What are you signaling?

November 12, 2021

LessWrong user ozziegooen writes that when we say something as simple as “I like red”, we could mean upwards of 18 possible things.

We could just be saying “I like red”. But we could also be saying “I want you to believe that I liked red”, or “You should associate me with the cool people (who like red)” or “I’ve recognized that you identify with liking red. As such, I want to express my commitment to support you”.

They propose three likely reasons for this:

“1. Communication is expensive, so we compress it a whole lot. Sometimes context fills in the gap, but often it doesn’t completely fill it in. This means that we often lose clarity, even when we would prefer otherwise.”

“2. In many situations, vagueness, ambiguity, or dog-whistling (sending information very particularly with a subgroup who you believe is likely to actually understand it) are preferable or necessary.”

“3. Communication isn’t always deliberate. People either subconsciously lean towards communication with coded meanings that they think might be advantageous to them, or they repeat internalized patterns that they don’t understand (but predict will be advantageous).”

I find these to be incredibly fascinating observations — the last one in particular. In my last post, I mentioned how I usually use self-deprecating statements as a means to signal something, and this last insight got me thinking that maybe everything I say or do is signaling something.

So, the takeaway for me is that we should try to be more aware of what we’re implicitly signaling when we say things.

When we say something like “I like red”, are there any hidden motivations or other potential interpretations? Are we being intentionally vague with our language? What does our word choice say about us? How does our tone and speed of speech affect how people think about a topic, or our enthusiasm for that topic?

And more than that, I think it’s similarly useful to consider what our actions signal as well.

What are you signaling when you stare at your phone while your friend is talking to you? What does your body language tell other people about your current state of mind? What are some of your ingrained habits, and how do people perceive them? What does your daily routine say about you?

We’re never going to fully know what we’re signaling or its effects, because that’s mostly determined by those on the receiving end (and different people will inevitably interpret things differently).

But we can ask friends and peers for feedback. We can self-reflect and try to be more conscious of the implications of our words and actions. Most of all, we can peridoically ask ourselves this — or, maybe, I can ask you this directly: what are you signaling?