The Role of Cooperation in Human Interaction
10 February 2003
The Cooperative Principle is intended to embody rational considerations as guidelines for the effective and efficient use of language in conversation to further cooperative ends (Levinson 1983: p.101). It is expressed as follows:
"Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which is occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."
The generalised cooperative principle is elaborated by reference to a set of maxims which a cooperative dialogue partner is expected and assumed to follow or exploit.
[Elliot 1993: p.23]
First, we met. Then, we went for a drink. Next, dinner, followed by an awkward couple of weeks where both of us were busy on inconvenient days and the other suspected us of losing interest. A tentative date that became a glorious evening, drink and talking long past the Shipping Forecast, talking over each other, under each other, words and ideas slippery and flirtatious, a tangled weave; and by the early morning as the sun came up behind the empty wine bottles, we were finishing the other's sentences, sharing the thread between us, your breath on my face, and when I heard whispered words I wasn't any longer sure of who was speaking them.
The maxim of Manner
Avoid obscurity and ambiguity, be brief and orderly.
- I love you
- I love you
The maxim of Quantity
Make your contribution as (but not more) informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange.
Grice's cooperative maxims are the unsaid norms. When I ask What are you doing tonight?, not only do you reply with an informative and cooperative answer (Oh, nothing much), but I can make the assumption that you're being informative and cooperative.
That is, that you're telling the truth.
Because, if your night consisted of "nothing much" and then meeting the Queen -- "Oh, nothing much" would still be true. But not maximally true, which is what this maxim demands.
And so - with my background assumptions - your reply expands in my mind to: Nothing much, nothing that would interest you, and this is true for the whole of the night.
Which is why, when you don't answer the telephone later, I assume you're in the bath, or asleep, or have popped out for a takeaway. Something like that.
The maxim of Quality
Try to make your contribution one that is true, do not say what you believe to be false and do not say that for which you lack evidence.
Try as I might, I say "yeah, fine" inbetween your "how are you?" and your kiss. And I'm sure my smile's a bit stiff, because I'm just a bit unsure at the moment. Maybe I'm a suspicious person, maybe I'm imagining things, but there are evenings you steer the conversation away from, and I'm beginning to suspect they weren't nights-in-alone. There's your friend at work you used to mention a lot, but one day you stopped and you haven't said his name for months now.
There's a distance in your eyes, sometimes, when we talk. Just occassionally. Just occassionally you're not completely there, the verbal play isn't as free and easy, it's ritualised, going through the motions.
I struggle to make sense of it. Another night your mobile has redirected to voicemail and I know you'll call me back in half an hour with a plausible reason, but my mind's churning so I'm having a shower to clear my head, and thinking:
What if I said this? And you said this? Then I replied with this?
Playing out combinations, conversations in my head. Like chess.
And so I model possible futures, there in hot water and the steam. A conversation navigating its way between islands disallowed by Gricean communication. If I ask the right questions, I get the right answers.
The number of worlds of outcomes grows too quickly. To anything I say, you can reply with a million things. A universe of conversations after a minute. So prune. Discard the conversations where you admit an affair. I don't want to end like that. Keep the ones where you say you still love me. Do I have any left? If I don't ask you if you love me still, then you won't say no.
A jet of water hits the palm of my hand, spraying out in all directions. Each drop falling in the same place, each dispersing in a different way. In the end, all we have are these generalisations: whichever way the spray goes, in the end it falls.
So I don't say anything.
The maxim of Relevance
Make your contribution relevant.
Over dinner we're discussing the on-again off-again war and speculating about mutual friends.
Grice's maxims aren't absolute. Break them for sarcasm, irony, humour, lies. That's what makes things funny, the juxtaposition of expectation and reality. They're mutually understood baselines, and interpretation is easier - is possible - if everyone conforms, if you can assume everyone conforms.
But you don't have to cooperate, you don't have to spare someone's feelings. If I ask no questions, you'll tell no lies. Or you won't lie, and I don't know which is worse. What would Grice say?
Just like a conversation doesn't have to follow a thread of relevance. You can branch off, to suddenly introduce a new topic, out of the blue, or just because you have to know, because it's eating you up inside. Grice wouldn't ask, not here, not now. But I would. Deep breath.
- Are you seeing someone else?
nb. The technical extracts above are taken from The Application of Natural Language Pragmatics in Human-Computer Interaction, Charles Elliot, 1993.