Lesson 136: The shoemaker’s children. Do we apply the rules of successful communication?

Lesson 136: The shoemaker’s children. Do we apply the rules of successful communication?

I’m quieter than usual on my blog and social media, perhaps slowly turning into a lurking type. I committed to switch to listening instead of talking and I’ve observed (and at times been dragged into) some interesting exchanges, both online and off-line.

One of my “favourite” theories on communication is Paul Grice’s cooperative principle focusing on how people interact with one another. Phrased prescriptively, the principle tells us to “make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” According to Grice, this lies at the foundation of successful communication.

You may or may not be familiar with Grice’s principle, but you surely know how to create pieces of text successful at communicating ideas. It’s an essential skill for a translator. What’s been puzzling me for a couple of weeks now is how a group of language professionals making their living on communication can sometimes be so notoriously bad at communicating with each other. The number of misunderstandings, rows and criticisms only confirm that something is not quite right here. Let’s see if Grice’s maxims can be of help in analysing this situation.

Maxim of Quality: try to make your contribution one that is true

According to Grice’s first principle, we should not say what we believe is false and – more importantly – not say that for which we lack adequate evidence. Of course, adequacy is disputable, but basing statements, complaints or sometimes formal allegations on hearsay or someone’s interpretation of a situation is dangerous, leave alone unfair. I think this applies in particular to public spaces, such as for example dubious Facebook discussions presenting mere guesses as hard truth. Insinuations, wondering and pondering have space in private discussions, but throwing them out there as contributions to public debates seems to violate the maxim of quality.

Maxim of Quantity: make your contribution as informative as required

But don’t make it more informative than needed. Sometimes simple questions need simple, short answers, without the need to belabour the subject. What you’ll often see online is a real flood of responses, often repetitive and therefore unhelpful. What Grice would probably suggest is checking what others said or wrote on the topic before contributing and if still deciding to contribute, making the response informative but not overbearing. The same goes the other way round. If I send a professional, 10-line email asking precise questions and suggesting a solution in a particular situation as our first email exchange ever, replying in two words clearly violates this maxim.

Maxim of Relevance: be relevant

I’ve seen many discussions like this – and I think you’ll agree – where the curious inquirer asks a precise question and in return receives dozens of contributions either missing the point, or simply offering unwanted and unasked for advice or criticism. This is tiring (or readers, and even more so for moderators) and unproductive. Grice would suggest separating threads and discussions and keeping them to the point. Otherwise, how can we have a dialogue if we’re constantly changing the topic? I feel strongly about this maxim and I think this is the reason why mass chat platforms such as Whatsapp never did it for me.

Maxim of Manner: be clear

Although Grice’s original maxim refers mostly to the clarity of expression, I think there’s much more that falls under manner here. Having witnessed a variety of discussions recently, I feel like the maxim of manner should also include: don’t discriminate against interlocutors, don’t throw racial abuse, don’t swear excessively, don’t be rude, don’t attack, don’t hide facts for your own advantage and use them against your interlocutor later, don’t act with superiority… I’m sure you could add a few to this list.

I’d risk saying that sometimes, in some circles and some situations (now, this is a caveat!) we, translators and interpreters, are like shoemaker’s children going barefoot. Do we really use up all of our communicative capacity in client-facing situations and there’s so little left for other modes of activity? To what extent is this just fine? Or perhaps there’s something we should remind ourselves following Grice?


  1. Paulinho Miguel da Fonseca , on Dec 14, 2015 at 20:00 Reply

    Dear Marta,

    Your approach on the subject of quality and quantity reminds of the Translator’s forums which in some cases are not clear and do not set the proper environment and leads answers to fail or even worse: create misunderstandings on the proposed subject field.
    Another relevant point is base information given with relevant but no excessive reference, which you point out here well.

  2. Diana Jankowiak , on Dec 16, 2015 at 16:20 Reply

    I’ve had similar thoughts for months now. I am often outraged by how negative and incommunicative we, translators and interpreters are on the internet. And I do feel it is sad that we fall into this trap so easily, but on the other hand, there’s lots to be done. This article may be only the beginning, but I believe if we reflect on our own behaviour, communication may actualy start getting better.

  3. karen , on Dec 23, 2015 at 22:58 Reply

    Excellent article

  4. Mariusz Listewnik , on Mar 20, 2016 at 18:11 Reply

    Hi Marta,
    Thank you for showing how Grice’s conversational maxims may be applied in practice. I might even pin them to a wall as a small checklist to look up when writing e-mails.
    I’d like to challenge your view of the problem. Your assumptions are that:
    Communicating ideas are an essential skill for a translator – agree
    We [translators] make our living on communication – yes and no.

    I think interpersonal communication and translation are separate sets of skills (although I might concede that there is an overlap). Unfortunately, becoming a good translator does not equate with being a proficient communicator. Both have to be learned and practised independently.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 30, 2016 at 15:10 Reply

      My point is that the overlap is so great, it might be used in a blog post to make a point 😉

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