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How to Have a Conversation

May 15, 2015

So there’s this rule I learned in a semantics class years ago. It made me sit up and say, “Yes, of course, that makes so much sense! Why didn’t I notice it before?”* Since then, I’ve tried to apply it to my writing, or at least I’ve been aware of it while writing. It’s been surprisingly useful as a method of breaking rules and getting to a better approximation of realistic dialogue.

The rule is the Cooperative Principle, and it goes like this: “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”**

What this means, basically, is that people, when talking to each other, tend to only contribute information that directly follows from what the last person said (or the topic of the day). If I ask, “How was your day?”, you’re going to say, “Good” or “Bad” or “Boring” or some variation on that, possibly with a description of an event or two. You’re not going to answer, “Pizza.” There’s no logical connection.

Similarly, if I say, “Let’s go to a restaurant tonight,” and you answer, “I can’t use chopsticks,” that doesn’t violate the Principle, not really. It tells me that you’re interested in eating out, but are voting against any place that provides chopsticks instead of forks and knives. If you answer, “I have a meeting in an hour,” again, that’s relevant information. We probably need something quick. What about pizza?

In theory, those two answers are illogical and disconnected, but the great thing about the brain is that it assumes you’re being relevant and then works out how your statement(s) fit into the discussion. (Writing-wise, remembering this helps me move conversations along faster. I can put a useful bit of info into every line, without worrying overmuch about leaps in logic or answering a question in the way foreign language textbooks expect, i.e. “Do you want pizza?” “Yes, I want pizza.”)***

There are four maxims, or sub-rules, that go alongside the Principle:

  • Maxim of Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true.
  • Maxim of Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required.
  • Maxim of Relation: Be relevant.
  • Maxim of Manner: Be perspicuous.

The Maxim of Quality basically says, “Don’t lie or say something you can’t support.” Yes, people violate that one all the time, but they get away with it because we assume that everyone’s going to tell the truth.

The Maxim of Quantity says, “Provide the information you think the other person wants or needs, and don’t over-share.” Answering my restaurant statement with, “Food” isn’t helpful, and neither is, “I’m vegan and gluten-free and I can’t eat eggs and I won’t eat with my hands and I don’t like that diner downtown because the waitress looked at me funny two years ago and noodles scare me.” I mean, sure, it is. That really narrows the options. But you could’ve just said, “Let’s go to this place I like.” That’ll cut out the “So what do you want?” question, at the very least.

The Maxim of Relation is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the whole, “How was your day?” “Pizza” thing. Although, actually, since the mind assumes that people are going to be on topic, it’ll like parse your answer to, “Today I had pizza and any day that includes pizza is a good day” (or a bad day, if you kind of growled the word).

The Maxim of Manner …. Actually, the way it’s worded there sort of violates itself, because I had look that word up. “Perspicuous” means “easy to understand, clearly expressed.” So let’s pull out the submaxims for that one:

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary verbosity)
  4. Be orderly.

Which is to say, we assume that people we’re talking to are using clear language, that they’re using simple language over wordy and standard English over jargon or slang, and that each sentence follows from the previous one, especially if there’s a story involved. “Red Riding Hood was walking through the forest to visit her grandmother. She was eaten by the wolf. The wolf ate her grandmother first. Red Riding Hood opened her grandmother’s door. The wolf asked Red Riding Hood where she was going.” is … not a good story?

I actually use the maxims to inform characterization more than anything. Sure, I use them with the Cooperative Principle to keep dialogue moving and get more information to the reader, but there’s also this interplay between, “What Jane expects from John during this conversation” and “What John actually says to Jane.” If John violates the Maxim of Quality and misleads Jane, that says something about his character. If John violates the Maxim of Quantity and only uses grunts and monosyllables, even when Jane really needs a full sentence and he knows it, that tells us something too. Bluntness, pedanticness, grumpiness, verbosity, disjointed narratives, sarcasm … those are all violations of the maxims too, and there are more besides.

(Note that the Principle and maxims also encompass common knowledge and the situation surrounding the speaker. If Jane drops a teacup while talking to John, it’s natural for John to interrupt their discussion of soccer to ask if she’s okay and where she keeps the broom. If Jane knows John is a lawyer but once worked at McDonald’s, and she asks John if he flipped any burgers today, that’s likely to be read as friendly teasing—unless she doesn’t like John, in which case, she’s just being mean.) (Which leads to the side-note of “How a character responds to a violation tells you about them and their relationship to the person they’re talking to.”)

Of course, not every aspect of character is revealed in dialogue, not every character aspect that is is due to violating a maxim, and of course, not every character or line of dialogue I write is consciously informed by the maxims and Cooperative Principle, but I find they’re a good fallback. I don’t know where this conversation is going? I’ve accidentally written a page of smalltalk? I have to give a new character a voice? I need a misunderstanding to cause conflict? Maxims. Almost always.

Remember, though: these “rules” are more “guidelines”. They describe how people act within a conversation, what they believe and interpret from the people they’re talking to. We violate them all the time, and that’s fine. That’s normal. You shouldn’t be holding yourself or your friends or your characters to the maxims, because everyone going to end up unhappy if you do. (See: criticism summed up here.) The maxims are simply a tool, a thing to be aware of and use as needed to navigate social situations and/or the writing process. And not everyone’s going to find them helpful the way I do, because not all brains work the same, but I like them and maybe you will too.


* It still does that.

** All thanks to Paul Grice for the Principle and the ensuing Maxims.

*** I swear I’m not craving pizza right now, and I’m very sorry if you are.

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