Saturday, 10 March 2007

Grice's Maxims

Grice’s Conversational Maxims

H. P. Grice probably knew someone like me. Who knows, he may have even married them, because he was inspired to come up with Conversational Maxims – or Rules of Conversation. Four of them. With sub-clauses. These aren’t really rules, more observations on how people (normal people, that is) co-operate in conversation.

Take last night for example, when I collected my youngest from a party. When the mother said, “How are you?” the expected response was, “I’m fine thanks,” and not, “Oh, since you ask, I’m shattered because I’ve been working so hard. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. I feel like crap, and look even worse! I’m working on my PhD, marking stacks of essays, coaching gymnastics, etc., etc., etc.” As the poor woman backed away into the corner, I realised I had broken the Maxim of Quantity, which states, “Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.”

Then her husband made the dreadful mistake of asking me, “How is it going?” The correct response to this question is, “Fine thanks,” because really, in hindsight, he wasn’t asking me about the PhD that is so prevalent in my thoughts at the moment. But, oh no! Off launched I into the finer points of fragmented identities and cultural hybridity, the complexities of the composite novel and the emergent tradition of the American Short Story Cycle…” thus breaking the Maxim of Relevance which states, “Say things related to the current topic of the conversation.” I also broke the rules of Manner in being totally obscure, ambiguous, and disorderly. I blame lack of sleep for the last two. The poor man just stared at me, nodding politely, before he found a random child to assist with birthday cake.

You’d think I’d just collect my child at this point, bow my head in shame, and leave, but Katy is still looking for her shoes, and so the wife is still making polite conversation. “So is Nigel okay then?” “Oh yeah,” I replied, “He’s fine.” I should have stopped there but found myself explaining that we had to put the rabbit to sleep this week, and Toucheé (the horse I ride on my lessons) was totally spooked last week so that was an experience, and, and, and…” Oh dear. Thankfully the child arrived with shoes in hand and saved me any further conversational faux pas (how do you make faux pas plural?!).

So you see, I am crap. Better not to ask, “How are you?” because I will actually tell you, being socially inept as I am. At least I can swear, hand on heart, that I never knowingly break the Maxims of Quality, so I will always tell the truth, and will never say things for which I lack sufficient evidence. Well, it’s something, I suppose!

10 comments:

Nichola said...

Funny you should say all this as when people ask, "How are you?" then carry on walking, I'll catch up with them, grab their arm and say, "If you don't want to know the answer, don't ask the question!" To me, expressing concern over someone then not waiting to hear the answer is a form of lying. So I sit them down and tell them my life story. :D

They don't usually make the same mistake twice! ;)

hesitant scribe said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one! Maybe it's because we are writers that we feel the need to tell 'our story' everytime we speak to someone! When I am old, I will defintely be that nutter on the bus!

hesitant scribe said...

*definately

Anonymous said...

or even 'definitely' :-)

hesitant scribe said...

Well spotted! I hate that word. It goes with 'relevant', and 'commitment' in my list of 'words I can never remember how to spell'! Let's hope I get them right on my thesis eh!

Anonymous said...

"So you see, I am crap".
Never Lisa, never. Exhausted and overworked, yes, but crap? Definitely not - however you spell it.
xx

Harriet said...

Not crap -- I second that. I'd rather talk to you and hear all the stuff than exchange platitudes with your b'day party acquaintances any day.

hesitant scribe said...

Thank you anonymous, for your kind words. I feel all normal again!

Harriet - perhaps I'll see you this evening? I guarantee no platitudes! Also - spoke to PJ the other day, and really looking forward to seeing her again!

La Gringa said...

I'm with Nichola on this. Why ask if you don't really want to hear the answer. I hate that question. Why not just say "hello."

One time someone asked me "How are you?" I said "I have bronchitis." She said "Que bueno" which just goes to show that they don't even listen to the answer. Maybe it was the language difference....

BTW, I've noticed a lot of people spelling 'definitely' as 'defiantly' lately. Funny, huh?

hesitant scribe said...

la gringa - people do that in English too! More inattention than language perhaps...

I won't mention the spelling *blush* ;)