How popular culture can help expose inferred and presupposed meaning in interaction and why it matters

At an advanced level of English, language is used in a more complicated way, which may seem rather obvious but can be somewhat difficult to attribute that fact to something specific. so ‘more complicated language use may not say anything to you. Please note that I have communicated earlier that learners of English tend to have difficulty with listening and reading for detailed information as opposed to gist (i .e. general idea), which is relevant if you want to understand how meaning is given to turns in interaction and how it is inferred by speakers in conversation. In this post, I attempt to explain how meaning is inferred and presupposed by interlocutors, using a short interaction taken from a popular North American TV series on Netflix.

Language is used by speakers in interesting ways. For language learners, much rich ‘authentic’ input – i.e. as in not tweaked for educational purposes- is available to learn from how native speaker can communicate with each other. Watching TV series, and specifically watching how scenes are played out in television series by actors is a nice way to observe in which way interaction can take place between speakers in many domains in the target language (English in this case). Television series are taken as an example here because characters are more developed as opposed to those in motion pictures and allow you to learn more about their characters, which helps predict how speakers might have meant something and to understand their possible intentions. Although scenes in television series have been scripted out by screenplay writers and such interaction cannot be labelled as ‘spontaneous speech’, it can serve as authentic input for language learners to observe cultural values and to how attitudes can be expressed.

An excerpt taken from Television Series Suits

An example of an interesting interaction is taken from Season 8 of Suits, a legal TV Series of a law firm. To prevent spoiling anything, I have taken out the names of characters so as to avoid taking away the fun for fans who have yet to see the episode in which this dialogue unfolds. The following interaction takes place in a scene that has the duration of 42 seconds, to be exact and in which 19 turns have been taken by the speakers. D stands for Donna and H for Harvey – two of the main characters of the TV Series.

The elevator dings and Harvey steps out. Donna is waiting for him in the reception area and says:

D: Good morning, Harvey. Coffee?

H: Don’t mind if I do.

H: Donna, this coffee is cold.

D: Well, it was hot two hours ago.

D: Harvey, How could you oversleep today of all days?

H: I’ll tell you how. I had a nightmare last night that we made X a managing partner and I couldn’t get back to sleep ’till dawn.

D: That wasn’t a nightmare and you know it, and instead of showing up late what you should be doing is asking X how you can make his/her life easier.

H: Well, What I am gonna be doing is kicking the sh*t out of Y [First name and last name of the lawyer].

D: What?!

H: I didn’t oversleep.

H: I spent the morning digging into an article about Y’s newest client.

D: So, you’re going to represent the guy s/he is going after to make him/her pay for [Z]?

H: Exactly.

D: Harvey, No one would appreciate you knocking down X more than me, but is day one of X’s reign really the best time?!

H: It’s a perfect time and, in fact, I’m doing him a favour by letting her/him figure out how s/he wants to run this place in her/his own unique way.

D: In other words, you are ducking her/him.

H: Yup, that’s what I said.

H: So, what do you say you help me out with X?

D: Let me guess, by getting you a hot cup of coffee?

H: It’s like you never left. Do you mind?

D: Of course not. There’s this little thing called a kitchen. Just walk down the hall, past reception, and take a left at “I’ve never heated up your coffee and I am not about to start now”.

H: So, that’s a no.

[end of scene]

Now that you have been able to read this interaction, my take on it is this. What happened is that Donna first assumes that Harvey is late because he supposedly overslept. In response to her (indirect) allegation, he tells her that he did not and continues making his point by explaining what he undertook instead, which was taking on a case that could possibly be problematic. She concludes that he’s just rebelling against new management and that he has an attitude problem for being late, and for taking on a somewhat problematic type of case at an inconvenient moment in time. What is more, at the end of the conversation, he’s trying to persuade her to get him coffee, which she playfully refuses to do.

A bit of contextual information for anyone who is not familiar with the type of conversation these characters have follows. The entire scene is an elegant back-and-forth between two people, who are friends, and who usually communicate this way. This way can typically be described as ‘banter’ (i.e. conversation that is funny and not serious, Cambridge Online Dictionary, 2020). Instead, the witty banter could have been replaced with more direct and forceful language to directly confront each other by calling each other out on their behaviour. Had this been done in a more direct and forceful manner, the tone of the entire conversation would have changed, likely in a negative way.

Let’s zoom in on the first part of the interaction:

[1] D: Good morning, Harvey. Coffee?

[2] H: Don’t mind if I do.

[3] H: Donna, this coffee is cold [short pause].

Here, his intonation falls at the end of the sentence indicating that he’s not amused by receiving a cup of cold coffee. While intonation normally falls at the end of a clause/sentence, here ‘cold’ is even more emphasized by using falling intonation and pausing right after. The meaning that this gives the utterance is that of ‘discontentment’ (i.e. a feeling expressed because he is used to be treated better by her). Speakers of English who use it as a second language usually aren’t sufficiently aware of this, for their intonation patterns are typically flat, monotonous and unintendedly imprecise – from a standard English perspective, of course.

Moving on to the next part of the interaction.

[4] D: Well, it was hot two hours ago.

[5] D: Harvey, how could you oversleep today of all days?

[6] H: I’ll tell you how. I had a nightmare last night that we made X a managing partner and I couldn’t get back to sleep till dawn.

By responding to her question using the same wording, he acknowledges that he has overslept, which turns out not to be the case in turn 10. Moving on.

[7] D: That wasn’t a nightmare and you know it and instead of showing up late what you should be doing is asking X how you can make his/her life easier.

[8] H: Well, what I am gonna be doing is kicking the sh*t out of Y [First name and last name of the lawyer].

[9] D: What?!

[10] H: I didn’t oversleep

[11] H: I spent the morning digging into an article about Y’s newest client.

However, here [turn 10] he clearly states that he has not overslept. So, the statement made in turn 6 was a violation of the Gricean’s maxim of quality so it was simply untrue that he overslept. As it turns out he had worked on a case before coming in two hours later than he normally would.

[12] D: So, you’re going to represent the guy s/he is going after to make him/her pay for [Z]?

[13] H: Exactly.

[14] D: Harvey, no one would appreciate you knocking down X more than me but is day one of Y’s reign really the best time?!

Turn 14 is meant rhetorically (i.e. a question meant as a statement through which an attitude is expressed). This could be seen as a violation of manner, as it may not be easy to understand to lower-level users of English. However, the speakers are both native speakers, so this counter-argues that argument. Note that no answer is expected, and none has been provided either; see turn 15.

Let us zoom in on parts of the last part of the interaction.

[15] H: So, what do you say you help me out with X?

[16] D: Let me guess, by getting you a hot cup of coffee?

[17] H: It’s like you never left. Do you mind?

[18] D: Of course not. There’s this little thing called a kitchen. Just walk down the hall, past reception, and take a left at “I’ve never heated up your coffee and I am not about to start now”.

[19] H: So, that’s a no.

Gricean’s maxims explained

Speech acts can be analyzed by using Grice’s ‘Cooperative Principle’. Please note that in spoken language ‘so-called’ sentences are called utterances. Speakers are doing something communicatively, that is more than just saying something as they might be justifying choices, apologizing or something (Grundy, 2008). Meaning is given to utterances by speakers and such meanings can be multi-interpretable or under-determined – as linguistics refer to it. In the field of Pragmatic Linguistics, “pragmatic data consists of everyday utterances” (Grundy, 2008, p. vii). At an advanced level (C1 and C2 of CEFR), it is expected that speakers are aware of these ways of giving meaning to turn taken in conversation. As it turns out, such meaning can be passively recognized but is often overlooked, which is something that is taught implicitly in such Cambridge English courses at an advanced level. Speaker and Listeners whose mother tongue is not English have to learn how to give meaning to utterances in conversation.

“What do these Maxims mean?”, you might wonder. This I haven’t yet explained. Grice (1957) was a Linguist, who developed a theory of ‘Conversational Implicature’ and it is called: ‘Cooperative Principle’. According to Grice (1957), you should “make your conversational contribution such as is required, at a stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” This quote was taken from Grundy (2008, p. 95). The theory consists of four maxims (rules) for interaction and these rules of the game – so to say – are typically recognized by English native speakers and advanced users of English, but which are commonly missed by non-native speakers of English at lower levels. The theory presupposes that much more is conveyed in conversation than just the words that are said. For this reason, listening for detailed information (like attitudes and whatnot) can be somewhat challenging for ‘passive users of English’, i.e. those that are only receptively consuming and thus processing language, rather than partaking in dialogues at this level of difficulty and occurrence.

The maxims of Grice are:

–         The maxim of Relation: say only that that is relevant in the dialogue/conversation.

–         The maxim of Quality: say only what is (believed to be) true.

–         The maxim of Quantity: be informative but not too informative

–         The maxim of Manner: be clear and easy to understand.

Note that it can be argued that these rules are culturally dependent and something that should be explained to learners of English if they want to be able to take part in this type of interaction and ultimately want to be recognized as ‘in-group’ members by native speakers. These rules are thus based on shared assumptions in the real word (Grundy, 2008) and can be problematic in intercultural communication in which assumptions are not shared by speakers who are using English but are part of different groups (countries or regions). The meaning of interaction is and can be ambiguous and can be lost in translation or never be recognized in the first place by out-group members).

My analysis using the Gricean’s maxims in line with his ‘Cooperative Principle’.

Back to the dialogue. Instead of blatantly refusing to get him a coffee, she violates the maxim of manner here and this is how. Gricean’s maxim of manner is violated as her answer is not simply a yes or no, but instead, one that consists of a much longer answer. It also throws the listener off as it takes a turn that is somewhat unexpected. By telling him where he can get his own coffee and by implicitly stating that he doesn’t have to ask her that again, she has shown how she really thinks about the fact that he asked it in the first place, which is said while smiling. It could be argued that it’s also a violation of quality as her first part of the answer suggests that she is going to answer the question truthfully, but – as the last part of her statement clearly suggests – she says that she won’t do it. Therefore, this maxim cannot be identified here. When you are conducting business with native speakers of English, you may at least be familiar with the fact that meaning can be given to utterances in a subtle manner, which may be something that is unconsciously recognized by learners/users of English worldwide seeing as to how popular these TV Series are.

In the transcript of the conversation between Donna and Harvey in Suits, I have already set out which maxims have been violated or which ones apply. Please note that this analysis is that of my own making – so to say, which is intended to explicate how obscure and ambiguous, but also fun interaction can be between speakers. In the services I offer, I always pay attention to these matters.

If you have found this analysis useful or entertaining, please like it. Have a good one! Stay safe!

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