Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grice in the ladies' room (from LL)

When you're in a stall in a public bathroom and someone rattles the handle of your stall, what do you say to make them go away? There are several options — "Occupied!" or "Just a minute!" are popular, in my door-ratting experience — but when a rattlee, I have always favored the following:

"Somebody's in here!"

An aunt of mine (who apparently uses this same phrasal deterrent) once came back from the ladies' room mulling it over. Why, she wondered, would you say "someone"? You know perfectly well who's in there! It's you! Why wouldn't you say, "I'm in here!"? I giggled all night.

I recently had occasion to say it again, and it suddenly occurred to me it's because of Grice's Maxim of Quantity:

(i) Be as informative as necessary.
(ii) Don't be more informative than necessary

To your interlocutor, rattling away on the other side of the door, it doesn't make any difference whether it's you in particular or somebody else. From her perspective, what matters is whether the stall is occupied or not. Knowing that, it would be pretty self-centered of you to mention that it's you, specifically, who's in there. Really, all you want to communicate is the presence of a warm (and articulate) body in the stall, hence the indefinite.1

1 I keep having the feeling that I've blogged about this before, but a search doesn't turn anything up. Recent posts by Geoff Pullum and the follow-up over on An Individual's Concepts reminded me of the idea. Sorry if it's a repeat!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great. It begs the idea, the next time I'm rattled, of responding: "Don't you know WHO I AM?!"

1:01 AM  
Anonymous Bruno van Wayenburg said...

The late Douglas Adams, of hitchhiker's guide fame, apparently preferred 'melodious whistling, chanting and humming' for this, for which he coined the word 'Milwaukee' in his brilliant dictionary of non-existing-but-dearly-needed words'The Meaning of Liff' :

1:29 AM  
Anonymous Claw said...

This post reminds me of a pretty funny Russell Peters skit: video here

The relevant part starts around 5:30. :)

3:17 AM  
Blogger Arthur said...

I work in an elementary school, right next to the bathroom, and down the hall from the first grade classroom. Six-year-olds are notorious for rattling door handles, and "I'm in here!" seems to be the standard first-grader response. "Stop it!" is a close second.

4:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Japan you knock on the door, then the person in the stall knocks back. At least in the boy's bathroom.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Jens said...

I usually just grunt.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Ran said...

I'm not sure that saying "I'm in here" would actually be more informative; either "I" or "somebody" would simply refer to the (unknown) occupant.

Personally, I favor "Hello?"; it's succinct without being terse or exclamatory.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I am in the stall and someone rattles the door handle why would I feel any need to say anything? Even if the latch is broken they will discover soon enough that the stall is occupied.

2:44 PM  
Blogger thnidu said...

I went through this same analysis process years ago and settled on "Occupied!" It conveys the same information semantically as it does pragmatically.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Normal male response is sublinguistic grunt; this proves the Brizendine thesis, of course ...

3:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thinking of an episode of Gray's Anatomy, what if you were to speak in the third person and say, for example: "Linda's in here!". Now that's the pinacle of egocentricity.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

I say "try another one" then often I'll add a joke like "it's already crowded enough."

My wife will say nothing unless she fears the intruder might actually make it past the latched door; in which case she'll cry out "Oh!" in a nervous and non-confrontational tone.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

Neat. I've thought about "Somebody's in here!" before. I had decided it was supported by the fact that if there is a third party in the bathroom who is not in line (just fixing her hair or whatever), the inquirer might forgo knocking and instead ask the third woman, "Is somebody in there?" It seems most women are familiar with this particular question or the pre-emptive warning "Somebody's in there" from the third party. So the occupier's caught-by-surprise response tends to be the declarative form of the same, deictically adjusted of course. The Gricean explanation never occurred to me, but I like it.

1:00 PM  
Blogger John Cowan said...

After reading this piece on Language Log, I realized that I don't know what I say, so I decided to take note of the next such occasion. Sure enough, last Thursday I was in one of the one-stool toilets so common in NYC restaurants, and someone rattled at the locked door.

[jəʌ], said I.

Of course, it doesn't help that I'm male, and have to work hard to overcome the strong taboo against speaking in the men's room at all.

This then leads to the question: why say anything at all, however paralinguistic? Perhaps out of fear that the patron outside would conclude that the facility was in fact empty, and bring a member of the staff with a key or other object for opening the door from the outside!

7:26 AM  
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