Talking past each other

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Talking past each other is an English phrase meaning two or more people talking about different subjects, while they believe that they are talking about the same thing.

Talking past each other is an idiomatic expression describing a situation in which people in a discussion proceed at cross purposes. There is a mismatch.[1]

In other words, "those who subscribe to alternative, incommensurable paradigms are bound to a degree to talk past each other."[2](italics and underline added)


The idiomatic expression is an allusion to the interaction between Thrasymachus and Socrates over the question of "justice" in Plato's Republic I. In their dialogue, neither man addressed any of the issues raised by the other and two different concepts which need not have been disputed are somehow confused.[3]

In common use[edit]

In fictional dialogue, when characters "talk past each other, ...[they are said to] expose an unbridgeable gulf between their respective perceptions and intentions. The result is an exchange, but never an interchange, of words in fragmented and cramped utterances..."[4]

The phrase is used in widely varying 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."[5]
  • 2009 — After U.S. President Barack Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, PBS commentators discussed the President's address and its potential consequences:
David Brooks, Columnist, New York Times: "... 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."[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The English phrase is like the Chinese idiomatic expression "chicken talking to a duck" (鸡同鸭讲 or 雞同鴨講).
  2. ^ Gutting, Gary. (1980). Paradigms and Revolutions, p. 110.
  3. ^ Gallie, Walter Bryce, "Essentially Contested Concepts," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 56, (1956), pp.168.
  4. ^ Fleisser, Marieluise (author), Horton, David (ed.), Pioniere in Ingolstadt, p. 25., p. 25, at Google Books
  5. ^ Mehra, Jagdish. (1974). Einstein, Hilbert, and the Theory of Gravitation, p. 84.
  6. ^ "Obama's Cairo Speech, Sotomayor Top Week's News," PBS News Hour. June 6, 2009.