Talking past each other

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Talking past each other is an idiom.

The phrase describes a situation in which people communicate at cross purposes.

The idiom explains what happens when there is a mismatch.[1] Idioms are a common stumbling block for learners of a language.

The idiom applies to disputes in which neither side addressed any of the issues raised by the other. In talking past each other, two different concepts which need not have been disputed are somehow confused or conflated.[2]

In fictional dialogue, when characters talk past each other, the result is an exchange with flaws or defects.[3]

In common use[change | change source]

The phrase is used in many contexts. For example,

  • 1917 — Albert Einstein and David Hilbert had dawn-to-dusk discussions of physics; and they continued their debate in writing, although Felix Klein records that they talked past each other, as happens not infrequently between simultaneously producing mathematicians."[4](italics added)
  • 2009 — After U.S. President Barack Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, PBS experts discussed the President's words:
According to David Brooks: "... I liked it on the whole. You know, if you cover the Middle East, you know that there's a lot of shouting there, a lot of people talking past each other. Famously, every group has their own historical narrative which they emphasize while ignoring everyone else's narrative. And I thought Obama did the right thing, which was to go there and give everybody -- everybody's narratives melded into one. Now, it meant he had to squeeze history here and there, but that's fine. He melded it into one so everyone could have a common conversation."[5] (italics added)

References[change | change source]

  1. The English phrase is like the Chinese idiom about a "chicken talking to a duck" (鸡同鸭讲 or 雞同鴨講).
  2. Gallie, W.B. "Essentially Contested Concepts," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 56, (1956), p.168.
  3. Fleisser, Marieluise et al. (1992). Pioniere in Ingolstadt, p. 25.
  4. Mehra, Jagdish. (1974). Einstein, Hilbert, and the Theory of Gravitation, p. 84.
  5. "Obama's Cairo Speech, Sotomayor Top Week's News," PBS News Hour. June 6, 2009.

More reading[change | change source]

  • Anderson, Philip Warren. "Twenty years of talking past each other: The theory of high Tc," Physica C: Superconductivity and its Applications, v. 460-462, iss. 0, p. 3-6.
  • Fleisser, Marieluise and David Horton. (1992). Pioniere in Ingolstadt. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press. ISBN 9780719034671; ISBN 9780719034688; OCLC 24376759
  • Gutting, Gary. (1980). Paradigms and Revolutions: Appraisals and Applications of Thomas Kuhn's Philosophy of Science. South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. OCLC 163461098