How to Mean More than You Say

Cooperation and Communication

One of the of the most impressive properties of human communication is the ability to mean more than we say.

And communicating indirectly is not rare. Most of the content of what we communicate is not said directly but is instead inferred by the hearer. What we say is just a clue to what we mean.

The rest is pieced together by the hearer, using common sense, knowledge of the world, knowledge of you and your past relationship, knowledge of cultural norms and conventions, and knowledge of certain rules about when to make inferences and when to stick with a literal interpretation of what is said.

But how do we know when to take a person literally and when to search for inferences beyond what was said explicitly?

We know because the speaker sends clear signals to us by violating certain norms of conversation. When we see those signals, we know it’s time to search for something more than a literal interpretation of what’s been said.

The Cooperative Principle

The key is something called the Cooperative Principle. The Cooperative Principle refers to an assumption that we make about one another when we communicate. We assume that the people we are communicating with are being cooperative.

By ‘cooperative’ we don’t mean that they will lend us money or help us fold laundry or grab us a cold beer from the fridge. We mean that they are being rational and cooperative as partners in a communication exchange, that they are doing what’s necessary to support “maximally effective exchange of information.”

The Cooperative Principle operates as a default assumption in every interaction. We always assume people are being cooperative (in this special sense of the word).

Any apparent departure from cooperativeness is a red flag, a signal for us to go beyond the literal meaning of what is said and instead look for an alternative meaning that would restore our sense that the speaker is being cooperative.

When someone says something that seems uncooperative, we don’t automatically assume they are actually being uncooperative. Instead we assume that the apparent uncooperativeness is a signal to go beyond the information given, and to seek a meaning that would make the speaker appear cooperative.

Four Rules of Cooperation in Conversation

Before I illustrate how this works, let’s talk about what it means to be cooperative in communication. There are four basic rules (or “maxims” as they were originally called by the philosopher Paul Grice):

  1. Quantity: Say enough. Don’t say too much.

  2. Quality: Tell the truth. Don’t say what you don’t know to be true.

  3. Relation: Be relevant.

  4. Manner: Be clear. Don’t be obscure or ambiguous. Be brief and organized.

Together these rules define what it means to be a rational, cooperative participant in a conversation. We assume that everyone we talk to is either following these rules or is intentionally breaking these rules in order to convey something indirectly.  

By intentionally breaking or flouting the rules, the speaker tells us, in effect, “Hey, you know I’m being cooperative, and the thing I just said is, on its surface, not cooperative, so search for another meaning that makes me seem cooperative.”

When the speaker says A and intends to mean B, she makes certain assumptions about the hearer: namely, that the hearer recognizes that the speaker intentionally violated one of the rules, and that the hearer will be able to quickly and easily infer B after hearing A in this particular context. In this way, the speaker is being cooperative even when she is intentionally flouting one of the rules of conversational cooperation.

In other words, what is said may appear uncooperative, but what is implied is cooperative. Our job in conversation is to take what is said and then search, using deductive inference, for the cooperative intended meaning.

In each example below, the speaker intentionally, and obviously, breaks one of the rules of cooperation in order to tell the hearer to search for an indirect meaning.

The Quantity Maxim: Say Enough. Don’t Say Too Much

Being cooperative in this special sense means saying enough to meet the requirements of the situation. When someone obviously says much less than the situation demands, we do not assume they are just being a jerk (though that’s possible).

Instead, we fall back on the default assumption: they must be acting cooperatively. Since the literal content of what they said appears uncooperative, there must be a deeper meaning that can be inferred that will reveal their cooperativeness. As the listener, our job is to seek out that meaning.

When someone writes a letter of reference about a former employee and says only that “John was well-groomed and punctual, and he was always courteous to his co-workers,” the reader of the letter knows immediately that John is not very good at his job.

A one-sentence letter of recommendation, on its surface, seems uncooperative. Everyone knows a letter of recommendation should be longer than one sentence.

The reader recognizes that the writer is attempting to convey an indirect message by intentionally violating the rule about saying enough. So the reader searches for an implied meaning that would make the writer seem cooperative.

The reader concludes that if there were good things to say about John the writer would have said them. Since nothing more was said, the reader correctly assumes that the recommender intended to convey that John is not very good at his job. By flouting the Quantity Rule, the intention is conveyed without actually writing anything bad about John.

This is one of the main uses of indirectness, to say things off-the-record that would be difficult to say on-the-record. 

Quality: Tell the Truth 

Being cooperative in a conversation means telling the truth. A speaker’s obvious and intentional violation of this rule prompts the hearer to search for an implied meaning that would be truthful and cooperative.

Irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, and metaphor are examples of how a person can say one thing and intentionally mean another.

Bill sees Andy the morning after Bill knows Andy had too much to drink.

Bill: Hey Andy, how’s it going?

Andy: Never better.

 One teacher asks another about a student’s performance in class.

A: Hey how is Mr. X doing in your class this semester?

B: He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

When you see a colleague engaged in a task you know they dislike, and you ask how they are, they might respond, “Another day in paradise!” or “Living the dream.” 

In each of these examples, the speaker says something that is obviously false, and this prompts the speaker to search for an alternative meaning.

The Relation Maxim: Be Relevant

Another way to signal to a hearer that your intention is something other that what you are literally saying is to flout the maxim of relevance.

By saying something that is obviously irrelevant on its surface, you invite the hearer to search for an inference about your intended meaning that would make your contribution seem relevant.

Hints are a common form of indirect speech that function by violating the expectation that every contribution to a conversation should be relevant.

When one half of a couple wants to leave a party, he might say to his partner, “Sure is getting late.” Although irrelevant on its surface, the obvious implication is that he wants to leave the party.

“Boy a hot cup of coffee would be delicious right about now!” will be heard as a request for coffee, just as “It’s freezing in here.” will be heard as a request to turn down the air conditioner or close the window.

The Manner Maxim: Be Clear, Unambiguous, Brief, and Coherent

Another way to invite people to go beyond the literal meaning in search of the implied meaning is to be unclear or ambiguous or to be obviously more complex or wordy than the situation demands.

This strategy is often used by politicians and corporate spokespeople who do not want to go on the record about an awkward or embarrassing situation.

After a major TV personality is fired from his job for sexual harassment, a reporter might ask why he was fired.

Instead of saying “We fired him because he was a serial sexual harasser. His advertisers were fleeing in droves. Legal bills were bankrupting us, and his continued presence on the air was an embarrassment to the whole organization," the spokesman might say something like, “Mr. Smith’s departure was the result of a variety of market and competitive and personal factors. Discussions with our customers and employees indicated that it was an appropriate moment to initiate strategic reorganization in our roster of on-air talent. Our objective as always is to deliver great programing to our viewers and great value to our shareholders.” 

This statement is intentionally not clear, or brief, or unambiguous. The lack of clarity is a sign to look for the indirect meaning, and most people have no problem finding it. But if someone says, “Are you saying you fired him because he was a serial sexual harasser?” the spokesperson can always deny that that was the intended meaning.  

This plausible deniability is one of the key strategic advantages of indirect speech. 

Turning the Rules into Strategies for Indirect Communication

Once you know these rules, you also have a set of strategies for being indirect, for meaning more than you say. The strategies fall right out of the maxims.

To mean more than you say, to convey your intentions indirectly, the trick is to obviously and intentionally violate one of the maxims. 

Say too little.  

Say something obviously false.  

Say something irrelevant.  

Say way more than the situation calls for.

Say something obscure or incoherent or ambiguous. 

But remember you have to do this in a way that the person you are speaking to “gets the hint.”

By breaking these rules, you are sending a signal for them to search for the implied meaning. For it to be effective, you have to be sure that they will get the hint and that they have enough background knowledge and inferential ability to deduce your intended meaning.

If you miscalculate, the hearer might not get the hint, or they might not have enough information or deductive power to find your implied meaning. In that case, you might be taken literally, or you might just seem uncooperative.

I’d love to hear your examples of how people violate these rules of cooperation in order to communicate indirectly.