This Street, That Street, and The Other Street

5 min read

This Street, That Street, and The Other Street are three real street names in a small town in Canada. In that part of Porters Lake, Nova Scotia, asking for directions can get rather tricky.

If we got lost there and turned to a local for help, it would be rather important to make sure the person helping us shares our points of reference. Otherwise, we’d end up having to clarify with follow-up questions, such as “Do you mean this street here, or This Street over there?”

We see this kind of ambiguity when deciphering the phrase, “I saw the man with a telescope.” It would take some extra work to accurately describe the situation; we would need to clarify if someone used a telescope to see the man, or whether they saw someone actually carrying the instrument itself.

Self-reference can also create ambiguity that’s fun to play with. Consider the famous “liar paradox,” in which the logical contradiction arises from the sentence referring to itself. For example, take the phrase, “This statement is false.” If the statement is true, then it must be false, but if it’s false, the statement must be true.

When we explain something to someone, it certainly helps to understand their point of view and to give them the context they need to correctly interpret what we’re about to tell them.

From my point of view, this is your point of view

Understanding someone else’s perspective is not something people are born knowing how to do. It’s a learned skill that young children don’t develop until later.

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget is known for his theories on cognitive development and understanding how people process someone else’s perspective. Piaget described the tendency of young children, between the ages of 2 and 7, to perceive the world solely from their own perspective. He believed that kids in this “preoperational stage” have difficulty grasping that others might have different information and hold different beliefs altogether.

As children develop their cognitive abilities and learn to take the viewpoints of others into account, they become more adept at navigating language. Piaget proposed that, as children enter the “concrete operational stage” from ages 7 to 11, they gradually develop the ability to consider multiple perspectives. They also begin to understand that the same words or sentences—depending on whether they’re viewing them from the speaker’s perspective or the listener’s perspective—can mean something entirely different.

In Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the stage where children first start to understand why the ambiguity of “This Street, That Street, and The Other Street” is funny corresponds to the concrete operational stage. Children in this stage are more likely to grasp the humor in the ambiguity because they can appreciate the idea that “This Street,” “That Street,” and “The Other Street” can refer to different streets based on the context or on the speaker’s perspective, therefore creating a play on words and invoking the element of surprise.

The invention of lying

Theory of mind is a fundamental concept in psychology and cognitive science that refers to the ability to understand and attribute mental states—beliefs, intentions, desires, and emotions—to people, and not just to ourselves but to others as well. This skill allows us to deal with other people: their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.

Take, for example, the 2009 film The Invention of Lying, a comedy written and directed by Ricky Gervais. In the movie, a down-on-his-luck writer is the first to discover lying in a world where no such thing had existed before. This was a society that hadn’t yet discovered the concept of deception; people always told the truth and had never even conceived of the concept of lying.

In The Invention of Lying, the protagonist’s ability to lie relies on his understanding of what others believe to be true; he can deceive his colleagues because he recognizes their lack of knowledge about falsehood.

The invention of guesswork

We’ve seen that the exact meaning of words and phrases is often determined by the context in which they are used. So, how do people understand anything in daily life?

Deception Essential Reads

Effective communication is rooted in our ability to adapt to changing situations. We use various strategies to ensure that we’ve accurately deciphered the intended meaning. Handling ambiguity and changes in perspective in language involves a combination of cognitive processes, context cues, and communication strategies.

When we process language, we use any and all context cues to help us disambiguate meaning and to select the correct meaning for the intended message.

What’s considered ambiguous or straightforward can also differ across languages and cultures, in addition to the context of the conversation or text. The surrounding words, the topic of discussion, and the participants involved help provide clues about the intended meaning. In in-person conversations, we can use all the meta-communication tools available to us; the tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language can all provide additional information about the speaker’s perspective, emotions, and intended meaning.

If the context cues aren’t helpful enough, we can always ask for clarification or request further information. However, people’s comfort levels do vary when it comes to asking for help, and they will have to make a conscious effort to achieve clear and unambiguous communication.

And if all else fails, there’s always guesswork. When faced with ambiguity, we often make educated guesses based on our background knowledge and common sense—and then cross our fingers that we’ve arrived at the right interpretation.

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