Sebastian Zearing

how to be progressive without being a stupid liberal

Relevance Theory and the Communicative Spectrum

Relevance Theory claims that a “hearer/reader/audience will search for meaning in any given communication situation and having found meaning that fits their expectation of relevance, will stop processing.” Our worlds are very complicated. Thus, talking about them should be similarly complicated. Fortunately, most two individuals that might want to communicate share a lot of experiences (e.g. they generally share at least a language and a culture), and so communication can be drastically simplified by assuming a common base of information. And not only can this happen, it almost always does in normal human communication.

Your coworker gets to work 20 minutes late. “I hate the metro!” he exclaims as he dashes past your cubicle, flashing a flustered glance. What did he just communicate? I got to work late and can’t you see I’m sorry so don’t judge me because gosh darn it the metro in this city sucks and that’s why I’m late dontchaknow! Well obviously what was communicated had almost nothing to do with your coworker hating the metro. Imagine if instead he had exclaimed, “I hate pomegranates!” You probably would be very confused. Why does he hate pomegranates? More importantly, why is telling me this now? I’m trying to work! You might come to the conclusion that he was eating a pomegranate for breakfast, and as pomegranates do, it exploded all over his work clothes, forcing him to change into new clothes and setting him back by 20 minutes. Notice how this comes down to you assuming that your communicative partner is not wasting your brain’s computing power for no good reason. And given the circumstance of flustered tardiness, it probably has something to do with the flustered tardiness.

For another example: “I may or may not have taken a cookie from the jar…” For a well-formed sentence S, “S or not-S” is true 100% of the time. Or, from a logical point of view, that sentence has exactly zero information content. Of course, if, say, a man utters it to his wife in the context of her chastising their child for stealing a cookie, she would in fact infer information from the utterance. On the other hand, if he utters it right after they scale Mt. Kilimanjaro, it would contain the same amount of information (none), and it would still be true, but the wife would now be very confused.

From communication to performance

I’d like to consider a metric that quantifies the amount of processing that must take place for the audience to understand the speaker’s intent, or perhaps more generally, the amount of processing that must take place for the audience to attain the mental state intended by the speaker. On one end of this spectrum, we have utterly straightforward communicative acts such as, say, a concerned citizen holding up a sign by the highway reading “speed trap ahead!” On the other hand, we have very obtuse communicative acts such as the one time some friends and I were trying to get a road trip together. Three of us had decided to make a trip, but we didn’t have a car. To of us knew this other person (call him John) who did, and we also knew another person (call him Mike) who I wasn’t keen on inviting but my other two friends were. We realized we would need a 5-seater car for all of us to go. At one point, the three of us and John met up for drinks, so that John could meet the one of us he didn’t know, and also so that we could see if he wanted to join the road trip and if his car was available. He wanted to join, and yes his car was available. The conversation proceeded, and there was no mention of Mike. Since it wasn’t our car, we would need permission from John for Mike to also join. John didn’t know Mike. I didn’t want Mike to come. But, I’m a good friend, and my other friends did want him to come, so I offhandedly asked John how many seats there were in his car. “Five” he said. “Cool” I said. Moments later one of my friend perked up and asks John if this other guy, Mike, can come. John said yes. In the end Mike couldn’t make it. It turned out to be a fun road trip.

I wanted to induce the mental state of <wanting to ask John about Mike> in the minds of one of my two friends. “What about Mike?” would have sufficed and been on point. But remember, I didn’t want Mike to come, so I wasn’t about to be that explicit. You may not necessarily even want to call how I accomplished this “communication,” since I was ostensibly communicating with John (“How many seats does your car have?”), not my other two friends. Therefore, let’s call it “performance.” So now we have a communication spectrum defined by how much mental processing it takes to understand an utterance in addition to the processing of the bare phonemes or graphemes and syntax. On one end, we have communication qua communication, and on the other hand we have performative communication: the usage of language to induce mental states that aren’t contained in the words themselves, but rather in the constellation of assumptions and prior communicative acts that the usage is embedded in.

Explicit and Implicit

One could also refer to the two ends of the spectrum as explicit communication and implicit communication. The relationship with explicit and implicit information then becomes clear. Since it takes intelligent work to convert implicit information into explicit information, in explicit communication the speaker has done work and is sharing that work; in implicit communication, the speaker is choosing not to share that work or alternatively is creating new implicit information that can be converted into explicit information by the audience.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is usually implicit. Unintentional nonverbal communication, such as unconscious body language, is always implicit. Certain kinds of nonverbal communication, such as pointing at a target or a raised middle finger are explicit. It can be difficult to draw a hard line between the two; someone’s implicit body language is someone else’s explicit body language.


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