The rules of conversation

Happy New Year everyone. It feels good to get back into a rhythm of writing these posts now that I have a bit of free time on my hands again. I wanted to start off 2022 talking about… talking I guess. Something that we do everyday! The subtle art of conversation.

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Conversations can be hard to wrap your head around. If you take a step back and really think about it, the fact that we can have a string of interconnected thoughts and shared ideas with another person is pretty amazing. If I say one thing, that will probably make you think of a different thing and you will say that thing, which will lead to me thinking of a response that I say, and so on until we both run out of things to say!

So, what allows us to be able to talk like this forever? Surely, there must be some sort of insight into how conversations work from a logical standpoint. Well, it turns out that there is a whole field of linguistics that cares about this exact thing known as pragmatics. Pragmatics studies the use of language in social settings as well as caring about the relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted.

A key part of pragmatics is built upon something known as the cooperative principle. The cooperative principle was developed by a linguist named Paul Grice back in the late 1970’s and essentially served to describe how and why people will behave in certain ways while conversing. I wanted to take the time today to talk about this principle, provide some examples, and maybe give you a little bit of insight into why you converse the way you do.

The cooperative principle is divided into four maxims (or rules) which are known as the Gricean maxims. These four maxims are not infallible rules and can certainly be broken in a conversation. The idea is that in a normal conversation where we are actively engaging the other person and trying our best to be clear in communicating our ideas, provided they are doing the same, these are the set of principles that we are both following when speaking our own thoughts and interpreting the others.

The first maxim to talk about is the maxim of quantity. This rule dictates that all utterances should only be as informative as they need to be. In other words, you should aim to make your contribution contain only the necessary information for the situation and not contain superfluous information. An analogy that Grice uses in his book to describe this situation relates this maxim to repairing a car where he says: “If you are assisting me to mend a car, I expect your contribution to be neither more nor less than is required. If, for example, at a particular stage I need four screws, I expect you to hand me four, rather than two or six”.

Automotive analogies aside, how would this play out in an actual conversation? If you are talking with a friend and they ask you “What day are you flying home for Christmas?”, it would be sufficient to say “Thursday, December 23rd”. You could also include the time into this if it was relevant (say, if this friend was picking you up), but it would likely not be necessary to specify the year that this was taking place. Your conversational partner would likely be able to figure out that you are both talking about this years Christmas and stating the information outright would be redundant.

The next maxim is the maxim of quality, which states that the contribution you are making must be truthful. This means that you should not say things which you believe to be false, and you should also not say things which you lack true evidence for.

For a simple and safe example, let’s go back to grade school for a second. Do you remember being a kid, and someone on the playground would tell you something about how they have “an uncle that was on the Titanic” or “a dad that works at Nintendo”? Looking back on it now, it is plain to see that they were obviously lying about something like that, but when you were a kid, you might have believed them at least a little bit. This is the maxim of quality at work!

Those kids that told those tall tales were violating this maxim and providing knowingly false evidence, but you were likely to believe them because of that same maxim. You were just a kid; you didn’t know any better. Why would these other kids be lying to you? Surely their uncle must really have survived being on the Titanic and caught up with his Nintendo employed brother and the pair of them acted as the inspiration for the Mario Bros.! This example really gives you a sense of how these maxims work, and what happens when one party is actively violating them.

The third maxim is the maxim of relevance which simply boils down to the idea that any information you are providing should be free of any irrelevant information. We can return to our flight example for this. If your friend asks you when you are flying home for Christmas, you probably don’t need to tell them what jacket you are planning on wearing to the airport.

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This is not to say that this information is not vital at some point in time. For instance, if they are planning on picking you up from the airport like we had discussed earlier, it might be useful to know what colour jacket you have on to find you. But at this point if they are asking you when you are flying home, and the flight is not for a few weeks, telling them about the jacket is not relevant.

The final Gricean maxim is the maxim of manner (or clarity). While the other three maxims care about what is being said, this final maxim is more focussed on how things are being said. To put it simply: be brief, avoid ambiguity, and be orderly.

Having to re-read and edit many of my own posts over the past six months, this is likely the maxim I need to work on the most! If I could say it in as little as 5 words, why am I dragging my feet and adding in all these silly extra words to say it in 50 instead? Or perhaps it is the complexity of my communication which needs to have its intensity decreased for the easement of my fellow linguistics enthusiasts.

This last paragraph sums up violations of the maxim of clarity. It all just boils down to the simple principle that many high school English teachers and writing instructors have been saying for years. Be clear and concise. There is not much else to say on this one (nor should their be).

And that wraps up my first post of 2022. Hopefully now you have a little better insight into how conversations function on a higher level. This one was a bit out of my comfort zone because I don’t work in this area a lot, but I had a lot of fun writing it and thinking about it, so I hope you liked it too! I have been working away now and I have so many interesting things to share with you all now so I hope you will come back next week for more. As always, if you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.