Deborah Tannen is professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her book “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships” was published in May.
At Thursday’s Senate hearing, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) sought former FBI director James B. Comey’s agreement that President Trump did not tell him to drop his investigation of fired national security adviser Michael Flynn: “He did not direct you to let it go.” Comey agreed, “Not in his words, no.” Risch pressed his point: “He did not order you to let it go?” Comey concurred: “Again, those words are not an order.” Yet later in the hearing, in response to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asking whether the president’s words were “a directive,” Comey said, “Yes.”
Was Comey contradicting himself? Based on decades of studying indirectness in conversation — and a lifetime of using language to communicate — I’d say no. Risch was talking about the message: the literal meaning of words spoken. King, and later Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), were referring to the metamessage: what it means to say those words in that way in that context. When people talk to each other, they glean meaning from metamessages. But messages come in handy when someone wants to deny a meaning that was obvious when the words were spoken.
The president’s “exact words,” according to Comey’s notes, were: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Risch cried literal meaning. Zeroing in on the word “hope,” he asked Comey if he knew of anyone being charged with a criminal offense because “they hoped for an outcome.” Though he confessed that he didn’t, Comey said, “I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.” Risch rested his case: “You may have taken it as a direction but that’s not what he said.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, later made the same point in a tweet: “Hoping and telling are two very different things.”
Actually, they aren’t, when the speaker is in a position of power, as Harris noted. Referring to her experience as a prosecutor, she said, “When a robber held a gun to somebody’s head and said, ‘I hope you will give me your wallet,’ the word ‘hope’ was not the most operative word at that moment.” The gun gives the robber power to encourage another to make his hope a reality.
Trump Jr. also tweeted, “Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means.” He’s right. Comey knew exactly what he meant. There is no ambiguity when a person in authority meets privately with a subordinate and expresses a hope. Indeed, he need not even talk about hope. He can simply call attention to a situation.
Years ago, after I wrote that women are more likely than men to use indirectness when asking someone to do something, I received a letter explaining that indirectness is the norm in a context civilians mistakenly associate with barked orders: the military. The letter-writer said that he learned this lesson fresh out of boot camp in a class taught by an experienced Navy officer. Standing in front of the class, the officer said it was hot in the room. The students nodded. The officer said it again, and again the students failed to react. The officer then explained that when he said it was hot in the room, he expected them to do something about it. Then he said it again. This time the students got up and headed to the windows to correct the situation. This, the man wrote, was a lesson that served him well in his military career. The lesson, I’d say, was to listen for the metamessage in the words of a superior.
In our private conversations, we all glean meanings that would not be found in the dictionary definitions of our words. That is the beauty of indirectness: When it works, you get what you want without having to ask for it outright. But if your request doesn’t sit well, you can deny having made it. We all have experienced frustration when someone denies having said what we know they meant. It will now, as Comey averred, fall to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to sort out the messages and metamessages in Trump’s private conversations with the then-director of the FBI.
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