The thing about successful communication is that we all fail at it sometimes while others are really very bad at it on a regular basis. And this rarely has anything to do with not using the present perfect correctly. Which means we are going to talk about the Gricean Maxims.
Paul Grice and his four Maxims tried to explain how people cooperate to construct shared understandings. He was particularly interested in how they go about that even when they are not saying exactly what they mean, when they are flouting one of his guidelines.
The interesting thing for me is the fine line between flouting a maxim and violating it, leading to a communication breakdown. Bacially I think Grice’s Maxims are much better for explaining why sometimes conversations go wrong, rather than how they work.
Philosophers, huh. Not all that good at how to manuals.
Anyway. Since I want to talk about bad communication, it also means I am going to talk about political correctness, lying, and the closely related topic of telling jokes.
Gricean Maxims: the Maxim of Quality
In theory, this Gricean Maxim means you should not lie, should not deliberately say things you know to be untrue. Or rather that unless they have reason not to, your conversation partner will assume that you are telling the truth, and, or possibly or, saying what you believe.
Which is, of course, the point of lying. Wanting to be believed.
One way to get into trouble with this maxim is to tell a joke on Twitter.
Now of course, when you are saying the exact opposite of what you believe and you are followed only by 20 of your closest friends, or people who are long familiar with your posting style, this tongue in cheek tweet will be understood.
Until someone retweets you. And someone else retweets that. And the third person reads the words and not the context and boom you’ve gone viral and people are sending you hate mail.
Which is much less funny than the RAF Luton account, which lives to tweet the daftest descriptions of aircraft related pictures, and have people tell them that they are wrong. Bonus points if the objection is about the aircraft model rather than the dubious morality of the supposed action of the Royal Air Force being shown.
It’s almost a rite of passage on the site to be caught out on an irritated correction or horrified retweet.
It works because the account looks official, and the tweets are delivered in exactly the cheerfully bland style of most corporate accounts. People don’t expect it to be messing with them.
This is also the reason why fake news is so insidious.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we tend to expect information imparted in a particular way to be accurate, via websites that look like newspapers, via people with little blue checks next to their names, via official channels, and especially via the friend who was hitherto so reliable in steering us towards the best pizzeria in town.
It’s actually very tiring to have to be continually assessing statements which are not signalled as jokes or sarcasm for a lack of correctness. And so most of the time we do not.
And all of this is complicated hugely by those who do say what they believe to be true, but what they believe to be true is simply completely wrong.
The effect, of course, is encapsulated in the story of the boy who cried wolf. What you thought this problem started with Facebook? Of course not, but it does explain the damage that people in certain positions can do if you can no longer really trust what they say.
If you cannot trust what they say, then you cannot trust what anyone says, and we are accelerating towards the horizon of picking and choosing what we believe based on how much we like what we hear.
Communication breakdown? Yes. The ultimate. And that’s just the first maxim.
Gricean Maxims: the Maxim of Manner
One way to avoid the ambiguity of bending the maxim to tell the truth is to clearly show you are not. We use set phrases to start jokes off, sure, but we also have a mischievous twinkle in our eye, and we make a pregnant pause before the punchline. Not doing these things risks the joke falling flat.
Really not doing these things risks the joke being taken at face value, and quite right too.
Of course, online, this is what emojis were invented to try to help out with. Use them liberally is my advice.
But this Gricean Maxim is not just about the delivery, but also about not being ambiguous.
Now I do not know if you have ever been in the middle of a community stushie which seems to have come about because of what you consider to be a wilful misreading of someone’s utterance by someone else who should have enough familiarity with their conversation partner not to go down that interpretive road?
That happens all the time on social media. And I would say that when there are two possible interpretations of what someone has said, perhaps we might consider that they meant the more benign one. Unless we really do have more context or the person has form to aid us in suggesting it’s the other.
But then we come to political correctness.
And you know, if our job is to be as clear as possible, and if people also tend to think that what we say represents what we believe, then if we have said something that leads people to call us out, it is actually our fault. Whether it was a bit of fuddy-duddy stubbornness or simply an unfortunate choice of words.
Basically, there is something to be said on or off social media for not making a whole bunch of acquaintances, half strangers, or total strangers work any harder than they should to understand what we mean, rather than what we say.
I do think that if you have been caught out in an imprecision that has got you into trouble, it’s no good implying that the other person should have understood you.
Apologise and clarify. This will not actually work, of course, but still. Apologise and clarify.
And to be honest, there are always other words. That’s the nice thing about language. Consider using them next time.
On the other hand, pretending to misinterpret the message is actually great way to use Grice’s Maxims and the cooperative principle for humour, so…
As long as nobody pops up to say that, actually, what that person probably meant was…
I give it about five minutes.
[You may have noticed that I mentioned there were four Gricean Maxims and I have only covered two. Tune in next time for the next two and a rant about people calling me Heather. Yes, I know it’s my name; it’s still no excuse].