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Communications of the Miracle on the Hudson, Flight Cactus 1549


Introduction  |  The Cast of Characters  |  The Communications
The Performative Problem  |  The Performative Solution

Part I. Introduction

On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after both engines went out due to bird strikes. All 150 passengers and 5 crew members survived. This surely was one of the most brilliant landings in recent commercial aviation. In addition to superb piloting skills, it entailed coordinated communications with and among flight controllers at three different airports, ground controllers, the Coast Guard, and the New York City Police and Fire Departments.

The communications of Flight 1549 are rich with the kinds of issues that arise in all attempts at communication. Clearly, the communications went well enough to achieve the landing. Nonetheless, the transcripts reveal some striking errors and misunderstandings that might have led to less fortunate results. Because the communications were recorded and transcribed, we have the opportunity to study them and learn how Captain Sullenberger and the other personnel handled communications in the dire situation that they were thrust into.

In ordinary conversation, as well as in extraordinary circumstances such as these, people often misunderstand each other. They sometimes think they hear what they expect to hear rather than what they actually hear. Sometimes they do not manage to say what they really mean to say. Frequently they make unwarranted assumptions. At times they think solely in terms of their own view of the situation and do not pay attention to how others may be thinking about it. Despite all these problems and others, they usually they succeed in communicating. As we study the transcripts of Flight 1549, we will consider how communications problems can be avoided and successes can be enhanced.

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The Cast of Characters

Captain Chesley Sullenberger III: B.S., Air Force Academy; M.A., Purdue University; Fighter pilot, U.S. Air Force; Commercial pilot.

Co-pilot Jeffry Skiles: Started flying at the age of 16, and to date has logged over 20,000 hours. Since 1986, he has served as both a U.S. Airways pilot and first officer.

Control facilities:
  1. Clearance assigns a route to the destination and then gives clearance for takeoff.
  2. Gate Control gives flights permission to leave their gate.
  3. Ground Control controls access to the runways.
  4. Tower handles takeoff and landing.
  5. TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) takes over from Tower at a designated distance from the airport, at which point it handles departures and approaches. Typically, different personnel at TRACON act as Departure Control or Approach Control, though in an emergency such as this, they may exchange responsibilities.
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Part II. The Communications

“Welcome aboard”

Before the flight came the usual upbeat greeting from the cockpit: “A quick hello from the cockpit crew. This is 1549, bound for Charlotte. It’s a nice day for flying, be at thirty eight thousand feet, mostly smooth, about an hour and forty five minutes takeoff to landing. Welcome aboard.”

Flight numbers (1549 in this case) are assigned by the airline companies, typically assigning odd numbers to southbound and westbound flights, even numbers to northbound and eastbound flights. Companies coordinate with each other so that flights that take off from or arrive to the same airport at the same time do not have the same number, which could lead to confusion.

The name “Cactus” for US Airways flights came about because of a prior merger between US Airways and America West, which was headquartered in Tempe, Arizona – the land of cactus.

Expressions such as “Welcome aboard,” in which by merely saying the words the speaker performs the action indicated are called performatives.

From the cockpit to the tower came the request for clearance for taxi Position 28. “Ground, Cactus, uh, 1549, spot 28. Taxi, please.” [15:08: 36]

In every day English, “Taxi, please” would be interpreted as either a request to get a taxicab or as a command to taxi. However, in the context of an aircraft departure, it is interpreted as a request to be allowed to taxi.

LaGuardia Ground Control replies “Cactus 1549. LaGuardia ground runway, ah, four. Turn left alpha. Hold short of golf, and, uh, did you call Clearance?” [15:08:40]

Flight 1549 responds

Skiles: “Ah, sorry, I forgot.” [15:08:48]

Skiles on the PA system: “Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we’re number one for takeoff. Flight attendants, please be seated.” [15:19:25]

Pilots trade control of the aircraft on alternate legs of the trip. It is Skiles’ turn. Sullenberger turns over control of the aircraft to him and Skiles acknowledges.

Sullenberger: “Your brakes, your aircraft.” [15:21:30]

Skiles: “My aircraft.” [15:21:48]

Clearance is a function associated with the airport authority that specifies the details of the route the flight is to take, including altitudes and locations of turns. Had Cactus 1549 pulled out without obtaining clearance, it would have been a violation.

“What a view”

Note: When reporting altitudes in flight communications, there is a prescribed formula. Altitudes are stated as [“digit, digit, hundred or thousand”].” Thus, the number 6,500 would be stated as “six five hundred.” In the following exchange, the number 15,000 is stated as “one five thousand.” This method of stating numbers avoids certain potential confusions as might be caused by the similarity of the sounds of fifteen and fifty.

Systematic repetition, as used in the following exchange, can help avoid errors. It is sometimes recommended by psychologists that it be used in interpersonal communications. Realistically, I think it would make day-to-day interpersonal communications insufferably tedious.

Tower: “Cactus 1549 New York Departure radar contact. Climb and maintain one five thousand.” [15:26:00]

Sullenberger: “Maintain one five thousand. Cactus 1549.” [15:26:04]

As the flight becomes airborne, the Captain and Co-pilot enjoy the view of the Hudson River beneath them.

Captain Sullenberger observes “Ah, what a view of the Hudson today!” [15:26:37]

Skiles concurs “Yeah” [15:26:42]

Soon thereafter, those observations would prove crucial. Once a topic is brought to mind, it arises again in the mind more quickly than it would have otherwise. This illustrates a principle psychologists call priming. In short, the principle says that once a topic is introduced, it is easier to think of it again. Because they paid attention to the Hudson River, it came more readily to mind than had they not thought of it moments before. In hindsight, how propitious it was that they had the Hudson River fresh in mind as they were rising away from the airport!

Strictly speaking, however, they are in violation of safety rules because they are not supposed to talk about anything other than flight requirements until they reach 10,000 feet, which they have not yet done.

“Birds”

Sullenberger: “Birds” [15:27:11]

People commonly speak in sentence fragments, but by itself, the word Birds is not a sentence fragment. What would the sentence be? “Look at the birds!” seems silly. “There are birds here!” only a little less so. He is performing the performative action of exclaiming, which does not need to be explicitly stated.

[sound of thump/thud(s) followed by shuddering sound] [15:27:12]

Skiles: “Whoa” [15:27:11.4]

Skiles: “Oh [expletive].” [15:27:12] You might think of “Oh, shit!” as mere vulgarity; however, it has communicative functions well beyond vulgarity. It vividly conveys that the speaker recognizes the seriousness of the situation. It also constitutes bonding in that peoples use vulgarity with people they are close to.

Sullenberger: “Oh, yeah” [15:27:13] (Sound similar to decrease in engine noise/frequency begins.) [15:27:13]

Skiles: “Uh oh” [15:27:14] Sullenberger starts the alternative power unit (APU).

Sullenberger: “I'm starting the APU.” [15:27:22.4]

Flight Warning Computer: [sound of single chime] [15:27:23.2]

As the senior pilot, Sullenberger takes control of the aircraft.

Sullenberger: “My aircraft.” [15:27:24]

Skiles: “Your aircraft.” [15:27:24.4]

About two and a half minutes after the airplane was cleared for takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, Captain Sullenberger reports in an urgent but controlled tone

“Mayday Mayday Mayday. Uh, this is, uh, Cactus 1539. Hit birds. We’ve lost thrust in both engines.” [15:27:32.9]

“Mayday” is the international distress signal. “M’aider” means help me in French, and is pronounced approximately like “mayday”. The effects of stress are perhaps creeping in, as Captain Sullenberger mistakenly says his flight number is 1539 instead of 1549. One effect of stress is to narrow the focus of attention, thus limiting the number of things that can be attended to. The digits of the flight number were not among those needing attention.

When repeating a list of numbers, people typically get the beginning and the end right but forget numbers in the middle, which is happening here. “Hit birds” is not technically a sentence because it lacks a subject. However, it differs from Sullenberger’s prior exclamation “Birds” because there is a complete sentence it stands for; namely, “We hit birds.” In linguistic parlance, omitting parts of sentences that are understood is called ellipsis. Explaining the error in the flight number is more problematic than first appears. It is probably just a slip of the tongue, but what does that really mean? No Freudian slip explanation seems apparent. Wouldn’t it have been easier simply to say the correct flight number rather than “invent” a new one? The issue at the bottom of this puzzle is how we choose the words, right or wrong ones, that we use when we speak.

“Turning back”

Sullenberger continues “We’re turning back towards LaGuardia.”

Departure Control uses systematic repetition to show that they have heard Sullenberger. However, they use a question intonation to allow for the possibility that they have misunderstood.

“Okay, uh, you need to return to LaGuardia?” [15:27:42]

They give instructions for the heading (i.e., the direction the aircraft is to head).

“Turn left heading of, uh, two two zero.”

The flight was at 3,000 feet, 5.7 miles north of LaGuardia airport, when the New York TRACON Departure Control advised LaGuardia tower to

“Stop all departures. Got an emergency returning.” [15:27:49]

The tower asks which flight was returning and is told

TRACON: “It’s (unintelligible) 1529. He, uh, bird strike. He lost all engines. He lost the thrust to the engines. He’s returning immediately.” [15:27:54]

The flight number has changed again, now to 1529.

The Sequence Controller then contacts LaGuardia and advises that the flight was

“Cactus 1549 that just departed.”

If what you are told does not conform to your expectations, you may fail to perceive what you have heard, especially if you are under stress. Because stress narrows the focus of attention, it limits the extent to which new information can be absorbed. Thus, even though they have just been told the loss of thrust was in all engines, LaGuardia Air Traffic Control Tower asks which engines.

Tower: “Cactus 1529, which engines?” [15:27:59]

“Unable”

Departure Control explains

“He lost thrust in both engines, he said.” [15:28:01]

Departure Control attempts to provide assistance: “Cactus 1529, if we can get it to you do you want to try to land runway one three?” [15:28:08]

In aircraft parlance, the phrase “We’re unable” is standard terminology to report that a flight cannot do something. The words “can” and “can’t” sound similar to each other. By contrast, “unable” is distinctive. It is a well-considered choice of terminology.

Sullenberger: “We're unable. We may end up in the Hudson.” [15:28:10.6]

Taken alone, the statement “We’re unable” could mean that the problem is just that they cannot land on runway one three. Alternatively, it could mean that they are unable to land at all. This is a classic problem in linguistic analysis known as the problem of scope. Scope is the root of several kinds of ambiguities. In this case, adding “We may end up in the Hudson.” clarifies the scope of the statement to mean that the problem is not limited to the matter of landing on runway one three. However, Departure Control, presumably under the effects of the stressful situation, fails to perceive and essentially ignores what Sullenberger just told them, and proceeds according to their own view of the situation.

Departure Control: ”Alright, Cactus 1549, it's gonna’ be left traffic for runway three one.” [15:28:31]

Note: Runway three one is the same as runway one three seen from the opposite direction. Sullenberger again tersely repeats that they cannot land as instructed.

Sullenberger: “Unable” [15:28:35]

Effective communication requires that each party understand what is going on in the mind of the other party. If we take the idea of a map as a metaphor for what someone is thinking of, it is as though each party is looking at a map the other one cannot see directly. Rather, each party must try to infer the map that is in the other person’s mind. In this case, Departure Control fails to comprehend the fact that Sullenberger is contemplating landing in the Hudson River. In effect, they do not see the Hudson River on the map in his mind. The effort to infer the map that is in the mind of the other person is one of the most difficult but most vital aspects of communicating effectively. To the extent that the maps can be made congruent, communication is enhanced. However, because you can never be sure you are seeing correctly into the mind of someone else, you can never be absolutely sure you are communicating accurately.

Departure Control: “Okay, what do you need to land?” [15:28:36]

In the following comment, exactly what Skiles says, let alone what he means, is not clear. Presumably he is under stress, which may have affected his speech. Alternatively, he may assume that Sullenberger understands him even though he has not spoken clearly.

Skiles: “He wants us to come in and land on one three … for whatever.” [15:28:37]

Departure Control continues as though Sullenberger had not mentioned the Hudson River. People with weaker character and less discipline, not to mention less focus on immediate issues than Captain Sullenberger has, might be getting peevish by now about the fact that Departure Control is persisting in failing to comprehend what he has told them. Departure Control adds a new option.

Departure Control: “Cactus 1529, runway four's available if you wanna’ make left traffic to runway four.” [15:28:46]

Sequence Control then informs the tower that the crew would like to land on runway three one.

The tower then advised Departure Control that “Runway 4 is also available, if he needs it.” [15:27:54]

Departure Control: “It’s 1529. He, uh, bird strike. He lost all engines. He lost the thrust in the engines. He is returning immediately.” [15:28:46]

“This is the Captain”

Still open to any possibility, Sullenberger asks about other airports. He is remarkable for his ability to see in his mind an extensive variety of mental maps at the same time or in quick succession. At this point, Captain Sullenberger was in the unusual position of both flying the airlplane and working the radio. Talking on the radio is usually the job of the pilot who is not flying the airplane, but in this case First Officer Skiles, was running through an engine restart checklist.

Sullenberger: “I'm not sure we can make any runway. Uh, what's over to our right? Anything in New Jersey? Maybe Teterboro?” [15:28:49.9]

Departure Control: “Okay, yeah, off your right side is Teterboro airport.” [15:28:55]

Traffic Collision Avoidance System: Monitor vertical speed. [15:28:59]

Skiles is monitoring potential reignition of the engines.

Skiles: “No relight after thirty seconds, engine master one and two confirm ...“ [15:29:00]

Departure control: “You wanna’ try and go to Teterboro?” [15:29:02]

Sullenberger: “Yes” [15:29:03]

Sullenberger (over public address system): “This is the Captain. Brace for impact.” [15:29:11]

At this point, the flight attendants begin instructing the passengers on correct procedures.

Departure Control: “Cactus 1529 turn right two eight zero. You can land runway one at Teterboro.“ [15:29:21]

Sullenberger: “We can't do it.” [15:29:25]

Again, the problem of scope arises, as it often does with pronouns. Departure Control does not understand specifically what Flight 1549 cannot do. They assume it is merely the choice of runway that is at stake, though it is not.

Departure Control: “‘kay which runway would you like at Teterboro?” [15:29:27]

Flight Warning Computer: (Sound of continuous repetitive chime for 9.6 seconds.) [15:29:27]

Sullenberger’s next statement clarifies matters.

Sullenberger: “We're gonna’ be in the Hudson.” [15:29:28]

Nonetheless, Departure Control simply cannot believe, perceive or comprehend what Sullenberger just said.

Departure Control: “I'm sorry. Say again, Cactus?” [15:29:33]

Sullenberger does not respond. He has other issues on his mind.

Departure Control: “Cactus 1549, radar contact is lost. You also got Newark airport off your two o'clock in about seven miles.” [15:29:53]

“Got any ideas?”

Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System: Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. [15:29:55]

Skiles: “Got flaps out.” [15:30:01]

Skiles: “Two hundred fifty feet in the air.” [15:30:03]

Ground Proximity Warning System: Too low. Terrain. [15:30:04]

Ground Proximity Warning System: Too low. Gear. [15:30:06]

Skiles: “Hundred and seventy knots.” [15:30:06]

Radio from another airplane: “Two one zero, uh, forty seven eighteen. I think he said he's going in the Hudson.” [15:30:09]

Skiles: “Hundred and fifty knots.” [15:30:16]

Skiles: “Got flaps two, you want more?” [15:30:17]

Sullenberger: “No, let’s stay at two.” [15:30:19]

About 23 seconds before they glide onto the water, Sullenberger asks Skiles

Sullenberger: “Got any ideas?” [15:30:21]

Talk about teamwork! Talk about camaraderie! Talk about grace under pressure! Note: Until approximately the 1970’s, the co-pilot was not supposed to say anything, let alone offer opinions. That has changed, and it is generally agreed that the change has enhanced air safety.

Skiles replies to Sullenberger: “Actually not.” [15:30:23]

Departure Control is still providing information about landing at Newark airport: “Cactus 1529, if you can,uh, .... you got, uh, runway, uh, two nine available at Newark. It'll be two o'clock and seven miles.” [15:30:22]

Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System: Terrain Terrain. Pull up. Pull up Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. Pull up [15:30:24] ("pull up" repeats until the end of the recording).

They splash down at [15:30:44].

“Okay, listen”

Even at this point, the drama is not over. The flight attendant at the rear of the aircraft risks her life to close the rear door, which was opened by a passenger, to prevent the aircraft from flooding and sinking. Sullenberger walks the entire length of the aircraft twice to ensure that all the passengers and other crew have exited the aircraft.

TRACON to Teterboro airport: "It appears that Cactus might have went down the East River there.”

TRACON: "I guess it was a double bird strike and he lost all thrust so ..."

LaGuardia controllers were talking to a helicopter that kept the plane in sight.

Helicopter: "I got him in sight right next to the USS Intrepid, midriver. It appears they are deploying the rafts right now."

Another LaGuardia controller was talking to airport officials, asking them to launch a rescue effort.

Controller: "Okay, listen. We're going to tell you something important — it's Cactus 1549, We see somebody low level in the Hudson River. You're gonna’ need to alert the New York and New Jersey Port Authority Police over there. He's about a mile and a half north of the Lincoln Tunnel. ... We still have a target on him, but he looks like he's low level."

The introduction, “Okay, listen. We're going to tell you something important” conveys the urgency of the situation. A New York Waterway ferry arrived at the side of the plane four minutes after the ditching. Others, including vessels from Circle Line Tours, the Coast Guard and the New York City Fire and Police Departments, arrived soon thereafter, which was crucial because in January the waters of the Hudson River were so cold that people would not have survived in them for long. Just after Flight 1549 cleared the George Washington Bridge approaching its water landing, the La Guardia control tower coordinator called the New York New Jersey Port Authority.

LaGuardia Control Coordinator: “Okay, listen, ah, we’re going to tell you something important. It’s Cactus 1549. We see somebody low level in the Hudson River below 400. Okay? You’re going to need to, um, alert the New York and New Jersey Port Authority police over there.” [15:28:53]

The LaGuardia control coordinator immediately calls Kennedy International Airport air traffic control.

LaGuardia: “Get me a Police Department helicopter. Have you got one on your frequency?” [15:30:48]

J.F.K.: “Say again.”

La Guardia: “Get me a Police Department helicopter if you got one on your frequency right now.”

J.F.K.: “We don’t have one right now, but we will make a call.”

Ambulances were waiting on shore. All passengers and crew survived.

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The Performative Problem

When the pilot says “Welcome aboard” he has welcomed you aboard, irrespective of whether he really means it or is just saying it because it is company policy. The essence of the matter is that by uttering the words he has accomplished the action described by the words.

Many other expressions work similarly to welcome. For example, when you say “I promise that we will go to Disneyland tomorrow” you have so promised. When you say “I apologize” you have apologized. If you say “I beg your forgiveness,” you have begged forgiveness. If a properly authorized judge says “I sentence you to life in prison” you have been sentenced even if the sentence is later reversed on appeal and you are then unsentenced. Expressions like these are called performatives because by uttering them the speaker has performed the action the verb describes.

Here is a test for performatives that does not work all the time, but conveys the concept. To see whether an expression is performative, ask if you can meaningfully say “I hereby X that …” where X stands for the expression being tested. Then ask whether you would have accomplished the relevant action by saying the words. For example, you can meaningfully say “I hereby deny/affirm/postulate that …” and you have then denied/affirmed/ postulated whatever follows the word that. By contrast, if you say “I hereby jump/run/read that …,“ you have not, by the mere act of saying those words, done those things. Saying “I hereby run,” doesn’t get you anywhere. Saying “I hereby jump,” even while jumping, has nothing to do with elevating you. Saying “I hereby read,” has nothing to do with making you better informed. Putting it another way, you can run, jump or read without saying those words or anything like them.

Even though only some verbs are performative, it turns out that all utterances have a performative aspect despite the fact that the performative verb is ordinarily unstated. Thus, “Climb and maintain five thousand [feet]” really means “I hereby instruct you to climb and maintain five thousand [feet].” In the circumstance of an aircraft asking permission to enter taxi lanes, “Taxi, please” really means “I hereby request permission to taxi.”

When Sullenberger says “Your brakes, your aircraft,” he is commanding that Skiles take control of the aircraft. By saying “My aircraft,” Skiles acknowledges his compliance with the command. Later, when Sullenberger retakes control of the aircraft, he commands “My aircraft.”

In the context of an aircraft in flight, it is clear that these statements are to be taken as commands. In other situations, whether such performatives are to be construed as instructions or commands, or even decrees, is a subtle matter, not necessarily well-defined, that depends on the relationship between the speakers as well as the situation they are in. Thus, when the performative is unstated, as is generally the case, there is considerable room for confusion and ambiguity when it comes to understanding (or misunderstanding) the performative aspect of the utterance.

The concept of performatives also gives us a way to better appreciate the Captain’s exclamation “Birds!” He means something like “I exclaim Birds!” In a novel it might be written “’Birds!’ he exclaimed.” Putting it that way sounds silly, but the point is that because the performative aspect of the utterance is not stated explicitly the exclamation can be terse (one word) with he exclamatory aspect of the meaning carried in his voice. Given these considerations, we do not have to consider “Birds!” a shortened version of some other sentence, especially given that Sullenberger did not know, when he issued his exclamation, that the birds were about to fly themselves and Flight 1549 into history.

Gestures as well as spoken words are subject to a performative interpretation. If you are playing blackjack and you cup your hand and move it toward yourself you have requested another card. Rude gestures can be understood as “I hereby insult you.” These facts emphasize the close connection between spoken language and the language of gestures.

In a very clever series of lectures titled “How to Do Things with Words,” J.L. Austin analyzed performatives in detail. As he explained, performatives cover the spectrum of social interactions that can be accomplished directly by speaking. Because it is so wide, the spectrum defies tidy classification. Nonetheless, attempting to categorize the possibilities provides a way to appreciate the behaviors performatives can cover.

Based on Austin’s categories, here is a rough inventory of performatives: You can render a judgment, as when a jury says “We find the defendant guilty.” You can use your authority to accomplish some end, as in “I (or we) hereby name flights by this company’s aircraft ‘Cactus’.” You can commit to doing something like donating, giving or promising (as in “I promise to be good if I get out of this alive,” which some of Flight 1549’s passengers did say). You can engage in social behavior such as welcoming, apologizing, congratulating, commending, or challenging. You can explain what you are saying and how it fits into the discussion, as in I assume that …, I postulate that …, I concede that …. If you have the proper authority, you can direct someone’s behavior, as in I suggest that, I order that …, I demand that …. You can inquire, query, ask, etc. And you can simply say something, as in I state that …, I claim that …, I declare that …, I assert that …, I aver that …, I avow that …. Finally, as the default case, whenever you are saying anything at all, you are saying “I say that ….”

All the utterances of a dialogue are suspended amidst a network of performatives, either stated or implied. Without them, the dialogue would not make sense overall or even be coherent. Thus, whenever you speak you are doing two distinct things and normally trying to do a third. First, you are saying some words (or doing some gestures). Second, you are always using performatives, even if they are unstated. Third, you are normally trying to affect the external world in some way, such as making people believe or understand what you are saying, or trying to get them to do something that you are requesting or ordering them to do.

Conditions for performatives to be effective
The performative aspect of an utterance is neither true nor false. When the captain says “Welcome aboard,” it makes no sense to ask whether “Welcome aboard” is true or false. If you have said “I request your help,” the issue is whether your request is reasonable or appropriate rather than whether it is true or false. However, it makes sense to ask whether the conditions have been met that would allow the performative act to be accomplished.

To begin with, there must be someone who heard the performative. In the case of welcome, if no one heard the greeting, no one was welcomed. The issue raised here is reminiscent of the question “If a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?” Descarte’s answer was that God is always listening. To address the issue for performatives, we do not have to get that metaphysical. What if the Captain was unaware that in fact there was no one in the main cabin when he said “Welcome aboard”? Clearly, no one was welcomed even though he thought people were welcomed. What if only the flight attendant was in the cabin? Presuming that captain did not intend to welcome her and they both knew it, she was not welcomed.

What if you have no intention of keeping your promise? From the point of view of the hearer, if you said “I promise,” you have made a promise. But if the hearer knew of your intention not to keep your promise, then you have not made a promise. The answer in general is that whether the performative was performed depends, among other things, on what the hearer knew or could have reasonably surmised about the speaker’s intention.

Performative actions require authority to be effective. The particular authority required will depend on the performative action in question. If a cleric says “I hereby excommunicate you,” the action will not be effective unless he (she?) holds the appropriate position in the church hierarchy. When Sullenberger issued the command to Skiles “Your brakes, your aircraft,” he had authority to do so based on the fact that he was the senior pilot. Skiles then acknowledged “My aircraft,” as he was authorized to do in his role as second in command.

The authority required for promises and many other performatives, is internal to the speaker, so if the speaker is under duress (“Promise to give me all your money or I’ll kill you.” “Okay, I promise,”) he has not really promised.

Naming is a complex process, often requiring two steps. In the case of naming a child, the parents propose a name, but the name becomes official only when the duly authorized governmental institution issues a birth certificate with the child’s name on it. Naming flights is similar. In the case of flights by US Airways aircraft, the company proposed the name “Cactus”. It is short, distinctive, and does not conflict with the flight names of any other aircraft company. Therefore, the Federal Aviation Authority issued a certificate that approved the name and thereby made it official. In effect, the governmental agency is saying “We hereby name this baby …” Similarly, the Federal Aviation Authority is effectively saying “We hereby name flights by this airline …”

Some performative acts can require mutual understanding of the prevailing conditions in order to be effective. Because there was no mutual understanding of the prevailing conditions, Sullenberger’s statement “Unable” (which means “I hereby inform you that I am unable.”) failed to inform the tower of what he was unable to do.

In his discussion of performatives, Austin presents the following argument: If all utterances are ultimately performatives, whether overtly stated or not, and if performatives are neither true nor false, then it follows that no utterances are either true or false. Austin pursues that line of reasoning with the following example. Because I am not quite certain whether his analysis is valid, I will let him state the argument in his own words:

"Suppose that we confront 'France is hexagonal' with the facts, in this case, I suppose, with France, is it true or false? Well, if you like, up to a point; of course I can see what you mean by saying that it is true for certain intents and purposes. It is good enough for a top-ranking general, perhaps, but not for a geographer. 'Naturally it is pretty rough', we should say, 'and pretty good as a pretty rough statement'. But then someone says: 'But is it true or is it false? I don't mind whether it is rough or not; of course it's rough, but it has to be true or false-it's a statement, isn't it?' How can one answer this question, whether it is true or false that France is hexagonal? It is just rough, and that is the right and final answer to the question of the relation of 'France is hexagonal' to France. It is a rough description; it is not a true or a false one.

"It is essential to realize that 'true' and 'false', like 'free' and 'unfree', do not stand for anything simple at all; but only for a general dimension of being a right or proper thing to say as opposed to a wrong thing, in these circumstances."

Let me extend Austin’s reasoning. Suppose you draw a hexagon as precisely as you can. Is it a hexagon? Not really, because the corners cannot be perfect and the lengths of the lines that are supposed to be equal will differ, no matter how microscopically. Okay, then, how about the mathematical construct of a hexagon? There we see that a hexagon is ultimately the consequence of agreement among people, and how can we say that such an agreement is true or false? It is just an agreement.

That said, in most cases we can agree on what the circumstances are, and then, given the agreement, the answer can be regarded as right or wrong. This way of looking at it concedes Austin’s argument in theory, albeit not in practice. In any case, it is clear that, as Austin says, “‘true’ and ‘false’ … do not stand for anything simple at all.”
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The performative solution

From welcomes to goodbyes, from baptisms to excommunications, from requests to demands, from avowals to denials, performatives are the structure that communications are built on. They are a mostly invisible layer, ordinarily implied rather than stated explicitly, and so they are frequently misapprehended and misconstrued. Because they are ubiquitous, they constitute a frequent source of discord when communication goes awry.

Yet recognizing the performative layer and asking the right questions about it can help to reveal and identify and then possibly solve problems in communication.

What performative is being used?
Ordinarily, this is simply intuitive, but when communication goes awry, it bears thought. (E.g., is the speaker informing that or insisting?) One approach to dealing with this is to state the intended performative aloud even when it is not strictly necessary to do so. If you are demanding that something be done rather than requesting, it is probably just as well to state it explicitly. On the other hand, if you are only requesting, you might want to make that clear as well.

Are the roles and relationships among the speakers appropriate for the performatives being used?

When roles and relationships are well defined, as they are in flight communications, in military situations, and in rigid commercial organizations, the relationships and consequently the performative level of discourse is generally clear. However, in most communications situations, roles are continually being negotiated and intentions are constantly being inferred. Which person is dominant? Why? Is it because of wealth? Attractiveness? Intelligence? These factors affect the performatives that will be used.

Do the speaker and the hearer share appropriate background knowledge and assumptions so that informing is effective?
When Sullenberger said “Unable,” the Tower did not have sufficient background knowledge to interpret him adequately. They did not know what he was unable to do. Psychologists and other commentators sometimes recommend repeating everything the other person says in order to make sure you understand what they are saying. Frankly, I think this is excessive. Still, there are times, when checking on background knowledge and assumptions can put communications on the right path.

Is the performative to be taken literally?
Sarcasm happens. Attempts at humor happen all the time, though sometimes they are not recognized as such. Denials may be intended facetiously. When these kinds of performatives are misunderstood, as often happens, they create problems. Obviously.

Does the demeanor of the speaker match the performative intended?
Because performatives are ordinarily unstated, one way they are inferred is from the demeanor of the speaker. But sometimes the speaker might be excited or depressed, and therefore give the wrong impression about the performative intended.

In summary, understanding the performative level of discourse is not easy but is vitally important. It requires no less than understanding the roles and intentions of the participants, and the conditions of the performatives being used. But this is what is required for understanding human interactions with language or without.

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