A conversation is communication by two or more people, or sometimes with one’s self, on a particular topic. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, because they allow people with different views on a topic to learn from each other.
Paul Grice, a British-educated philosopher of language who spent the final two decades of his career in the U.S., noted that all conversations follow a basic set of rules which people use to express themselves when speaking.
Imagine what would happen to language if there were no rules to follow during conversations. It would be perfectly acceptable to follow “Hi, how are you doing?” with “birds fly in the sky”, or to simply lie with every statement you make. But then conversations would be impossible to have. And while everyone follows Grice’s rules, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are aware of what the rules are or how they work. In fact, Grice’s maxims often work outside of our immediate awareness.
The question now is, what exactly are these rules?
The four Conversational Maxims
A. Maxims of quality
1. Do not say what your believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
B. Maxims of quantity
1. Make your contribution as informative as required.
2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
C. Maxim of relation
1. Be relevant.
D. Maxims of manner
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief.
4. Be orderly.
1. Maxim of Quality. According to the first rule, people are expected to say what they know to be true. When talking with each other we expect the others to tell us the truth. If your friend asks, “…have you seen my dog?” an honest answer is expected.
2. Maxim of Quantity. According to this rule, when talking, we are expected to provide just enough information to get our point across. We usually assume that people are telling us everything we need to know. If they don’t say something, then we assume they simply don’t know that information.
3. Maxim of Relation. According to this rule, you are expected to stay on the topic. In other words, make sure that what you say is relevant for what is talked about. If asked, “Isn’t Larry the biggest jerk you ever met?” you certainly won’t be on topic if you answer by saying “Uh, it sure is nice for this time of year, eh?”
4. Maxim of Manner. The last rule states that your comments should be direct, clear, and to the point. This maxim relates to the form of speech you use. You shouldn’t use words you know your listeners won’t understand or say things which you know could be taken multiple ways. You should also not state something in a long, drawn-out way if you could say it in a much simpler manner. As an example, we have “Miss Singer produced a series of sounds corresponding closely to the score of The Star-Spangled Banner” vs. “Miss Singer sang The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Why should you follow them
These maxims allow you to be more brief in communicating, since you don’t need to say everything you would need to if you were being perfectly logical – you don’t say “John has 4 and only 4 children”. Also, by exploiting or flouting a maxim, they allow you to say things indirectly to avoid some of the discomfort which comes from saying unpleasant things directly.
They can also show you how to “read between the lines.”
Grice did not assume that all people should constantly follow these maxims. Instead, he found it interesting when these were “flouted” or “violated” (either purposefully or unintentionally breaking the maxims) by speakers, which would imply some hidden meaning. Why imply instead of just saying what you mean? Well, implication can get across a great deal of meaning with relatively little actual speech. Thinking of what you want to get across and interpreting what other people have said seems to take much quicker than the relatively slow process of actually verbalizing all the necessary sounds. So saying a little, while implying a lot, is a way to avoid “phonological bottleneck” and communicate more efficiently.
What is interesting to note is the fact that these maxims may be better understood as describing the assumptions listeners normally make about the way speakers will talk, rather than prescriptions for how one ought to talk. And the implications of this fact can be a powerful and creative way to get across a point.
More conversation and communication resources on the web:
- EntertainMates.com: How to communicate bad news;
- EzineArticles.com: 4 Important Conversation Tips;
- LifeHack.org: 5 Conversation and Interaction Tips;
- Armannd.com: Improve your communication skills;
- Conversational hypnosis;
- How to be an expert persuader.
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