Did you say something?


There is often a lot more to conversation than meets the ear -hidden things, unstated things- but for some reason, we usually still understand the message. I’d never really thought about this, to tell you the truth, although I was an unwitting acquiescent, I suppose. It’s  easy enough to assume that everything is context driven… until it isn’t, that is. So, sometimes an explanation of the rules can be helpful.

How, or why I stumbled over an essay by the philosopher Maria Kasmirli from the University of Sheffield, I’m not certain, but I was fascinated by the subject: conversational implicature: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-we-say-vs-what-we-mean-what-is-conversational-implicature

Maybe it was the idea of implicating someone in something without their knowledge or consent that intrigued me, although to tell the truth I was just curious about the process rather than the crime. I really had no information on the nature of conversational implicature.

Kasmirli starts off with an example of a letter of reference that merely suggests that the applicant is a nice person. It does not say whether or not they would be suited to the job. The dilemma that this raises for the interviewer then, is whether the reference deliberately avoided mentioning whether the applicant was suitable (because he wasn’t), or whether, in fact, he was. The inference was, of course, that he wasn’t suitable; the meaning of this indirect message is an implicature.

This term was apparently coined by the British philosopher Paul Grice who ‘distinguished several forms of implicature, the most important being conversational implicature... [which] depends, not on the meaning of the words employed… but on the way that the words are used and interpreted… conversational implicatures arise because speakers are expected to be cooperative – to make contributions appropriate to the purpose of the conversation in which they are engaged. More specifically, they are expected to follow four conversational maxims: (1) give an appropriate amount of information; (2) give correct information; (3) give relevant information; and (4) give information clearly.’

‘According to Grice, a conversational implicature is generated when an utterance flouts one or more of these maxims, or would do so if the implicature weren’t present. In such cases, we can preserve the assumption that the speaker is being cooperative only by interpreting their utterance as conveying something other than, or additional to, its literal meaning, and this is its implicated meaning.’ That makes sense, I suppose…

So, in the example of the letter of reference, ‘the information she (the letter writer) gives is obviously insufficient, flouting the maxim of quantity. Hence, we infer that she is trying to convey something else, which she doesn’t wish to say directly, and the obvious conclusion is that what she’s trying to convey is that Smith [the applicant] is unsuitable for the job.’

Unfortunately it sometimes suggests something else, though: ‘sometimes an implicature arises in order to prevent a flouting. Suppose you need petrol and someone tells you: “There’s a garage around the corner”… If the speaker did not believe that the garage was open, then their reply would violate the maxim of relation, so to preserve the assumption that they are being cooperative we must assume that they do believe it is open.’ Context is everything, I suppose. And anyway, ‘conversational implications can always be cancelled by adding a further statement.’ Like, Smith is not only a nice person, but he is also well qualified for the job. There could also be some legal implications if you equivocate, or deliberately don’t mention something of course.

I imagine that most of us have an intuitive grasp of conversational implicature however, although I suspect that much of it is probably culturally driven. Grice’s approach is also much more complicated and disputed than was evident in Kasmirli’s essay, but nevertheless she simplified the concept enough that non philosophers (like me) could understand the basics.

The article was particularly relevant to me as I reminisce about the many letters of reference I was asked to write for my undergraduates over the years. I am a retired Ob/Gyn now, but looking back, I’m not entirely sure that I grasped the importance of all of Grice’s conversational maxims; I’m sure that I inadvertently flouted more than one of them on occasions. Of course, I always tried to respond truthfully, but as to clearly… Well, sometimes I felt it more appropriate to approximate my assessments of the candidate’s credentials, but gently, and carefully, so as not to negate them. Of course, neither did I wish to unleash someone on the public that the program would regret. Sometimes it’s a fine line…

I can still recall one inventive student in his final year of training who always seemed to be trying to find unusual ways of practicing the specialty in order to resolve some of the obvious difficulties inherent in a male having to understand, let alone solve, female issues. It caused no end of puzzled smiles whenever he entered a patient’s room as they wondered how he would try to ingratiate himself and his gender with them. These were harmless, if not actually humorous attempts, but the nurses, who were used to dealing with a new batch of trainees rotating through their wards every few weeks, were concerned that he would be misunderstood and complained to me. And yet the patients, when I saw them in my office after their discharge from hospital, were more sanguine about him -amused more often than not.

So, when he asked me for a letter of reference after successfully passing his exams a few months later, I was unsure what to write about him. His theory and OR credentials were satisfactory, but apart from his obvious enthusiasm, whether I could honestly recommend him, given his behaviour with patients, was more difficult. In my opinion he was competent to practice my specialty, and I saw no deficiencies in his knowledge -it was just… well, his interpersonal skills were unusual.

I decided to waffle -perhaps that’s why I still remember a lot about how I phrased the letter I wrote to his prospective hospital.

‘Dr. James [I have changed his name, for obvious reasons] has successfully completed his training from our program and in my dealings with him, I have found him to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic. You will realize, of course, that as is usual in Residency programs, I was his supervisor for only a limited time.

During the time I worked with him however, he proved to be very competent in the operating theatre, with a quick grasp of newer techniques he learned from my younger colleagues who were also responsible for his instruction. And if I seemed puzzled, he was quick to revert to my more traditional surgical approach without complaint.

And he was also quick to respond to any post-operative problems whenever they arose, and explain them to the patient with knowledgeable clarity and what seemed to be heart-felt empathy.

He was also able to adapt to changing moods and preferences in the birthing rooms, while continuing to adhere to strict best-practice guidelines. The case room can be an emotionally fraught region, but he usually managed to assuage most of the conflicts between the demands of what he felt was required in the circumstances and the birth plans of either mother or midwife.’

I remember that I was quite proud of the letter but not sure how to end it, so I just left it like that. Thinking about it now, it seems to me that I had more or less covered Grice’s four conversational maxims and I don’t think I flouted, but I’m not sure what the implicature was that I conveyed. I’ve not heard anything bad about my referenced candidate, or whether he actually got the job -but neither did I receive a thank you letter from him. Maybe that isn’t expected for conversational implicatures, though.

At any rate, he didn’t ask me to write another of those letters, so I have to assume the best.

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