What makes us laugh in this short clip is that Sheldon is oblivious to Raj’s request. While it is obvious that Raj just wants for Sheldon to hand him over the ketchup and doesn’t care about how it was originally made, he still doesn’t communicate as effectively as he could. Especially knowing Sheldon’s propensity to add more information than exchanges ask for. In truth, they both break Grice’s Maxims. And isn’t it why we love the Big Bang Theory so much? It mirrors what we often do ourselves in our communication styles?
Grices’s maxims are made of four rules to adhere to if we are to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible. These maxims are very useful in all types of relationships, from our work and business settings to our more intimate and romantic relationships. In fact, they become quite necessary when expressing our emotional needs and wants where misunderstandings and conflicts are more likely to occur. Let’s define each of these four maxims.
Maxim of Quantity
- Make your contribution as informative as required for the current purposes of the exchange.
- Do not make your contribution more informative than required.
Maxim of Quality
- Make your contribution truthfully.
- Do not give false information or information which is not supported by facts.
Maxim of Relevance
- Make your contribution relevant and pertinent to the discussion.
Maxim of Manner
- Make your contribution as clear and brief, and as orderly as possible.
- Avoids obscurity and ambiguity.
How these maxims affect our communications in real life?
For example, the maxim of quantity asks that we share as much information as needed in order to be understood without sharing more than is needed. Whether it is about data, general worldly information or personal needs, if we are too vague or concise we risk leaving the other person in the dark, unable to get our point. On the other hand, if we share too much information we may end up speaking over one’s head, or confusing our interlocutor with unneeded information. The end result is the same; we lose the other person and are not communicating efficiently. It may serve us to know that people who have an avoidant style of attachment often violate this maxim. By nature, they tend to keep their emotions and inner thoughts to themselves and often end up being perceived as withholding important facts. While they don’t necessarily want to deceive, they can easily be perceived as being shady. It may behoove them, aka Islands (see diagram below), to remain mindful of this maxim. This will prevent unnecessary conflicts.
The same applies for the maxim of quality. When we withhold important information, when we choose to “avoid” telling the total truth for fear of an argument, or of not being perceived as impeccable as we aim to be, we often end up being known as dishonest or deceitful. After all, very few among us want to be charmed to the point of being misled or lied to. While some people argue that “little” fibs don’t really hurt anyone, the harsh reality is that those who are fibbed often end up feeling they were taken for a ride or seen as fools. Neither are pleasant experiences which foster trust and intimacy.
As for the maxim of relevance, adding too many details to a story, being long winded before making one’s point, or beating around the bush before saying what one’s really want to communicate are all ways that keep the interlocutor in suspense. Unfortunately, this often happens at the cost of losing one’s interlocutor’s interest and focus along the way. People who have an anxious attachment style, aka Waves (see diagram below) often end up being tangential in their communications. Anxiety often leadsthem to talk too much and for too long. It behooves them to be aware of this maxim and stop themselves in time so that they don’t flood their audience and lose them all together; this only increases their own anxiety of not not being effective communicators.
The maxim of manner asks us to be concise and orderly in our communications. It is way more efficient to clearly and concisely ask for what we want and need rather than going on and on about our dissatisfactions, frustrations and the reasons why we want/need things to be different. “My love/honey/sweet heart, would you take the garbage on the way out? This simple request is definitely more effective than a “You should know that the garbage needs to be taken out, don’t you see it is full… why don’t you… why do I… if only you cared about me you…” Whether it is about the garbage needing to be thrown out or something completely different, most of our communication problems can be avoided when we honor this and the three other Grice’s maxims! As we can see, these maxims interweave with each other. In many cases one, two or three of them are involved in any one statement, or communication.
Find above a simple chart to help people with an avoidant style of attachment, (Islands) or an anxious style of attachment (Waves) and what to watch for when communicating. As we can see, the predisposition of one person to break Grice’s Maxims is often the trigger of the other person. No wonder communications can sometimes feel like we don’t speak the same language. Thanks to these effective maxims of communication we can now speak more efficiently with everyone!
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©