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Why We Misspeak

How verbal gambles drive you to say strange things, and why it's easy to tell whether someone actually misspoke or not.
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“Enjoy the movie.” “You too.” (Photo: heritagevancouver/Flickr) 

“Enjoy the movie.” “You too.” (Photo: heritagevancouver/Flickr) 

You walk to the box office, you state the name of the movie you want to see, you pay, you get the ticket. Everything's going smoothly: You're participating in a perfect transactional conversation. Requests are stated, and they are met. But then, at the final moment, disaster strikes.

“Enjoy the movie,” they say. “You too,” you reply.

It isn't until you settle in your seat that you realize your mistake, but by then, it's too late. Instead of enjoying the movie previews, your embarrassment overshadows the experience. These kinds of misspeaks occur pretty often. Freelancer reporter Mike Rosenberg summed up the phenomenon in this perfect tweet:

Why do we so often make these mistakes? What's happening, linguistically speaking?


Let's begin answering the question by asking another one: How many of each animal did Moses take with him on the ark?

Did you say “two?” Of course you did, and, of course, you're wrong. Moses wasn't around when “the great flood” occurred. It was Noah. (A variation of this same riddle: When did Louis Armstrong land on the moon?) This mistake is not about rhymes, since Moses and Noah aren't phonetically close to one another.

“You picture it as old guys in the Bible who do amazing things with water, and you lump those things together.”

“Noah and Nixon sound more alike,” says Roy Sorensen, a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis who, in 2011, wrote the essay “What Lies Behind Misspeaking” for American Philosophical Quarterly. Rather, the mistake lies in the similarity between our concepts of what a “Moses” and “Noah” are. “You picture it as old guys in the Bible who do amazing things with water, and you lump those things together,” Sorensen says.

These misspeaks are representative of what's going on at the box office, or with the barista, or in the many other quotidian moments of our lives. It's not a lack of paying attention, so much as the inability to pay close attention for our entire waking existence. “We only skim along, listening to enough of the question to figure out what the person wants,” Sorensen says. “When you're having a conversation, it's a gamble. You have to get a lot going fast, so you're always making bets to where things are going to go. It's mostly reflex. I can't think about how I'm going to start the sentences I'm putting together.”

When you tell a barista to enjoy their coffee too, or when you answer someone's question about “what's up?” with “how's it going?”—leaving both parties confused as to who speaks next—that's a gamble lost. But the rarity of these losses reveals how great we are at betting. “You're always gambling, and you usually win,” Sorensen says.

That gamble can even affect physical movements: A few years back when I was traveling in Mexico, I couldn't remember my ATM code. This is problematic for obvious reasons (traveling abroad without money isn't a good thing to do!) and maybe even more obvious reasons (ATM codes are only four digits long). But I didn't really forget my ATM code as much as I never remembered it in the first place. Instead, I'd remembered the four-move swipe motion on the keypad. And the keypad at the Mexican bank where I was trying to withdraw my cash, for whatever reason, had been flipped upside-down. That was enough to throw me off.


Another misspeak Sorensen points to is from then-Senator Obama during his 2008 Memorial Day speech, in which he reminisced that his uncle was among the troops that liberated the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

In reality, it was his great uncle who liberated the German concentration camp, and it was Buchenwald, not Auschwitz. The Republican National Committee painted the mistake between concentration camps—they let the difference between “uncle” and “great uncle” mostly slide—as evidence of the then-candidate's untrustworthiness. As the Noah/Moses riddle shows, mistakes like this are pretty common, despite opposing sides trying to paint them as purposeful evidence of something.

That said, politicians seem to rely on the "misspoke" card quite often. Is there any way to differentiate between a natural misspeak and a public relations maneuver designed to revise untruthful or embarrassing commentary?

As Daily Kos pointed out at the time, the run-up to the 2008 election featured a bunch of Republican candidates misspeaking at their various rallies, whether it was Rudy Giuliani saying that he was at Ground Zero “as often, if not more, than the emergency workers” or Tommy Thompson saying that “making money is sort of part of the Jewish tradition.” Both campaigns quickly issued press releases saying their candidate “misspoke” to stop the bleeding. Neither really worked, because neither were misspeaks; they were classic instances of bullshitting.

As Henry G. Frankfurt defined in his seminal 2005 essay “On Bullshit,” there is a distinct difference between lying and bullshitting. The former is saying something that you know is false, while the latter is speaking without really knowing whether something is true or false. And, actually, it kind of doesn't matter. As Sorenson writes in his paper, “[bullshit] flourishes whenever there is an incentive to talk beyond one's knowledge.”

Generally speaking, the playbook goes like this: (1) Bullshit is spoken; (2) bullshit gets called out; (3) bullshitter says they "misspoke." In 2012, Mitt Romney was asked during a radio interview if he supported "the Blunt amendment" to Obamacare, which would allow employers to avoid providing contraception to employees on religious grounds. He said "no." The next day, after being taken to task on right-wing radio, he said he "misspoke." Clearly, that wasn't the case. A likelier scenario: During the interview, he simply didn't know what the Blunt amendment was, didn't want to admit it, and made a guess. He was bullshitting, plain and simple, and he was wrong. (The king of bullshitting this election has been, not surprisingly, Donald Trump, but he's doing so in a pretty unique way: Instead of performing (3) in the above playbook, Trump just doubles down by saying, "I did say that, I meant it, and that's the truth," even when it's clearly not.)

When Obama mistook Buchenwald for Auschwitz, no one believed he was speaking outside of his knowledge base. And certainly, there was no incentive to lie about the location of the camp. The only remaining answer is that he misspoke.

The next time a candidate claims that they “misspoke,” it's worth looking at it through the prism of linguistics. Does it make sense that they simply mixed up their words? Did their brain make a linguistic gamble that they lost? Maybe more importantly: Does it seem like they really know what they're talking about? Or does it seem like they're just trying to pass off bullshit as knowledge?