The Conversation Contract

by Coletta Kandemiri

The Conversation Contract

Contracts range from simple to complex, some are verbal and some involve a lot of paperwork that has to be verified and authenticated nearly at every stage. Now, the “contract” in this paper is completely divorced from the common contracts known to the world. The “contract” being discussed is the contract that automatically materialises when people engage in a dialogue or conversation. It happens with parties involved unaware that they are entering into a contract.

The intellectual behind this “contract” is Paul Grice (1913-1988), who in 1957 claimed that “people entering into conversation with each other tacitly agree to cooperate towards mutual communicative ends, thus obeying the cooperative principle and regulative conventions” – where the term (tacitly) simply means (quietly/silently).

In the contract, the speaker and hearer are supposed to contribute effectively for the dialogue to be a success. There are rules, known as maxims, that govern the contract in conversations, namely: quality maxim, quantity maxim, relevance maxim and manner maxim. With the quality maxim, if the speaker asks for something then the hearer must only respond with an answer that is truthful. The hearer must not say what she/he is not sure of.

With the maxim of quantity, the hearer must give an answer that is adequate to the question posed. The response must not be too much or too little. For instance, if Speaker A asks a question: “How old are you?” then Hearer B responds: “I am 23 years old.” This answer is adequate, not too much and neither too little.

With the maxim of relevance, one is required to just stick to the point and be relevant. Say, for example, A asks: “Where is my box of chocolates?” and B responds: “It is in your room.” B’s reply relates to the question, not something else, but the place where the chocolates are and is relevant.

The maxim of manner requires one to be clear. To avoid obscurity or ambiguity, rather be brief and be orderly. The dialogue illustrates the maxim of manner at work. If A asks: “Where was Alfred yesterday?” and B responds: “Alfred went to the store and bought some whiskey.” B’s answer obeys the manner maxim of being orderly, because the answer provides a clear explanation as to where Alfred was.

However, it is common to break conversational maxims and this is done mainly in two ways: flouting and flaunting. With flouting, Grice argues that although speakers usually choose to co-operate they can also refuse to abide by that principle, or in other words, they can flout it. If a maxim is deliberately flouted, it is normally done to achieve a specific effect and communicate a specific meaning, known as a ‘conversational implicature’, in other words, the special meaning created when a maxim is flouted.

Flouting quality can be done in a variety of ways. Some of the most common include exaggeration. For instance, if someone says: “I’m starving, I could eat a horse,” hearers would infer that the speaker is very hungry; by use of metaphor, for example: “My house is a refrigerator in winter,” the hearer is expected to infer the house of the speaker is extremely cold in winter.

Also, the use of euphemism is common. For instance: “I wash my hands,” which refers not to the literary washing of hands with water, but rather to the speaker, that is excusing themselves from an issue. Flouting the maxim of quality also involves the use of irony, by saying the opposite of what one means, as well as sarcasm and jokes.

Flouting quantity involves giving either too much or too little information, as illustrated in the following dialogue where excessive information is provided for a simple request. Person A asks B: “How about pizza tonight?” then B responds with: “My mother is in town for a week and she asked if I could pick her jacket up from the dry cleaner at Grove Mall before buying some vegetables at the market for dinner at my sister’s place in Katutura.”

It appears B’s response to A’s request has a ripple effect, as B violates the maxims of quality, quantity and relevance at the same time. This is so because of the irrelevant, excessive response that B gives to A’s question.

Flaunting means the speaker knows the hearer will not recover the implicature and will only see the surface truth (where implicature refers to implied meaning).

According to Farahat, flaunting is when the speaker intentionally distorts the truth, such that the hearer is not aware of the implicature. In other words, the hearer will take the words at face value and act accordingly. In trying to avoid clashing with a certain maxim in the process the speaker ends up violating other maxims.

Following is an example that illustrates the concept of flaunting. A husband asks his wife: “How much did that new dress cost?” The wife might answer: “I know, why don’t we eat out for a change?” and with this answer the wife changes the subject, while deliberately violating the maxim of relation.

If, on the other hand, she answered: “A tiny fraction of my salary, though most probably a very high fraction of the salary of the shop assistant, who sold it to me,” she would be violating the maxim of manner by being deliberately unclear. Thus, violation of one maxim may have a ripple effect and prompts violation of a number of maxims at the same time.

In conclusion, whenever a dialogue ensues, the people involved enter into a contract in which they agree to cooperate towards mutual communicative ends. However, Grice’s maxims have encountered criticism from critics, such as Lakoff, who did not agree with the maxims.

* Coletta Kandemiri is a Master of Arts in English Studies student in the Department of Languages and Literature Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Namibia.

One Response to "The Conversation Contract"

  1. John Hinyekwa  October 5, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    Very educative indeed…


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