Language that describes people in a concise manner may conflict with social norms (e.g., referring to people by their race), presenting a conflict between transferring information efficiently and avoiding offensive language. When a speaker is describing others, we propose that listeners consider the speaker’s use or absence of potentially offensive language to reason about the speaker’s goals. We formalize this hypothesis in a probabilistic model of polite pragmatic language understanding, and use it to generate predictions about interpretations of utterances in ambiguous contexts, which we test empirically. We find that participants are sensitive to potentially offensive language when resolving ambiguity in reference. These results support the idea that listeners represent conflicts in speakers’ goals and use that uncertainty to interpret otherwise underspecified utterances.
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