Sometimes we don’t say exactly what we mean, and yet we still manage to understand each other. The reason we can figure out what’s going on is because we don’t just look at words and sentences for meaning — we also look at context. The area of linguistics that puts meaning into context is called pragmatics.
We don’t have 100 percent complete information about everything that’s going on when we’re talking to people, so we often need to make some assumptions about the context in order to understand each other. There are four main assumptions that pragmaticists talk about when it comes to communication.
Most of the time, we assume that people are trying to communicate high-quality information. We know that people can lie, but we usually assume that they’re telling the truth. So when the context and the words clearly don’t match, we can deduce a more subtle truth, like sarcasm.
Second assumption is that people are giving us a sufficient quantity of information. Enough detail, but not too much.
Food labels also generally align with our third assumption. For example, if a pack of gum says it’s sugar-free, it’s because gum does sometimes contain sugar. We generally assume that people will tell us information that is of relevance, so the boring gum packaging checks out. But our assumption about relevance can also be used for humor or to mislead — to imply that something is relevant when it actually is not
Our fourth assumption is that people will say things in a manner which is as straightforward as possible for the context. If something is good, we can probably just say it’s good. If something is not so great, though, we might be reluctant to criticize it overtly. So we sometimes say things in a less straightforward manner in order to be more diplomatic.
These four assumptions, that what someone says will be of sufficient quality, quantity, relevance and manner, can be summed up with one bigger idea: that we assume people are generally trying to be cooperative with us. So these assumptions are called the Cooperative Principle.
They were first described by the philosopher Paul Grice, so they’re also sometimes known as Grice’s Maxims. According to the cooperative principle, whenever someone says something that doesn’t make sense at a literal level, we can figure out, or infer, what else they could have meant, assuming they’re still trying to contribute in a cooperative way to the conversation. Sometimes we assume cooperation so quickly that we don’t even really notice it .
The additional meaning layered on top of the words we’re saying is known as an implicature. Understanding how implicature works can help us make sense of the moments when someone says one thing and means another. Some languages add a short word, or particle, to make something polite, like please or sorry. In Malay, you can add lah to a command, something like, “hand me that, la?” That turns it from a demand into something more like “Would you please do that?” In Mandarin, you tell a person to have a seat by just saying “Sit!” zuo4.That probably sounds way too strong, like something you’d command your pet. And it sounds strong to Mandarin speakers, too. But instead of adding a “please,” they repeat the word: Zuo4 zuo4 or “Sit sit” which means something like “here, have a seat.”
Some languages have different forms of verbs or other words depending on the social status of the person you’re talking to. In French, the pronoun “tu” is informal and singular, and “vous” is formal and plural. English actually also used to make this distinction with “thou” for the informal singular and “you” for the formal or plural version of the word. Making something seem more question-like or tentative can also make it more polite. In BSL, raised eyebrows are used both to indicate questions, and also as one way of making a request or an apology more polite. While there’s a wide variety of grammatical ways to show politeness across languages, we also see a general tendency that adding qualifiers and caveats, known as hedges, to our replies tends to be seen as more polite.
We follow our culture and our language’s norms of politeness because it’s part of the whole process by which we create meaning between us and the people we’re talking to. Both politeness and the Cooperative Principle are part of pragmatics. They’re part of our agreement about how we’re going to talk to each other.
Pragmatics affects everything from our words to even the very way we have those conversations. The flow of words between people is known as turn taking. There’s a lot of variation across individuals and even across cultures as to who does more or less of the speaking, how long they talk for, and how much overlap or silence there is between the people talking.
When it comes to overlap in conversation, we can think broadly about two different ends of a spectrum. On one end we have a conversation style where people do a lot of overlapping, talk at the same time, and don’t leave much or any silence after the other person has finished speaking. This is known as high-involvement interactional style. On the other end, we have a conversational style where people do not overlap, and leave space after someone else is finished before beginning their turn. This is known as high-considerateness interactional style.
When we look at how people use language in conversation, we see that it’s less like one person baking-in all the meaning they want to convey in their words and handing it over to another person, and more like we’re using context to bake a cake as a team. And just like everyone has their own way of making a carrot cake, the individual conversation styles and cultural norms mean each conversation or interaction can turn out a little bit differently.