Speaking about collaboration, or, a horse IS a horse

I’m (still) reading Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window  into Human Nature.  In chapter 8, Games People Play, Pinker highlights a set of “cooperative principles” that people use in conversation–principles that you could follow if you wanted to collaborate more effectively with others, especially at a distance.

These principles come from the philosopher Paul Grice, in a 1975 paper, Logic and Conversation (pdf).

My personal bias is that many philosophers pay so much attention to logic that they get mired it it in a way that ordinary people don’t.  To the hyper-logical, “a horse is a horse” is a tautology.  As Pinker notes, though, in ordinary conversation that’s simply a way of saying “horses will act the way you expect horses to act.”

Here are Grice’s principles for cooperating conversationally:


  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.


  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.


  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.


  • Be relevant.

This, argues Pinker, is how we converse.

Is he nuts?

No.  As he says, things could be much worse (“Press 1 for English.  Press 2 for tech support.  Press 3 for existential despair…”).  When you converse with someone, you both have these general expectations.  If you ask about my new project, you’re not expecting me to start with the founding of my client’s company in 1954.  And depending on the context, my update could be “pretty good,” or could be a one-minute recap.

Exceptions to these principles also play a part in conversation.  Politeness can act as a social lubricant or as “fictitious solidarity,” as with John McCain’s constant expression, “my friends.”

“People are not just in the business of downloading information into each other’s heads but are social animals concerned with the impressions they make….the literal content…and the intended message…”

Pinker underscores a point that’s easily lost in online conversation: not everyone shares the same understanding of the terms of conversation.  Humor can get lost; politeness can get overlooked.  That’s the point of the joke he cites:

Four people are walking down the street: a Saudi Arabian, a Russian, a North Korean, and a New Yorker.

A reporter rushes up to them and says, “Excuse me, can I get your opinion of the meat shortage?”

The Saudi Arabian says, “Shortage?  What’s a shortage?”
The Russian says, “Meat?  What’s meat?”
The North Korean says, “Opinion?  What’s an opinion?”
The New Yorker says, “Excuse me?  What’s excuse me?”


4 thoughts on “Speaking about collaboration, or, a horse IS a horse

  1. True, Joan. And, of course, sometimes it’s not. That’s part of what I enjoyed about this chapter in Pinker’s book. He’s exploring indirect speech as a way of understanding how the mind works.

    I was really taken with Grice’s notion that language in conversation has its own rationality–and, especially because more and more often we’re having conversations that don’t occur face to face (and sometimes not even in real time), it’s all the more important that we get good at how we listen (and how we try to say what we mean).

  2. I have been taught that “You” is the subject of “Close he door.” = (You) Close the door. ….. Later, I was taught that the parenthetical should actually read as, (I want you to) Close the door.

    I have come to believe that much of our language is in parentheses.

  3. Daniel, that chapter in Pinker’s book goes on quite a bit about the ways in which we use indirect language, extreme politeness, and paraphrases as a natural part of our interaction with others. Consider the variations between:

    • Close the door!
    • Close the door, please.
    • Would you close the door?
    • I’d appreciate it if you closed the door.
    • I’m sorry to impose on you, but do you we could maybe close the door?
    • I wish someone would close the door.
    • Is the door open?
    • Does it seem cold in here to you?
    • I wonder if we could close the door?

    Pinker claims that similar structures appear in many other languages. What’s impressive is that we learn how and when to use so many different variations.

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