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The 4 Core Rules of Successful Conversations

Quantity, quality, manner, and relation.

Key points

  • There are 4 main conversational "maxims" that guide us in conversation.
  • These "maxims" are unspoken rules that help us recognize what's appropriate to say.
  • Apparent "breaking" of these rules helps us make inferences about what people mean.

Ever wonder how it is that we all seem to know how to make conversation work? Even when we aren’t brilliant conversationalists in terms of what we talk about, we still seem to follow some underlying rules for how conversations should be managed. For instance, that we should take turns, that we need to try to be clear, that we talk in snippets and not soliloquies. But what is this strange guiding force that drives our conversations forward?

Being Cooperative

The idea that successful conversational exchanges require us to follow and, crucially, recognize certain basic tenets was first articulated by philosopher Paul Grice. Grice recognized that talking to each other would be utter chaos if we didn’t all adhere to some culturally learned conventions for how to contribute to conversations.

In short, Grice suggested that we generally follow what he referred to as the “Cooperative Principle.” This means that we assume the people we talk with are trying their best to be relevant, clear, truthful, and adequately informative. The Cooperative Principle, or CP, leads us to make a concerted effort to work together so that we can have productive, successful, and non-frustrating communication.

Conversation by the Rules

More specifically, Grice proposed we follow some basic ground rules, or “conversational maxims,” that help us figure out what to take away from what people say and how they say it. These have come to be referred to, not surprisingly, as “Gricean Maxims.”

For instance, one of Grice’s maxims was what is called the maxim of quantity, which means we have a sense that we need to adjust how much we say about a given topic to make sure what we say is informative enough, without going overboard. It is the maxim of quantity that makes your eyes glaze over when someone goes into the minute details of their last physical exam when you asked them casually how they were feeling. And, on the flip side, it’s also why our teenagers’ much too short “fine” as a response to every question feels like a brush-off—it violates our expectation for a certain minimum quantity of information.

Another maxim, known as the maxim of quality, guides us to be sincere and to only state things for which we have adequate evidence. This is why we tend to trust what other people say and that they have a reasonable basis for saying it. If we can’t assume people are truthful, then conversation completely breaks down. This is the reason we feel slightly devious (and a bit guilty) when giving a false name and backstory to someone we meet on an airplane or at a bar.

LEEROY Agency/Pixabay
Source: LEEROY Agency/Pixabay

Even if we never see them again, we are trained that good conversationalists don’t make stuff up, but only say things they at least believe to be true. The ability that some have to successfully lie rests in large part on the fact that the rest of us adhere to this maxim most of the time and expect that others do as well. So, taking advantage of this unspoken conversational rule can be exploited by less savory types.

Mind Your Manners

Grice also proposed another maxim, the maxim of manner, which has more to do with how we say something rather than what we say. This maxim tries to ensure that we are not overly ambiguous or vague in the way we talk about things, recognizing that there are some conventions that are good to follow to be maximally communicative.

For instance, instead of describing my friend Sally’s husband as “that guy that Sally lives with,” it is more clear and direct to call him simply her husband. Saying it in a less conventional way indicates that there is a reason I am not using the usual shorthand and would intimate that there is some other meaning I am trying to get across.

Finally, the last of Grice’s maxims is the maxim of relation which requires that we make our conversational contributions relevant to the topic at hand. So, if someone asks about your trip to Bermuda, you understand that they are expecting you to say something about tropical island life, not what you are making for dinner. This doesn’t mean we can’t start new topics, but that we give each other signals when we intend to start a new thread and respond to others’ queries appropriately.

Breaking the Rules

Because we go into conversations generally following these rules, we also know that when we disobey or “flout” them, as Grice called it, other people will work to figure out how our apparent violation is actually underlyingly still following the rules.

As a result, if you ask me out on a date, and I say I have to wash my hair, you are able to make the leap to what I really mean: No, but I’m letting you down nicely. In this case, since we are trained to look for relevance and to be relevant (following the maxim of relation), we try to find a connection between what might be on the surface unrelated (hair washing) to what was said (dating).

This intentional “rule breaking” is also what helps us understand a larger meaning when people, on the surface, appear to be under-informative (i.e., breaking the maxim of quantity). For instance, if you ask me if I like Bob and Carol from the office, and I reply with, “I like Carol,” my lack of adequate information in my response is precisely what provides the real answer (that I like Carol but not Bob). So, I was in fact still following the rule, but you just had to infer how.

These sorts of “flouting” of the rules allow us to be more polite and indirect. Not to mention it allows us plausible deniability when later asked if we ever said we disliked Bob.

Smooth Conversation

What is interesting is that we still follow the expectation of adhering to the cooperative principle and the maxims even when we are engaging in non-cooperative discussions, like in a courtroom or in an argument. Why? Because to have a conversation, adversarial or not, there have to be rules that help us unpack what others say.

These rules are also why we feel angry when we find they have been truly violated, rather than flouted, as when someone outright lies or doesn’t tell us enough to be fully informed before we make a decision (like a disingenuous salesperson who omits important facts about a return policy).

So, remember, the next time you are deep in conversation, that these are the rules that bind us and our ability to have communicative exchanges. And that a little cooperation is never a bad thing.

LinkedIn image: Raisa Kanareva/Shutterstock. Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock


Grice, H. P. (1975) 'Logic and conversation'. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds) Studies in Syntax and Semantics III: Speech Acts, New York: Academic Press, pp. 183-98.

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