Grice’s Maxims, small talk and HEATHER!

It seems obvious that we need to give just enough info but not too much in any given circumstances, or at least so I tell my husband when he has been particularly cryptic and I need a bit more context to follow his train of thought. Enter philosopher Paul Grice’s Maxims of co-operative communication (again. See the beginning of this discussion).

The Maxim of Quantity and the Maxim of Relevance deal with just this issue. To be honest, these are the ones I originally meant to write about, but I got sidetracked by politics and social media infighting.

Well, haven’t we all lately?

Grice’s Maxims: the Maxim of Quantity

I find the Maxim of Quantity neatly encapsulated by part 1 of the Cambridge English language speaking exams.

Let’s say the examiner asks ‘Do you like Moscow?’ Which of the following answers is best?

A) It’s alright.

B) Living in Moscow has its advantages and its disadvantages. On the one hand, there are certainly more opportunities in a big city than in more rural areas. I refer to both career advancement and also the many cultural and sporting events and facilities that such a place boasts. On the other hand, big cities tend to have many cars, a lot of traffic, and as a result of this and other factors, also a lot of pollution. There is also a higher incidence of crime in such an urban environment.

C) I like it in spring, especially this year – all the rain has really encouraged some colourful flowers to bloom. I’m less keen when it gets down to minus ten for weeks on end though – that’s too cold for me!

The point is, it depends on the context, but let’s assume that part 1 of this exam simulates (because it does) making small talk with an acquaintance at the school gates, at a work conference coffee break, or even while you wait for everyone else to turn up to a Zoom meeting.

The first answer is too short. It does not give enough for your conversation partner to hook onto and continue the conversation without having to strain their own communicative resources. There is a time for a laconic reply. This is not one.

The second, of course, is too long. The interlocutor’s eyes will have crossed about half way through and the conversation will have failed again, because the next time the listener sees ‘X is connecting to audio’ looming on the monitor they will turn their camera off and pretend to be unavailable until someone more entertaining turns up or the meeting actually starts.

The third answer is just right, both for the test and small talk more generally. Nice couple of vocab items for the examiner there, look at that, and something non-taxing for the other fathers dropping their kids off at kindergarten to build on for the few minutes it takes to build rapport using small talk.

The examples I found myself mulling over, though, were given by Professor Elizabeth Stokoe, in her video* about what she has leaned from many years of doing conversation analysis (discourse analysis, but exclusively applied to, wait for it, conversation) on service related telephone calls. Especially, in this first example, receptionists at places like doctor’s or vet’s surgeries.

Now this was just a throwaway comment to one of her main points, but she mentioned that in the sort of telephone call where one of the people has to do some clicking around on a computer, this often necessitates a bit of a pause. So it can be helpful for that person to actually say that’s what they are doing. The danger is, otherwise the other person thinks that they are being ignored or have been cut off.

Which was a bit of a revelation to me as I have spent a lot of time over the years suggesting that teachers do NOT provide a running commentary about what they are doing in the classroom.

(‘OK, so I’m going to write these questions on the board now, where’s that pen gone, ooops, it’s over there, ok, so I’ve got the pen and I’m writing up the questions, look I’m remembering to use the blue pen just like Heather told me to, nearly done now, on the last one, yes there it is, and now you can discuss them’).

I still maintain this is a problem face to face. It’s wildly distracting, and threatens to overload the often quite low level students. They can, in this environment, see very well what is going on and are not very interested in some random woman’s opinions about the colour of pens.

However, online the teacher sometimes gets this intent look in their eyes while they fiddle around with some back end buttons preparing to open breakout rooms and such, and sometimes the students are definitely bemused about what is happening. A small amount of ‘I’m going to open the breakout rooms now’ or ‘I’m just uploading the handout to chat’ or ‘I’ll share my screen’ might be actively helpful, especially of the students have something else to be getting g on with while you make faces at your computer (‘…so think about what you will say about Marmite to your partner’).

So what is too much talking in one context, is not quite enough in another. We need to take the situation, the mode of delivery and the purpose of what we are doing into account. Not very groundbreaking, seemingly, but then good philosophy, like good education, is about making sure everyone can see the wood and not just the trees.

But what was Stokoe’s main point, I hear you cry? For this we need to think about another of Grice’s Maxims.

Grice’s Maxims: Maxim of Relation

This Gricean Maxim means you should make your contributions relevant.

Now this can be subtler than you might think. Take this (made up) exchange:

Chilly, isn’t it?

Go ahead.

Person two has correctly interpreted that the first statement is not just a comment on the weather but a request to close the window, which may have been aided, of course, by person A standing next to the window and making little gestures at it.

So utterances to not have to be ponderously overt to be successful in relation to relevance. And therin lies the rub. How obvious do you have to be then?

Now Professor Stokoe was not talking about Grice’s Maxims, but one of the conversations she gave as an example goes something like:

I’d like to know if I am eligible for the flu vaccine.

Yes, you are.

* crickets *

The caller feels that what should happen next is that they should be offered an appointment. The receptionist thinks they have answered the question and the call is over and is waiting for their thank you. In the next couple of moves you can hear the caller then having to fight to make sure the phone is not put down on them before they can get to the point.

Now you can blame the caller if you want for not being clearer up front about why they are ringing – see the post about the Maxim of Manner and the importance of not being ambiguous, yes these Gricean Maxims do tend to start overlapping after a while – but it IS after all a call to a doctor’s surgery. Offering to make appointments is surely something receptionists ought to be expecting to do every time they pick up the phone. Missing the relevance of that opening to the purpose of having a telephone line into a doctor’s surgery is weird.

In fact, I gather Elizabeth Stokoe has a bit of a career in being called in when this failure to understand the rules of communication results in terrible ratings on customer satisfaction surveys in these kinds of interactions. And suggesting that the way to improve is not to try to get the receptionist to engage in rapport-building exercises such as asking about the customer’s breed of dog and making a happy little noise about the answer. It is enough to just get the transaction out of the way in as efficient a manner as possible, with the caller having to do as little work a possible to get their desired outcome.

For the dangers of doing small talk to build rapport really wrong, take Professor Stokoe’s example of cold calling sales pitches, which sometimes start with ‘… and how are you today?’

‘How are you?’ is an integral part of the ritual of greetings, but only in certain circumstances, and it sounds odd in a cold call. It’s the wrong context.

My personal little bugbear in in this category is being called by my name when people are trying to sell me things, including themselves in an interview. I assume, as with many of Stokoe’s examples of truly bad communication, that this has come about because it started life in a training manual somewhere. But it. Drives. Me. Up. The. Wall. Because it comes across as a bit of a power move to me. Yet I was never quite able to put my finger on why it was so wrong until I realised that it is just out of place.

Generally, people only really use my name to greet me (‘Hi Heather’), to nominate me for a turn when, and this is important, there are multiple people in a conversation (‘Are you coming too, Heather?’ Or ‘The doctor will see you now, Mrs Be… Belg… Heather’. Or ‘Would you like some coffee, Heather?’), or occasionally to tell me off (‘HEATHER!!!’).

The use of the name Heather in the wrong context is an example of violating Grice's Maxims, so here are some heather plants
Image by JackieLou DL from Pixabay

They don’t go round inserting it into random utterances in a one to one conversation, or as a direct reply to something I’ve asked them, especially in the middle of a sentence. (‘Well, now, Heather, I’m glad you asked me that’. ‘Is that something you might be interested in, Heather?’ ‘So, Heather, the place I see myself in five years’ time is doing your job’. ‘This one time offer, Heather, will only be valid for a couple of weeks’).

It’s not following the natural rules of conversation, and as a result I cannot be doing with it and it’s like fingers down the chalkboard of my soul every time.

I suppose the counter argument is that it is so embedded in this kind of discourse nowadays that perhaps I should just relax into the new normal. But the point Professor Stokoe makes is that quite a lot of things which are given out as good advice about making conversation really isn’t when you look at the actual data. I expect in this case, for example, overusing people’s names came about because someone at some point noted that people like it when you remember what they are called. Yes, but there’s no need to be OTT in demonstrating that. Good grief.

Really it depends if I am alone in finding it annoying, in whether this is my personal quirk or if actually, like the ‘…and how are you today?’ it is counter productive in establishing rapport for other people too. Answers much appreciated. Is it just me, or is it them?

And in the meantime, here is a video covering all of Grice’s Maxims, except I think one of them has been labeled wrongly. See if you agree with me about that too – which one?

* It’s a Royal Institution lecture. Before there were TED talks, there were Royal Institution lectures, and they share much in common, except the Royal Institution has a kick ass desk.

What do you think?

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