and just a few weeks away from the big day. She therefore thought it would be a good idea for me to get some driving practice as I would soon need to do a fair bit.
Back to the story: as we started the trip home, my son (all of seven and half at the time) said, “Dad, you should go by North Road, there’s a traffic light there, it will be easier for you to turn right.”
“Nah, I’ll go the shorter way.”
“Dad, the shorter way has no traffic light. It has a roundabout, you might have trouble making a right turn.” He sounded worried.
“Don’t worry, I can handle a simple right turn at a roundabout on a Sunday evening. You worry too much!”
As it happened I had an accident at the roundabout…and it was my fault.
I checked that he was OK then got out of the car to speak with the unfortunate whose car door I had dented. Rohan sat patiently in the car while I exchanged details with the other party.
I got back in and asked again if he was OK. He nodded. We set off and made it home without further incident.
My wife was horrified to hear about the whole thing of course. Being pretty philosophical about my ineptness at some of the taken-for-granted elements of modern existence, she calmed down very quickly. In her usual practical way she asked me if I had reported the accident to the police, which I hadn’t. I reported the accident and made an appointment with the a smash repairer to fix up the damage to the bumper.
A week later my wife summoned me from work saying it was time. I duly drove her to the hospital without incident. A few hours later, our second son, Vikram, was born.
I pick up the story again a few days later, after we had just got used to having an infant in the house again. Sleep deficit was the order of the day, but life had to go on: Rohan had to get to school, regardless of how well or badly Vik had slept the previous night; and I had to get to work.
Soon Rohan and I had our morning routine worked out: we would walk to school together, then I would catch a bus from outside his school after dropping him there.
On the day Rohan uttered the words I started this post with, it was raining heavily – one of those torrential downpours that are a Sydney characteristic. It was clear that walking to school would be impossible, I would have to drive him there.
My wife gave him the bad news.
“Dad’s driving,” he said, in what appeared to be his usual matter of fact way.
However, if one listened carefully, there was a hint of a question, even alarm, in his words.
Given the back-story one can well understand why.
According to the most commonly accepted theory of truth, the validity of a statement depends on whether or not it is factually correct – i.e. a statement is true if it corresponds to some of aspect of reality. Philosophers refer to this as the correspondence theory of truth . There are a few other well known theories of truth but it would take me too far afield to discuss them here. See my post on data, information and truth if you are interested in finding out more.
Of course, it is true that Rohan’s statement would in retrospect either be true (if I did drive him to school) or false (if I didn’t). But that was hardly the point: there was a lot more implied in his words than just an observation that I would be driving him to school that day. In other words, his meaning had little do with any objective truth. Consider the following possibilities:
There was a hint of a question:
“Dad’s driving?” (…”You do remember what happened a couple of weeks ago, don’t you?…”)
or even alarm:
“Dad’s driving!” (I could almost hear the, “ I’m not getting in the car with him”)
Whatever the thoughts running through his head, it is clear that Rohan saw the situation quite differently from the way my wife or I did.
Indeed, the main problem with correspondence theories of truth is that they require the existence of an objective reality that we can all agree on – i.e. that we all perceive in the same way. This assumption is questionable, especially for issues that cannot be settled on logical grounds alone. Typical examples of such issues are those that are a matter of opinion – such as which political party is best or whether a certain book is worth reading…or even whether certain folks should be allowed to get behind the wheel. These are issues that are perceived differently by different people; there is no clear cut right/wrong, true/false or black/white.
There are other problems with correspondence theories too. For one, it isn’t clear how they would apply to statements that are not assertions about something. For example, it makes no sense to ask whether questions such as, “how much is this?” or “how are you?” are true or false. Nevertheless, these statements are perfectly meaningful when uttered in the right situations.
This brings us to the crux of the matter: in most social interactions, the meaning of a statement (or action, for that matter) depends very much on the context in which it is made. Indeed, context rather than language determines meaning in our everyday interactions. For example, my statement, “It is sunny outside,” could be:
- An observation about the weather conditions (which could be true or false, as per the correspondence theory)
- A statement of anticipation – it is sunny so I can play with my kids in the park.
- A statement of regret – it’s going to be a scorching hot day and we’ll have to stay indoors.
To find out which one of the above (or many other possibilities) I mean, you would need to know the context in which the statement is made. This includes things such as the background, the setting, the people present, the prior conversation, my mood, others’ moods …the list is almost endless.
Context is king when it comes to language and meaning in social situations. Paraphrasing the polymath Gregory Bateson , the phenomenon of context and the closely related phenomenon of meaning are the key difference between the natural and social sciences. It is possible in physics to formulate laws (of say, gravity) that are relatively independent of context (the law applies on Jupiter just the same as it does on earth). However, in the social sciences, general laws of this kind are difficult because context is important.
Indeed, this is why management models or best practices abstracted from context rarely work, if ever at all. They are not reality, but abstractions of reality. To paraphrase Bateson, all such approaches confuse the map with the territory.
I started this post almost three years ago, around the time the events related occurred. All I had written then were the lines I began this post with:
“Dad’s driving” he said. A simple statement, one would think, with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding. ..
The lines lay untouched in a forgotten file on my computer until last weekend, when I came across them while cleaning up some old folders. At the time I had been reading Bateson’s classic, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and had been mulling over his ideas about meaning and context. With that as background, the story came back to me with all its original force. The way forward was clear and the words started to flow.
Bateson was right, you know – context illuminates meaning.
My thanks go out to Arati Apte for comments and suggestions while this piece was in progress.