Failures in communication – or – On being annoying, part 2

Ages ago I went into an anecdote about being asked to help someone try to get a research grant, and by help I mean do the fucking work. All of it. This is something of a side story, but it has different themes despite tying into some of the same events.

When you see a magic trick, one reaction is to enjoy the trickery of it all. I don’t at all understand how it is that people can have this reaction, and I am deeply envious of those that do. Another reaction is to want to look under the hood (so to speak) of the trick to see how it functions. I think both of those are legitimate ways of enjoying things, but I firmly fall into the latter camp. I need to see the nuts and bolts of things, and frankly I am just not god damned satisfied until I have. I will never believe in your magic. If you made a coin disappear, I need to know how. It is just who I am.

Believe it or not, the same is true for language, and aspects of it. In language learning, functional language methodology seems to be all the rage these days. For the uninitiated, functional language methodology focus not on grammar, but on ‘chunks’ of language as it is actually used. So if, for instance, you wanted to teach people to express their taste in music, you teach “I’m a big fan of [blank]”, along side of other things that make sense in the context. I have taught this methodology very frequently, but I absolutely loathe learning from it. You can’t just tell me that φερετε, φερω and φερνω are the same verb and expect me to just take it sitting down. Nope, i need to see what is going on under the hood. Otherwise, I start asking why questions. The virtues of these methodologies can be discussed at some other point.

As you learn about languages, you begin to start seeing under the hood more and more frequently. It can be a scary thing. What is particularly scary is to what extent you don’t notice it before. We think language is so grandiose, but once you are able to look at it objectively, we all sound like stammering babies. It isn’t actually pleasant. Record people speaking, then put it through text to speech. You will be lucky if you can find one actual sentence that has a beginning and an end.

Specific to today’s discussion is one of Grice’s Maxims. Specifically, the maxim of relation. The idea behind it is that in conversation one should strive to “stay relevant to the topic and pertinent to the discussion”. Often, when I hear people talk about this they focus on a person speaking. They look at the maxims as something that need to be done to keep the conversation. Little is every said about the opposite case, in which the receiver of communication assumed that what is being received is relevant when it is not. I have been noticing this more and more as I have gotten increasingly into debate. In not any kind of sinister way, people think they are being good relevant participants, but they are actually failing. Conversation is a lot more stream of consciousness than people think, and conversational drift is a pretty normal damn thing.

Except when you want answer. Except for when, because of your work, you NEED answers.

For the past few months I have been working as an academic editor and research assistant. Part of my duties for this have been to interview people about a certain subject. I was meant to ask specific, tailored questions and get specific, accurate answers that are to the point. Another part of my duties was to check someone else’s, another interviewer, work over to make sure it was correct. It wasn’t correct. It was awful. I wish I could say that this person was phoning it in, but the truth of the matter was that this person had no idea what they were doing, and were just passively accepting everything the participants were saying with a simple ‘yea, that’s great’, or ‘perfect!’ The people being interviewed were given patently wrong answers. How is something like that even possible in an interview?

Grice’s Maxim of Relation is how. Consider the below dialogue:

  • Great weather we are having, no?
  • You wanna hear about great weather? I just came back from Pakistan…

Shit like this happen all the time in conversation. It is as natural as breathing air. But it is in no way what we needed for this project.

This other interviewer, not really knowing what they were doing, didn’t hear when these things happened. So a respondent heard a question that was addressing ‘stress’, then answered the question in terms of ‘concern’. Alas, stress and concern were not at all the same things. On another occasion, a participant in the research, having been asked to speak about their experience as a teacher, began to speak about their experience as a learner. Again, not the same thing at all. Again another, and a person meant to speak on demotion is speaking on expulsion…

And the horrific thing about all this is that, listening to the audio in the context of a normal conversation, one would never hear anything amiss.


It was massively frustrating because I had to pick up the brunt of the work. How I fixed it is a detail too boring to include here. But what was most frustrating of all was the realization, only after I had fixed this moron’s work, that I myself let a mistake slip in pretty much the same fashion.

Sigh. I have looked under the hood of language, and I am terrified of what I found there.

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