The Cooperative Principle in Conversation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Coworkers Having a Conversation

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In conversation analysis, the cooperative principle is the assumption that participants in a conversation normally attempt to be informative, truthful, relevant, and clear. The concept was introduced by philosopher H. Paul Grice in his 1975 article "Logic and Conversation" in which he argued that "talk exchanges" were not merely a "succession of disconnected remarks," and would not be rational if they were. Grice suggested instead that meaningful dialogue is characterized by cooperation. "Each participant recognizes in them, to some extent, a common purpose or set of purposes, or at least a mutually accepted direction."

Key Takeaways: Grice's Conversational Maxims

Grice expanded his cooperative principle with the four following conversational maxims, which he believed anyone wishing to engage in meaningful, cogent conversation must follow:

  • Quantity: Say no less than the conversation requires. Say no more than the conversation requires.
  • Quality: Don't say what you believe to be false. Don't say things for which you lack evidence.
  • Manner: Don't be obscure. Don't be ambiguous. Be brief. Be orderly.
  • Relevance: Be relevant.

Observations on the Cooperative Principle

Here are some thoughts on the Cooperative Principle from some acknowledged sources on the subject:

"We might then formulate a rough general principle which participants will be expected (ceteris paribus) to observe, namely: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the Cooperative Principle."
(From "Logic and Conversation" by H. Paul Grice)
"[T]he sum and substance of the Cooperative Principle might be put this way: Do whatever is necessary to achieve the purpose of your talk; don't do anything that will frustrate that purpose."
(From "Communication and Reference" by Aloysius Martinich)
"People undoubtedly can be tight-lipped, long-winded, mendacious, cavalier, obscure, ambiguous, verbose, rambling, or off-topic. But on closer examination, they are far less so than they could be, given the possibilities. . . Because human hearers can count on some degree of adherence to the maxims, they can read between the lines, weed out unintended ambiguities, and connect the dots when they listen and read."
(From "The Stuff of Thought" by Steven Pinker)

Cooperation vs. Agreeableness

According to Istvan Kecskes, author of "Intercultural Pragmatics," there is a distinction between cooperative communication and being cooperative on a social level. Kecskes believes that the Cooperative Principle isn't about being "positive" or socially "smooth or agreeable," but rather, it's a presumption when someone speaks, they have the expectation as well the intention of communicating. Likewise, they expect the person to whom they're speaking to facilitate the effort.

This is why even when people fight or disagree to the point that those engaged in the conversation are being less than pleasant or cooperative, the Cooperative Principle keeps the conversation going. "Even if individuals are aggressive, self-serving, egotistic, and so on," Kecskes explains, "and not quite focusing on the other participants of the interaction, they can't have spoken at all to someone else without expecting that something would come out of it, that there would be some result, and that the other person/s was/were engaged with them." Kecskes maintains that this core principle of intent is essential to communication.

Example: Jack Reacher's Telephone Conversation

"The operator answered and I asked for Shoemaker and I got transferred, maybe elsewhere in the building, or the country, or the world, and after a bunch of clicks and hisses and some long minutes of dead air Shoemaker came on the line and said 'Yes?'
"'This is Jack Reacher,' I said.
"'Where are you?'
"'Don't you have all kinds of automatic machines to tell you that?'
"'Yes,' he said. 'You're in Seattle, on a payphone down by the fish market. But we prefer it when people volunteer the information themselves. We find that makes the subsequent conversation go better. Because they're already cooperating. They're invested.'
"'In what?'
"The conversation.'
"'Are we having a conversation?'
"'Not really.'"
(From "Personal" by Lee Child.)

The Lighter Side of the Cooperative Principle

Sheldon Cooper: "I've been giving the matter some thought, and I think I'd be willing to be a house pet to a race of superintelligent aliens.​"
Leonard Hofstadter: "Interesting.​"
Sheldon Cooper: "Ask me why?​"
Leonard Hofstadter: "Do I have to?​"
Sheldon Cooper: "Of course. That's how you move a conversation forward."
(From an exchange between Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki, "The Financial Permeability" episode of The Big Bang Theory, 2009)

Sources

  • Grice, H. Paul. "Logic and Conversation." Syntax and Semantics, 1975. Reprinted in "Studies in the Way of Words." Harvard University Press, 1989
  • Martinich, Aloysius. "Communication and Reference." Walter de Gruyter, 1984
  • Pinker, Steven. "The Stuff of Thought." Viking, 2007
  • Kecskes, Istvan. "Intercultural Pragmatics." Oxford University Press, 2014