by Marnanel Thurman
Sometimes you read an idea which changes the way you view the world. For me, one such experience was reading about the work of Paul Grice (1913-1988). Grice studied what people try to achieve when they're having a conversation, and he reduced it to a set of rules of co-operation: rules that the person who's speaking generally tries to follow, and the people listening expect to hear followed. The four rules have become known as the Gricean maxims, and they are:
Quality: Speak the truth, as far as you know it.
Quantity: Include as much detail as required, but not more. For example, Alice asks, "Do you have any children?", and Bob replies, "I have two sons." Alice assumes from this that Bob has two children, both boys, because if Bob had daughters he would have mentioned them.
Relation: Be relevant. For example, Alice says, "Business has been slow today", and Bob replies, "It's raining." Bob doesn't have to add "...and people often don't go out when it's raining, so they won't get to visit this shop", because Alice assumes that what Bob says is relevant to the conversation.
Manner: Speak in the way people expect. This covers quite a few things: for example, we assume that people aren't being deliberately ambiguous.
The maxims become particularly interesting when you consider how they can break down. For example, equivocation— that is, saying carefully-chosen truths in order to deceive people— involves breaking the maxim of relation. And sometimes people assume the maxims are not being followed— for example, people under hostile cross-examination often have no reason to wish to cooperate, and so answer the question asked rather than the question intended.