Do we really mean what we say? While the field of Semantics is concerned with what the words mean, Pragmatics is about what the speaker means by the words. The same words can mean different things in different contexts.

One thing that can make the context different is the power relationship between the speaker and the hearer. A couple of years ago I started seeing a novel phrase in business communication: “at your earliest convenience.” The first instances sounded like please-the-customer subservience. The usage was something like, “The items you ordered have arrived, and you may pick them up at your earliest convenience.” The word “earliest” signals that the service provider is trying to do a good job; “your convenience” implies that the customer’s time is more valuable than the provider’s, and the provider wouldn’t dream of telling the customer what to do. The customer is the one with more status or power here.

But after a while, I saw the same phrase in a different context. Instead of providing a service, the person using the phrase is requesting something: “Please bring that to my office at your earliest convenience.” If you get such a message from your boss, the power imbalance is reversed. Your “earliest convenience,” in this case, had better be immediately after you receive the message. The phrasing is just a sugar-coating, so the command doesn’t sound like a command. But it still is.

What about “my convenience?” Recently I received an auto-reply to an e-mail from someone who was on vacation. It ended with: “…I will get back to you at my earliest convenience upon my return.” Now it is her convenience that is important, not mine. To paraphrase, “I will get back to you soon, but I won’t go out of my way to do so.” I am no longer the valued customer who must be pleased.

Linguist and grammarian Gay Ford gave the vacationer the benefit of the doubt when she heard this story. She wrote that this “poor person has misused the expression and probably (in her haste to get out the door and begin that vacation) has no idea what she’s implied. Surely ‘as soon as possible’ would’ve been more appropriate. It makes me wonder if her boss received one of those auto-replies while she was away and had anything to say about it.”

And I would agree with Ford’s assessment. Except that I had to call the person two days after she got back from her vacation, because I hadn’t heard from her yet. I guess she hadn’t found it convenient to call me.