Pragmatics – it ain’t easy

Communication can be a tricky little bitch – especially if you’re suffering from mental illness (in my case: depression and personality disorder). I’m a very shy and insecure person, I don’t make friends easily – in fact, I can count the number of people I’d call “friend” on one hand. Interacting with strangers or people I don’t know really well makes me feel all kinds of uncomfortable. In addition, it seems I lack the knowledge or skills needed for successful communication. I’d like to look at my issue from a pragmatic perspective, pragmatics being the study of speaker meaning.

Pragmatic meaning

One particular aspect of interaction that has caused my problems for as long as I can remember is pragmatic meaning. In a nutshell: pragmatic meaning is what people actually mean although they do not necessarily say it explicitly. For example: two or more people are sitting in a room with an open window. One person says “It’s a bit cold in here.” The speaker probably doesn’t just want to inform the other people present, that he or she thinks it’s cold in the room. The underlying message of the statement probably is “Could someone close that window?”

In theory, I’m aware that people communicate more than they actually say. In many situations, however, my mind is rather reluctant to decode the pragmatic meaning and intentions behind what is said and to respond appropriately. Are you trying to make small talk with me? Don’t bother! I usually don’t get what people want from me. Let’s consider the following typical situation at a club after a concert:

Person: “So, why are you guys here?”

In my mind: “What kind of question is that? We’re at a club, we’ve just watched a concert, isn’t it obvious why we’re here? Maybe because we like the band?!? Why is the person even asking? Are they really interested in why we’re here or are they just being polite? What am I supposed to say?”

So I say: “Ehhm…. ‘cause we watched the gig….”

Person: “Oh. And do you often come here?”

Depending on whether I am or not, I respond: “Yes/No.”


This is where the conversation usually ends.

Maxim of quantity

There are obviously two problems I have in such situations. Firstly, I’m not good at figuring out other people’s intentions. I don’t understand the purpose of what they say. I’m often wondering what it is people are trying to achieve with certain questions or statements. This is definitely due to me insecurity.

Secondly – and as a consequence of the first issue – , I don’t know how to respond. Lets consider the following pragmatic theory: according to Paul Grice’s cooperative principle, speakers must follow four maxims in order to enable effective communication: the maxims of quality, quantity, relation, and manner.

Apparently, the maxim of quantity is what causes me problems. It says that you shouldn’t give too much or too little information but as much as is necessary in order for other people to understand you. But if you’re not sure about another persons’ intentions and what they are actually trying to achieve by talking to you, it’s difficult to figure out how much information you are supposed to give when replying. How much can I tell them about myself, my opinions and views before they get bored? Since I’m rather shy and guarded around people I don’t know, I also tend to be very careful with what I reveal about myself. How much do I want a stranger to know about me? Hence, my responses in small talk interactions tend to be short; as short as possible, usually too short.

So, yeah, pragmatics ain’t easy!

Thanks for reading and feel free to comment if you have a difficult relationship with pragmatics as well.