How on Earth Do People Understand Each Other in Everyday Conversation?

Recently a student approached me after I gave a lecture on 'Interpersonal Communication' and asked a question about the course's textbook. I answered his question and we spoke for a while about this book. Yet, at a certain moment we realized he was talking about a Marketing textbook, whereas I was referring to the Communication textbook assigned for my course. It turned out that he was about to attend the next lecture, he had never seen his own lecturer and, given that I was standing in front of the lecture room messing with my papers, he assumed I was teaching his course. Most people have experienced situations quite like this. After talking for quite a while, it dawns on you that you are talking at cross purposes.

The fact that such miscommunications occur is understandable when you look closely at what people say in conversations. The things we say, namely, are quite vague and ambiguous. Take a simple statement like "I will be there soon". These words can either mean 'in a minute' or 'tomorrow'. Similarly, a statement like "One has to wonder about Obama", seems to imply a lot, but nonetheless it could mean just about anything, positive or negative. Moreover, many utterances, such as requests, are made indirectly. Rather than saying "close the door" one often says something like "it's getting pretty cold in here" or "I do not want the cats to escape". To make it worse, people may mean the exact opposite (e.g., in irony: "a fine friend you are") or something completely different than what they literally say (e.g., "you're the candy on my cake"). If words are so ambiguous, then how on earth do we understand what someone means?

Apparently, understanding the literal meaning of a string of words is only the beginning of interpreting what a speaker intends to say. One of the most important tasks of listeners is therefore to figure out the intentions behind a speaker's words. Speech act theory (Austin, 1962Searle, 1969) was one of the first attempts to tackle how people do this. A listener needs to figure out what someone wants to achieve with saying "I do not want the cats to escape". This is quite crucial, because if this utterance is taken literally one may start lining up the cats, when it is recognized as an indirect request the listener may indeed close the door. To be able to understand, a listener first of all needs to recognize whether the literal meaning is intended, or rather some ulterior intention is communicated indirectly. How exactly people do this is a tremendously difficult question, and researchers from various disciplines are still debating on it. However, in general one can say that the intonation of an utterance, the context in which it is uttered, and background knowledge all contribute in various ways to interpersonal understanding (Holtgraves, 2002).

Apart from word meaning a large part of the intended meaning of an utterance is communicated nonverbally, for instance by tone of voice, gestures or facial expressions. People use verbal and nonverbal acts in concert to convey meaning (Bavelas & Chovil, 2000). When someone points at the door while saying "I do not want the cats to escape" it is quite clear that she wants the door closed, and when a meaningful smirk accompanies a sentence ("a fine friend you are") it is apparent that the message should be taken ironically.

In addition to nonverbal acts, the context in which an utterance is made helps to disambiguate words and is enormously important for understanding intentions. Paul Grice (1975) provided an influential theory that explains how people use the context of a conversation to convey meaning, and, in turn, how listeners use the conversational context to recognize what a speaker means to say. Suppose you ask someone "Where is Peter?", and you get the reply: "There is a red truck in front of Maria's house". How do you know what this means? Is it actually a reply to the question? The trick is that people are expected to abide to certain conversation rules. That is, in a conversation one is supposed to say things that are relevant, truthful, clear, and of the right size. Most likely, you will expect this reply to be relevant, true and an informative answer to your question. This assumption allows you to interpret its meaning (i.e., probably Peter owns a red truck and the fact that it's seen at Maria's house suggests he's there).

According to Grice (1975) listeners will search for an ulterior meaning when the literal meaning of an utterance appears to violate conversational rules. For instance, indirect and ironic utterances (e.g., "you're the candy on my cake", "a fine friend you are") are violations of the conversational rules, because they are not literally true. Yet, because listeners assume it must be relevant in some way, they interpret the meaning of these utterances such that it is understandable in light of the conversation context.

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