What is Said vs. What is Meant

Language is complicated. Communication is even more complicated. So what is more complicated, you ask? Creating meaning through the process of language and communicating that meaning effectively, that is what! Apart from worrying about the context in which meaning is being produced, we, as communicators, also have to worry about the fact that a lot of the times when we say something, we mean something else. (Stop blaming women, blame linguistics.) The question that then arises, in the words of vlogger Hank Green, is “How do we manage to understand each other at all?!” In the video below, Hank discusses the philosophy of meaning and tries to answer exactly how we do manage to work around the puzzle that is linguistics and create some sense of it:

Hank discusses 20th-century philosopher, Paul Grice, and his theories of how a successful conversation can take place. (Can we pause here for a second and reflect on the fact that he had to place that “you actually have to be trying to communicate with someone” as a condition for successful conversation?) According to Grice, we have the ability to assume implied meaning through context due to certain unspoken rules we generally follow when in conversation. These rules, known as Grice’s Maxims, are important because they aid our conversation and help us to convey meaning.

To help the speaker keep to the cooperative principle, Grice laid out four maxims, which Hank outlined: quantity, quality, relation, and manner.  Even listed out like this and explained in the video above, these rules still may look like a lot to remember in order to have a conversation. The reality is that we naturally put them into practice in our conversations daily – we are just not aware of them. Let’s apply that to a real situation. You are on a date with someone for the first time, and you are obviously trying to communicate and have a successful conversation (Look at that Mr. Grice! Who would have thought?). How do you make sure that this happens? Let’s break it down:

  • QUANTITY    This maxim requires that we are adequate and sufficient with our information. We want to make sure that we are neither providing the person with too little information, nor too much information. Just enough to make the communication successful. For example, if your date asks you why your favorite book is Harry Potter, saying, “Uh because it is!” is inadequate, because you really are not saying anything and just killed any chance of making further conversation. On the other hand, if you decide to launch into a whole summary of the entire series because you want them to know every detail that you love about it, you are being over-informative and they probably zoned out twenty minutes ago thinking about the beautiful beach they want to go to next summer.

Image from Mel Got Served

  • QUALITY    This maxim requires that we be honest in our conversations and avoid making statements that we don’t have proof for – you know, basic, decent human things. So, when your date asks you, “What you do for a living?” don’t say you are one of the doctors at the family medical clinic when you are really just a receptionist – again, you know, basic, decent, human things. Also, don’t say Donald Trump is a douchebag without backing it up with the evidence that he makes racist, demeaning, and offensive comments about everyone. (On second thought, maybe make sure that s/he is not a Trump supporter before you say any of that. I mean, the point is that you are trying to have a successful conversation.)

Pinocchio Roma by Juliogmilat Fotografia

  • RELATION    This maxim requires that we stay on topic while conversing and not go off on completely unrelated tangents. Now, if you are having a conversation about football with your date, don’t start talking about wrackspurts, even if all the football talk is making your brain go fuzzy. Quidditch would obviously be more relevant to the conversation at hand. Yay, wrack-sports!  

Image by GIFWAVE

  • MANNER    The last maxim requires us to speak in a way that is clear, understandable, concise and methodical. Basically, don’t tell them what you want for dessert when you are ordering appetizers, and then proceed to speak in Elvish when s/he orders for you – unless of course they also happen to be fans of Lord of the Rings, and know that “Hannon le!” means “Thank you!” – and then spend the next fifteen minutes trying to explain said meaning in a mini-lesson on Elvish.    

Elvish script

As you can see, these are not difficult or obscure rules of communication. In essence, the difference between us and Grice is that he observed the things that we do in our conversations to create successful communication, and then gave them a nice title. Smart guy! It is fascinating to me that so much of language is processed in our brain subconsciously. Most of the rules that we learn when we study linguistics are ones we are already incorporating in our daily communication without realizing that we are applying them. It is almost like the-chicken-or-the-egg phenomenon. Which came first? Do we communicate according to the rules of conversation and language, or do we create the rules of conversation and language in accordance with how we communicate? Food for thought.

Having said all that, I am going to go literally Netflix and chill. So, do not hesitate to disturb, and leave your thoughts below. Looking forward to having a successful conversation with my fellow interlocutors.


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