Grounding in Communication: Reading Reflection #1

Before this paper by Herbert H. Clark and Susan E. Brennan, apparently the going theory was that people talk in the most efficient way possible – the principle of least effort, it was called.  As if we plan out what we’re going to say so we give just enough information in the least possible amount of time.  Then these authors came along with the groundbreaking (I assume) principle of least collaborative effort.  It’s jarring to read the snippets of actual conversation that they provide, replete with “uh”s and false starts and interruptions.  That’s because of another aspect of communication that they talk about: we’re not used to reading exchanges like these, because in written media, the presenter has time to self-repair.  In writing, the way to achieve least collaborative effort is to be as clear and complete as possible, because the cost of “repairing” and “taking turns” with your reader is high.

Reading this paper put me in mind of the artist Nathan Pyle’s comics with aliens, satirizing the odd little things we humans do that we take for granted, like below:

Server A forgets what customer B said and provides negative evidence of understanding to that effect, so A reassures B, and uses an indicative gesture to establish the referent (a waffle), and it doesn’t stop there because both parties need to take one more turn to provide positive evidence of understanding.  So many turns just to order a criss-cross flop disc!

This work was published in 1991.  How much has changed since then! The authors wouldn’t have known the wonders of AOL Instant Messenger, or Facebook, or GIFs.  I wonder what they would think about the relatively recent developments of “receipts” (I’m not sure what the term is – the icon that shows someone has read your IM), or the dot-dot-dots that indicate your interlocutor is typing back.  Both show that your interlocutor “noticed that you [wrote] something,” so they’re in at least State 1 (State 0 being “B didn’t notice that A uttered [anything]”).  Whether they read the whole thing or correctly heard you is still uncertain. What kind of grounding profile do we have then?  Of course it also depends on the purpose of the IMs – are you messaging your crush to arrange a date, or your reluctant lab partner to ask them to step up, or your boss to say you’re taking a sick day tomorrow?