Posts Counterfactual communication and intimidation

Counterfactual communication and intimidation

A few years ago a remarkable event happened. A team of physicists performed an experiment of counterfactual communication. Using the quantum properties of light, they were able to transmit information without sending photon particles to the receiver. This was never performed before or observed in nature. We see objects because reflected photons drop on our retina and start chemical reactions. In optical fibers information is carried by photons that ended up on the receiver side.

Physicists still argue about interpretations of such communication. But this post won’t be about quantum mechanics. I want to bring attention to a specific type of our ordinary human communication, which also can be viewed as counterfactual.

An explicit communication

Communication is fundamental to all living nature. It has different types and forms. Even bacteria, single-cell organisms, can communicate via signal molecules to synchronize activities.

Humans invented their own subtle ways to communicate. We use protocols and encodings for error correction, cryptography to avoid eavesdropping, and steganography to hide the very fact of communication.

In most situations, no matter how bizarre, sophisticated, and hidden the communication is, the sender wants to transmit a definite and precise meaning in its message. But this is not always the case. In some situations, the sender deliberately puts double sense to its message.

The usage of double meaning messages

Typical usage of double meaning messages can be seen in flirting. For example, a female can make a statement, gesture, or other signal, targeted at a male, which has two meanings — either it’s some random and innocent action or it’s a call to action for a male. In the case of a statement, this is also called double entendre. What is the purpose of such messaging? Why not directly state your interest?

The main reason is the fear of rejection. Humans (especially youngsters) can treat it as humiliation, though in reality there is nothing wrong with this — everyone has their own tastes or other reasons to refuse. Because of this fear people don’t want to disclose their interest in the case of rejection. But even in a successful case, the fact of who was the initiator can play a role in the future relationship. On the other hand, the ability to catch hints can grow tighter bonds in partners and more intimate relations.

This is, of course, not inherent to mating relationships only. A friendship between co-workers can also start with hints and double meanings.

Evidently, girls are much more talented in this than boys, who are more straightforward thinkers (so this skit is quite realistic). It suggests that this skill evolved as a defense mechanism.

But any tool can find different uses. Another prominent use case of double meaning messages is a bribe demanding (in corrupt states bribe demanding is more common than offering). In the situation when you go through some bureaucratic procedure, corrupt officials will use hints instead of direct demands. They can bring attention to how hard and timely the solution to your question, how it depends on other factors and other officials, they can whine how hard their job is, etc. It’s a bit different from flirting because they want you to receive the corrupt meaning and at the same time denying they have sent it to you. This is some kind of a Schrodinger’s message, which is simultaneously sent and not sent.

Bribery is not the only offensive use case. In a corporate culture, a person with power can use his position for inappropriate demands, threats, and insults. Such attacks also can take the form of hints and double meanings. Likewise, sexual harassment and bullying can take the form of innuendos.

The problem with this counterfactual bullying is that a victim can’t really be sure if there is an attack ongoing. Paradoxically, this uncertainty is an additional destructive factor for a victim. Meanwhile, a bully feels more pleasure because he realizes his own invincibility. Just like a Schrodinger’s douchebag, he can always stick with an innocent meaning of his words and actions.

The wording counterfactual is justifiable in those cases simply because a court probably won’t consider double meaning demands, threats, and insults as convincing evidence, even though they have a real impact. Note that the second offensive meaning can be very personal, so others won’t understand its subjective sense.

A very illustrative example of this we can see in Trump’s impeachment case. It was alleged that Trump demanded an investigation of his political opponent from Ukrainian president Zelensky. At the same time, the military aid to Ukraine has been withheld. This is clearly a message with a double meaning. Either withholding isn’t related to that demand or it’s a bargaining chip. I bet that for everyone who lived in a corrupt country, the second meaning looks way more probable. But you can’t prove this for sure.

How to react?

Although double meaning messages can be harmless or entertaining, my general advice is to avoid them when possible. As a defense strategy you can try to play a fool, i.e. try pretending you didn’t understand the second meaning or didn’t pay attention to it. This could motivate the attacker to state a more definite offense. Guiding the attacker to a clear ground should be your top priority, even though you may fear a direct threat.

A fully counterfactual communication

While double meanings can be viewed only as “half-real”, another sort of communication can be considered fully counterfactual.

I find the phrase “Reputation speaks for itself” to be quite on point. It speaks indeed. And different people send different messages with their reputation.

In a civilized world people are encouraged to value and abide honesty, politeness, trustworthiness, and other positive traits.

But in a less civilized or degrading society, building a negative reputation can have its own advantages. A person with a negative reputation doesn’t even have to state direct threats or use double meanings. It’s less likely that you will argue with an impulsive and shouty person. In the worst case, people build a reputation of being “half-crazy”, implying that they do not fully control themselves. In this way, their threats circumvent the legal punishment system, which is supposed to prevent conscious people from doing bad things. Because, you know, what’s the point of punishment if they’ve already harmed you?

Realizing its advantages, some people build a fake negative reputation. They pretend they did break the laws, did some bad actions, or have bonds with evil spirits. But don’t get fooled — it’s still real intimidation and should be accountable.


Humans can use counterfactual intimidating techniques to avoid accountability. There is no efficient system that can prevent that. The proposed solution is to spread awareness and to encourage more straightforward communication in culture.

P.S. Obviously, I advise this because I’m bad with hints.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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