Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Four-Implicature Theory of Fortune Cookies

(your guide to properly understanding the dire messages from Panda Express)

Fortune cookies explicitly state the good and silently pass over the bad. In this way, they are like letters of recommendation. The wise reader understands the Gricean implicatures.

Gricean implicature involves implying one thing by saying something else, typically exploiting the hearer's or reader's knowledge of the context and of the norms of cooperative communication. Probably the most famous example, from Grice's classic "Logic and Conversation" (1967), is this:

A is writing a testimonial about a pupil who is a candidate for a philosophy job, and his letter reads as follows: 'Dear Sir, Mr. X's command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.'

Although A does not explicitly say that Mr. X is an unimpressive student, the letter implicates it. For if Mr. X were an impressive student, the letter writer, as a cooperative conversation partner, would surely have said that. The reader knows that A knows that letters of recommendation should praise the quality of students who deserve academic praise. A thereby intentionally communicates to the reader that in his view Mr. X does not deserve academic praise. The best that can be said about X concerns his attendance and command of English.

With this in mind, consider these two principles governing the proper interpretation of fortune cookies:

(1.) Fortune cookies, like letters of recommendation, (a.) say only good things, and (b.) say the best that they can about those things.

(2.) All fortune cookies address the following four topics: health, success, social relationships, and happiness.

When a fortune cookie silently omits any of the four topics listed in Principle 2, it implicates that the news on that topic is bad. Furthermore, when a fortune cookie says something limited about health, success, social relationships, or happiness, it implicates that nothing better can be said. This is the Four-Implicature Theory of Fortune Cookies.

Consider, for example, my most recent fortune: "You have the ability to overcome obstacles on the way to success."

What a disastrous fortune! Although it may seem good to the naive reader -- like saying of a philosophy student that he speaks good English and attends regularly -- properly understood, the implicatures are catastrophic. Since only success is mentioned, we must infer that it is passing silently over bad news concerning my health, happiness, and social relationships. Worse, the cookie tells me only that I have the ability to overcome obstacles, not that I will overcome those obstacles. By Principle 1a, the fortune would have said that I will overcome those obstacles if in fact I will. It follows that I will not in fact overcome. Disaster on all four fronts!

[a dire fortune from Panda Express]

Let's try another fortune: "You are kind-hearted and hospitable, cheerful and well-liked." This fortune concerns both social relationships and happiness, two of the four topics that all cookies address. We can therefore infer that the recipient will suffer ill-health and poverty. Concerning happiness, the news is good: The recipient is cheerful! However, the implicature concerning social relationships is mixed: If the best that can be said is that the recipient is kind, hospitable, and well-liked, and not that she finds love, or that people admire her, or that she has other such social goods, the implicature is that she is a bit of a doormat. To the wise reader of cookies, the message is clear: Other people appreciate how cheerful the recipient remains as they take unfair advantage of her kind-hearted hospitality.

I leave the fortunes below as an exercise for the reader.

ETA Aug 24:

OMG, today's fortune is even worse!

[printable fortune cookie sheet from Red Castle]


Rhys Southan said...

This is great, but I'm not sure I agree that a fortune that fails to say positive things about all four fortune cookie topics is implying something bad about the ignored areas. There's an important difference between letters of recommendation and fortunes, which is that the latter are very short, because they have to fit into small cookies, and also need to include winning lottery numbers and a Chinese word translation. I haven't given that sheet of fortunes a look, but do any of them say something about all four topics? If they do, I imagine these seem overly dense yet shallow. Mentioning just one or two topics allows for a little more elaboration. I wouldn't be at all alarmed by a fortune that gave me very good social news, and said nothing about health, success, or happiness. I would just think, "There wasn't enough space to list all the good things that are about to happen to me."

Unknown said...

Any thoughts on outlier fortunes? The best I ever received said "Things are going to become even stranger"—I remember because I had it taped to my door for several years. Should this fortune be interpreted the same way that others are (quite disastrous for my health, success, social relationships and happiness, in that case!), or does it require some other interpretive framework?