When we’re talking with an end-user or a customer, we want to ensure our conversations are effective, that they make good use of our time and that of our customer or end-user. One way to ensure that conversations are effective is to ensure they are cooperative, a process of give-and-take. Paul Grice was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a philosopher of language who identified four maxims of conversation that describe the elements of successful conversation.
Here are the four Gricean Maxims:
- The Maxim of Quality
Be truthful. Do not say something you believe to be false and do not say something for which you lack adequate evidence. (“I read it on the Facebook, so it must be true.”)
- The Maxim of Quantity
This maxim is about the quantity of information. Say as much as required for the purpose of the conversation, but nothing more.
- The Maxim of Relation
This maxim is about relevance. Keep your part of the conversation relevant to the rest of the conversation.
- The Maxim of Manner
This maxim is about being clear. Grice writes, “Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.” (Don’t feel bad, I had to look up prolixity, too. It strikes me that Grice’s use of the word prolixity violates this maxim. Perhaps Professor Grice has a very dry sense of humor. Still, his point is well taken.)
I found this video on the Gricean Maxims which demonstrates each of them with humor:
If I were to summarize the Gricean Maxims, I would boil it down to this: In conversation, be respectful of the other person and be concise. Isn’t that really what we want from other people who are speaking to us? I’ve noticed when I’m speaking with other people, the conversation is at its best when I’m following the Gricean Maxims (and I didn’t even know about them until recently). When we’re talking with our end-users or our customers, our conversations are better when we keep the four Gricean Maxims in mind.