* 200 articles. Two years. Whelk. The best of Upsideclown. Might be reprinted.

The Role of Cooperation in Human Interaction

10 February 2003
Matt follows the rules

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.

These are:

[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.


This is the fucking archive

Current clown:

18 December 2003. George writes: This List

Most recent ten:

15 December 2003. Jamie writes: Seven Songs
11 December 2003. Dan writes: Spinning Jenny
8 December 2003. Victor writes: Rock Opera
4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
1 December 2003. George writes: Charm
27 November 2003. James writes: On Boxing
24 November 2003. Jamie writes: El Matador del Amor; Or, the Man who Killed Love
20 November 2003. Dan writes: Rights Management
17 November 2003. Victor writes: Walking on Yellow
13 November 2003. Matt writes: Disintermediation
(And alas we lost Neil, who last wrote Cockfosters)

Also by this clown:

4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
13 November 2003. Matt writes: Disintermediation
23 October 2003. Matt writes: Topology
2 October 2003. Matt writes: Haunted
8 September 2003. Matt writes: The Gardener's Diary
21 August 2003. Matt writes: The Starling Variable
31 July 2003. Matt writes: Two stories
14 July 2003. Matt writes: What is real?
23 June 2003. Matt writes: Mapping and journeys
29 May 2003. Matt writes: Extelligence
5 May 2003. Matt writes: Religious experiences
17 April 2003. Matt writes: Seeing the Light
27 March 2003. Matt writes: Flowering
10 March 2003. Matt writes: Climax state
10 February 2003. Matt writes: The Role of Cooperation in Human Interaction
20 January 2003. Matt writes: The same old subroutine
2 January 2003. Matt writes: New beginnings
9 December 2002. Matt writes: Packet Loss
18 November 2002. Matt writes: Wonderland
31 October 2002. Matt writes: Having and losing
10 October 2002. Matt writes: Trees of Knowledge
19 September 2002. Matt writes: The online life of bigplaty47
29 August 2002. Matt writes: Divorce
8 August 2002. Matt writes: How to get exactly what you want
18 July 2002. Matt writes: Eleven Graceland endings
27 June 2002. Matt writes: Listopad, Prague 1989
3 June 2002. Matt writes: Engram bullets
6 May 2002. Matt writes: Sound advice
15 April 2002. Matt writes: How it all works: Cars
21 March 2002. Matt writes: Proceeding to the next stage
25 February 2002. Matt writes: Spam quartet
31 January 2002. Matt writes: Person to person
7 January 2002. Matt writes: All for the best
13 December 2001. Matt writes: Life
19 November 2001. Matt writes: Giving is better than receiving
25 October 2001. Matt writes: Ludo
1 October 2001. Matt writes: Gifts, contracts, and whispers
6 September 2001. Matt writes: The world is ending
13 August 2001. Matt writes: The Church of Mrs Bins
16 July 2001. Matt writes: Things I Don't Have
25 June 2001. Matt writes: Fighting the Good Fight
31 May 2001. Matt writes: Code dependency
7 May 2001. Matt writes: Up The Arse, Or Not At All
5 April 2001. Matt writes: The increasing nonlinearity of time
19 March 2001. Matt writes: Hit Me Baby, One More Time
22 February 2001. Matt writes: Space, Matter, Cities, Sausages
29 January 2001. Matt writes: Truth in Advertising
1 January 2001. Matt writes: Six predictions for tomorrow
7 December 2000. Matt writes: You must reach this line to ride
16 November 2000. Matt writes: The truth about the leopard
23 October 2000. Matt writes: Shopping mauls
28 September 2000. Matt writes: Heavy traffic on the road to Utopia
4 September 2000. Matt writes: Sixty worlds a minute
17 July 2000. Matt writes: You, Me, and Face-space

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