Answer to April/May Question – Sneaky Dog (Part 2)

What new information was given by the factory boss? At first glance, nothing. The reason we don’t see it is because the information given is indirect and subtle, but nonetheless present and important. The new information given is mutual knowledge – not merely that you know something, and someone else knows something, but you are aware that someone else ALSO knows the same thing and vice versa. Making an announcement to everyone, even if it is something that they already know, says aloud what everyone might have been guessing already and removes the doubt. The new information is letting everyone know that everyone else also knows.

Big deal, you say. The fact that I know for sure that others also know seems rather trivial – it is simply removing some lingering doubt. A big deal it is indeed. Let’s look at a well-known fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The child’s announcement does not seem to give any new information; everyone already knows that the Emperor is naked. Yet this starts a chain reaction that does not end well for the Emperor. When the child was not subsequently reprimanded for his open assertion, it confirmed everyone’s suspicion and removed all doubt. Saying what everyone already knows can strip away the thin layer of hypocrisy that we cling dearly to and destabilize a delicate situation.

We live and thrive in a world of ambiguity, especially in Asia. It is important because of an invisible property we call “face”, which can be saved by ambiguity and plausible deniability. “Face”, at its core, is a manifestation of mutual knowledge. The skill called EQ or tact, is for saving face. It is an important social skill, as we use ambiguous statements to provide an “out”, and use allusion and implicature to our advantage. We learn the difference between “reply” and “reply to all”, and between sending a message privately and to a group chat, often the hard way. We learn that some things can be hinted at implicitly, but once explicitly said aloud cannot be unheard. We hint and suggest at what we want, from favors between friends to social relationships. We shroud our requests in linguistic twisters such as “I don’t suppose you might pass the salt” to “I was wondering if you think you could possibly let me use your car for the weekend”, which are literally absurd.

Once you understand what mutual knowledge is, you can see it in action everywhere. Naughty children in the act will actively avoid the glance of their teachers and parents to continue their rampage, because the instant their gazes meet, they can no longer claim ignorance. Kidnap victims are better off if they never see their kidnapper’s face, or if the kidnapper isn’t aware that the victim saw his face. Effective emails have the right recipients in the “cc” field, and more effective emails have recipients in the “bcc” field, albeit for different reasons. And finally, you can see why people sometimes say very strange things, such as, “I’m going to pretend that I didn’t hear that incredibly insensitive comment. So, about our project ….”

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