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The Literal and the Metaphor
Uncovering the Factors Behind Explicit and Implicit Language
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As a writer, one source of contemplation is the decision between explicit statements or letting the metaphor rule. Obviously this applies to more than just writing, so it led to the essay below.
The first question the reader may ask is why this is a struggle - who cares whether your argument is explicit or implicit as long as you get your point across. This is because they fulfill different purposes. Explicit language focuses your attention on details through imagery, literality, and transparency; while implicit wording alludes to the big picture through metaphors, analogies, and ambiguity. For most, where their attention lies governs whether language is consciously or unconsciously understood - though there is nuance to this, which we will discuss later.
Some topics are best understood through conscious cognition while others are best for subconscious comprehension. I think about tennis as an example. When you are at a certain level of proficiency, it is much more effective to focus on your goal: hit the ball over the net and in between the lines. If you focus on the details of every movement you need - footwork, arm motion, wrist motion - you overthink it and your motion becomes over-mechanized. In the subconscious state, the brain knows what to do if you feed it the goal. On the other hand, a focus on details is critical to improve a specific aspect of your game. Maybe you consistently miss because you reach for the ball. Focusing on your footwork for some time can ensure you naturally position yourself appropriately to meet your goal. The trouble arrives when you attempt to focus on multiple details at once.
So when does it make sense to use explicit vs implicit language? It all depends on your audience and your intent. Do you wish for your message to be consciously considered or should it serve as a subtle influence? Do you wish to reveal your intent or shroud it in mystery?
Conversations around concrete, tangible objects or logistics are straightforward for everyone. Anyone can wrap their mind around that odd green firetruck you saw yesterday if you use explicit language. On the contrary, you sound like a philosophaster if you use implicit wording to describe the concrete.
Topics about the abstract are a different story since intellect influences how they are understood. Hence, discussions on abstract concepts like delayed gratification, success, or love should be conveyed in different ways to different people.
You can utter implicit or explicit statements but they will evoke a different response depending on your audience. For some, an implicit statement creates conscious thought while others only consciously consider what is explicitly said. Advertising is one of the most ubiquitous forms of implicit messaging, so let’s use that as an example.
The least intelligent among us see an advertisement and become immediately convinced to make the purchase. Futurama’s Philip J Fry personifies this response well, “Shut up and take my money!” They are aware of the cause-and-effect in this situation because while they may be idiots, they aren’t stupid. The masses see the same ad and look down upon our simple-minded friends, “That’s so stupid, how could anyone ever fall for that,” yet they become subconsciously swayed by the programming they see, so they end up purchasing something from the advertiser later. The most intelligent are acutely aware that everything they consume influences them, so they engineer their environment around what they consume; they selectively program themselves. They only purchase from the advertiser if it aligns with their values and goals.
There is an opposite effect with explicit messaging on such abstract topics. Those that are the least and most intelligent do not process it consciously since it goes above their head or sinks below them, respectively. The least intelligent struggle to conceptualize abstract topics, so they do not comprehend what is said. The most intelligent feel belittled when abstract concepts are broken down into painful details because they are capable of arriving at the explicitly derived conclusions themselves. The average population has the mental capacity to understand and manipulate explicit abstract concepts in their heads, but they don’t feel belittled when someone breaks down each moving piece because it helps them construct new mental models of the world.
Familiarity with Your Message
While intelligence factors into how messages about the abstract are generally received, familiarity impacts how specific topics are received. Both the intelligent and vapid follow a similar progression of familiarity as they learn about a topic, but intelligence governs the rate at which they gain familiarity. In other words, familiarity is your position and intelligence is the speed at which you move. Anyone can become familiar with any concept, no matter the complexity, it just takes different amounts of time for different people.
As we previously discussed, there are different preferences for language depending on the speed at which people operate, but the appetite for the implicit also depends on the position the audience occupies regarding a specific topic.
The explicit is great for illuminating an understanding on a single detail of which someone has some background knowledge, but it is not great for introducing new concepts. Imagine teaching a child quantum physics. You wouldn’t launch into details about space-time or quarks or scribe scientific formulae on a chalkboard. Rather, you would create an analogy to something familiar to the child. Explaining a formula that draws explicit relationships between different concepts would be great for someone familiar with its variables - not a naïve child.
Yet again, the Bell Curve serves as a useful model for which language is appropriate for different positions of familiarity. On the journey of learning about a concept, the implicit is great for introduction, but once you’ve grasped the concept, details help fill in the picture. After a certain understanding, the implicit can deepen your understanding by helping you relate to a familiar concept in a new light. Convoluted implicit literature like Dostoyevsky sails over the head of a child yet simple Aesop’s Fables such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf illuminate where a child struggles to grasp abstract concepts like integrity.
Communication stems from a variety of intentions. Maybe you wish to inform, persuade or entertain. Perhaps your desire to shoot the shit or search for something deeper can inspire a conversation with a stranger. Different forms of language reveal or occlude these intentions: explicit language makes your intention transparent while implicit language shrouds it in ambiguity. The modern environment has been shifting more and more towards a transparent society, so the reader may wonder what value ambiguity brings in communication.
Ambiguity is a necessity for building relationships. You would probably find a stranger repulsive if they approached you by immediately asking to be friends. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if the stranger shrouded his friendly intention and built subtle rapport with you first. In fact, the ambiguity surrounding others’ intentions may attract us to them because it provides a source of wonder and excitement. There’s a reason the adolescent occupies his time picking petals, wondering whether she loves him or loves him not.
By the same token, transparency is needed to bring relationships beyond the shallowest surface. You would need to make explicit plans to see each other if you wish to continue your budding relationship with this stranger. Similarly, our adolescent’s love interest would have to eventually communicate her feelings if she wants to have a deeper relationship with him, or vice versa.
The balance between transparency and ambiguity largely rests with two factors:
Depth of relationship
Emotional intelligence of those involved
The depth of a relationship can dictate whether you address an elephant in the room or let the room read between the lines. Obviously you can be more vulnerable with those you are closer with but this depends on the nature of your relationship. You may have a deep relationship with someone, but rampant insecurities or traumatic events could prevent you from ever explicitly stating something about that topic. The emotional intelligence of the recipient largely determines whether explicit or implicit language is appropriate. It goes without saying, but if blunt statements on emotional topics send your friend into a troubled state, it is unwise to use such explicit language. Of course this means the communicator himself has the emotional intelligence and empathy to understand how their language may impact the recipient.
I cannot confidently dictate which situations call for ambiguity and which call for transparency since I have never read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence Others, but I do know that any blossoming relationship revolves around this delicate dance between explicit and implicit language. That balance is ultimately for you to observe.
The attentive reader may notice a scenario or two where it is unclear which language is suited for a particular audience. For example, how do you address a topic that an intelligent individual is moderately familiar with? Perhaps a blend is useful, explicit verbiage peppered with analogy and metaphor.
Language is a delicate dance, so the intent of this essay isn’t to prescribe hard and fast rules around verbiage. Rather, it proposes general rules of thumb that can help ensure we communicate most effectively. As the platitude goes, we shouldn’t speak to people how we want to be spoken to; we should speak to them how they wish to be addressed.
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