The latest video in Tom Scott’s Language Files explains the hidden rules of conversation, otherwise known as Grice’s Maxims.
Tom opens the topic by comparing items we may or may not find on the supermarket shelves. Whilst we might expect a vegan burger to be labelled as such, we would be surprised to see a tomato described as “vegan” on its packaging. Tom explains that labelling a tomato as vegan, in the same way as pointing out cereal is “asbestos-free”, is to ignore one of Grice’s Maxims.
Grice’s Maxims are a set of guidelines for communication defined by the philosopher Paul Grice in his Logic and Conversation paper in 1975. The paper was “dealing with the gap between natural language and logical formalism”.
We communicate using much more than the literal words we speak, write or send, and for that to be possible we operate under the “Cooperative Principle”, which Tom describes as the “shared assumption that we are cooperating with each other when we’re talking”. Whilst this may sound obvious, Tom stresses there is a deeper point. “We all try to fit what people say into the context of what is happening or what has already been said,” he explains.
He uses the example of characters in video games. When they give the same answer, no matter if “we’ve just saved the village or burnt down their house”, we know they are pre-programmed. “We can’t find a way to match their words to the situation,” Tom says.
Tom then lists the guidelines we assume our partner is following during a conversation:
The Maxim of Quantity: Give as much information as required – and no more.
The Maxim of Quality: Tell the truth.
The Maxim of Relation: Be relevant.
The Maxim of Manner: Be clear in what you’re saying.
Tom jokes that by stating these rules again and again at length in his own work, Grice may not have been following his own maxims. “But he’s a philosopher and they tend to do that.”
Tom shows the maxims in action with the following example: “I’m out of petrol” and “there’s a garage down the road” are simply two statements with no connection without the use of the cooperative principle. Using the Maxim of Relation, you assume the garage has petrol, while using the Maxim of Quantity assumes that all is needed to be said is “hey, you can push your car there, buy fuel and solve your whole being stranded problem”. By using the Maxim of Quality, you can assume it’s the truth being said and not a lie or guess, while using the Maxim of Manner can assume “garage” is slang for “gas station”.
It’s amazing how much can be said in very little words.
Tom then discusses what happens when Grice’s Maxims are not followed in a conversation. This is known as “Conversational Implicature”, when “we are implying something not said”. This can be done in two ways: violating a maxim, which is breaking a maxim to deceive, and flouting a maxim, which is breaking a maxim in a way that you expect the other person to pick up on.
He uses one of Grice’s examples to demonstrate how a maxim can be flouted. In a professor’s letter of recommendation giving basic statements about the student without offering specific comments on his skills, the professor is flouting the maxim of quantity and hoping it implies what they’re really trying to communicate.
Tom finishes the video by circling back to the packaging on supermarket shelves. By describing tomatoes as “vegan” or cereal as “asbestos-free”, the brand is flouting the maxims and trying to imply that competitor brands aren’t those things. “Whilst this isn’t lying, it’s just not just playing fair by the cooperative principle,” he concludes.
Certainly giving us something to think about the next time we’re making our choice in the cereal aisle.