The Rules of Conversation

People can have different and sometimes conflicting purposes for communication.  A few of the reasons we communicate are emotional connection, problem solving, and information seeking/sharing.

Conversations, or talk exchanges, are inherently cooperative efforts.  We usually approach conversations with the expectation that the conversation will be cooperative in some way, meaning that both people will work together to reach a specific goal, be that a goal of connection, or sharing information, or a goal of deciding on an important issue or even debating an issue.  

This can get complicated if people in the interaction have conflicting or different goals.  To make it even more challenging, usually goals are implied rather than stated directly, which can create opportunities for misunderstanding or confusion.  However, there are some common expectations that most of us have regarding our communication with others.  

Grice (1975) tells us that there are Four Maxims that govern our conversations… 

First is the Quantity Maxim; this is the expectation that someone will be as informative as possible and thus give as much information as needed – no more and no less.  

Next is the Quality Maxim; this explains that we assume that someone will be truthful, and thus not give information that is false, misleading, or anything that is not supported by evidence and will also not omit relevant information.

After this is the Relation Maxim; this is the expectation that someone will be relevant and say things that are pertinent to the subject matter of the discussion that is taking place.  

Lastly is the Manner Maxim; this expects that someone will be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as they can be in respect to what they are saying, and as a result, will attempt to avoid causing any unnecessary confusion.

Presenting Ourselves to Others

Goffman (1959) proclaimed the concept of Self-Presentation in which social guidelines and structures are adhered to, to support and reinforce the reputation, image, and identity that individuals aim to project.   

Such successful interactions require Face Work (Goffman, 1955).   The need to maintain an appearance is referred to as Positive Face Work.  

Brown and Levinson (1987) note that it is generally in the best interest of a society or individual to maintain positive face.  

To prevent face-threatening situations, one may avoid addressing sensitive issues or attacking the ‘face’ of others, in fear of retaliation.  Face Work is often linked to Emotion Work (Bolton, 2001).  This involves suppressing or expressing emotions as face work, to seem professional, civil, confident, or credible.  

Goffman described the presentation of self during social interaction through a metaphor of the theatre (Goffman, 1959).  This dramaturgical perspective treats individuals as actors playing roles on stage.  Public and social performances are done on the frontstage through impression management, to control messages communicated to the audience.  Actors adapt behaviours to present an idealized-self to their audience, aligning with their interpretation of the audience’s desires.  

Backstage represents one’s private life, this setting allows actors to be their true-self (Goffman, 1959).  Few are allowed backstage to see the actor’s backstage-self, these are often significant others and those in their intimate circle of family and sometimes friends.  Actors intend to express messages ‘given’, and messages ‘given off’ are unintentionally communicated.  The audience’s presence influences the actor, for “individuals, in brief, exude expressions” (Ibid, 1969, p. 5).  Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective of actors, audience, front and backstage is useful to understand self-presentations. 

Goffman’s concept of front and backstage represents one’s public and private sides (i.e. Wolfe, 1997, p. 182-183).  Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective highlights how actors hide backstage information, allowing for believable frontstage performances just as how we vary our behaviour depending on if we are at work, at school or at home or when we are completely alone.  

Goffman (1959) describes impression management as ‘successfully staging a character” (Goffman, 1959, p. 203).  The purpose of impression management is to maintain separation between frontstage and backstage.  During social interactions individuals engage in impression management by adjusting their self-presentation, thereby attempting to control other people’s impressions of them.  This is called a performance (Asplund, 1980, p. 105).  

We present ourselves differently in different contexts, who you are at home with your family is different than who you are in a serious business meeting, and who you are at the coffee shop is different than who you are in your therapist’s office.   Although there may be underlying similarities, as that is also important for you to be authentically yourself, different contexts create different opportunities for us to express various parts of ourselves.  For example, narcissists tend to use Facebook as a way to present a grandiose version of themselves to others.  Similarly, each context will have different standards of what is considered acceptable behavior.  

Communication Accommodation Theory

You may have noticed that romantic couples often mirror each other’s body language and even sometimes their speech patterns and word use.  This can also happen with people you see often and that you like or admire.  We naturally begin to converge with the communication style of the people we are around, and this enhances liking and viewing each other as part of the same group.  

Similarly, if you don’t like someone, chances are that your communication style will be quite opposite from that person.  Now, this isn’t always the case, and don’t assume that someone dislikes you simply because their body language is different from yours, but it is interesting to notice.  This phenomenon is explained in the Communication Accommodation Theory.  

The Communication Accommodation Theory was developed in the 1970s by the social psychologist named Howard Giles.  This theory suggests that when we communicate, we adapt to each other’s communication behaviors.  There are three possible ways that we can adapt to each other’s communication styles and behaviors (Giles & Ogay, 2007). 

First is that our communication can converge, this is when the similarities between us increase and are accentuated, our communication styles start mirroring or matching each other, even in nuanced ways.  

Next is the opposite effect, where our communication styles and behaviors diverge, this is when the differences between our communication styles become more obvious and pronounced, one person raises their voice while the other responds by lowering theirs.    

The last category is described as maintaining, this is when the current level of behaviors stay the same and we both simply behave like we normally do, rather than becoming more similar or more opposite.

This convergence, divergence, or maintaining can occur with word use, pitch and speech rate, levels of self-disclosure, the use of humor, and even our body language can showcase convergence or divergence.

When someone’s communication style is converging, this usually means that they like or trust their conversation partner, as they are trying to signal that they share a common identity. 

If a level of convergence is reached within communication, it’s much more likely you’ll be able to persuade them.

Diverging behavior can be triggered by a desire for a distinct individual identity (rather than than shared), or simply by a dislike or distrust of the other person.

The Liking Principle

If a request comes from someone we know or like, we’re more inclined to say yes… This is exactly why the Liking Principle is so valuable. 

The Liking Principle (Cialdini, 2001) states that we like people who are like us.  This can be applied strategically with aspects of communication that can be controlled.  In this way body language and your word use can be a powerful tool for influencing others and for managing how your present yourself to others and how your first impression is perceived.  

Be careful with this though, as Ekman warns if you do this too often or too exact (like copying every movement) this can be seen is mocking or mimicking, which may have the opposite effect and cause someone to dislike you or react defensively. 

We like people who like us, and we like people who are like us.  Communication skills and techniques like highlighting similarities in conversation and signaling how much you like your conversation partner can be used to take advantage of the liking principle.  

Liking can also be developed through familiarity.  Familiarity fosters the liking principle.  This can create many opportunities to develop a good relationship rapport with others in almost any context.  

In professional areas, like sales for example, an important first step is to create a trusting relationship with a potential client.  If this is done well, the following steps of the sales process becomes much easier.  Mirroring is a technique that can help you achieve this type of positive reaction (professionally or personally) in almost any situation.  Mirroring is when you copy someone’s language and or behaviors.  You can do this verbally by using the same words or expressions that they do in their language.  

For example, if someone often says ‘looks good’ you can say ‘I see what you mean’ to match their visual references and language.  Or if someone says, ‘sounds good’ you can respond with ‘I hear you’.  This is a form of linguistic style matching, when there is convergence at a language level.  You can even mirror someone’s emoji use to create a sense of similarity and liking.

People also do this naturally when they find someone likable, so if your date is matching your body language, it’s a good sign!  

The simplest way to begin using the liking principle to your advantage is by practicing mirroring the behaviour and communication of others, it takes time to become aware of your own behaviours and that of others, but it is certainly worthwhile and quite fun to notice how it can influence your interactions, both positively and negatively.  

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