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The Pragmatic Impact of Emotional Background Memory

Interpersonal relations are enhanced through unspoken truths.

Key points

  • A great deal of information remains unsaid in the process of interpersonal communicative interaction.
  • By adhering to extralinguistic factors, we stand a better chance of bulding harmonious relations.
  • Mutual understanding becomes plausible due to the presence of mutually shared emotional background knowledge.

In our everyday life we continually interact with each other. We do this through linguistic and non-linguistic means such as facial expressions, gestures, and bodily movements. Undoubtedly, to build a successful society and peaceful relations with one another, it is essential not to misinterpret any piece of information encoded by a speaker. As a matter of fact, people do not always communicate with each other in an explicit manner and it often becomes a real challenge to grasp a speaker's implicit meaning or their hidden thoughts and intentions, which may not be so vividly expressed in his/her speech.

Actually, when communicating with each other we usually omit stating a good deal of information which we surely know, or at least assume, that all interlocutors know. As Verschueren (1999) states, we should just imagine what a person would have to say to clarify herself or himself in a completely explicit linguistic manner.

The world of unexpressed information that an utterance carries along is called background information, which is also referred to as common knowledge or common ground, as it is assumed to be shared by the interlocutors. Besides, as such assumptions involve recursive and mutual embeddings—I know that you know that I know, etc.—the term mutual knowledge is also often used (Verschueren 1999:26). In other words, it is the communicative information shared by the speakers, which makes mutual understanding possible through the act of communication.

Sometimes, even while communicating with each other in an implicit manner people manage to understand one another; this is possible due to this background information considered to be shared both by speaker and hearer. Verschueren (1999) states that, whatever term is used, the implicit meaning it covers is not a fixed entity, but can be shaped and reshaped in the course of linguistic action and interaction. In fact, the impossibility of full explicitness and the need to explain diverse aspects of general background information to achieve a full understanding of any instance of language use are pervasive and challenging processes.

Our human nature incorporates a rich variety of factors that shape our behaviour in general. Being a specific form of social behaviour, speech is based on a number of essential features which form the general framework of the communicative context. The speakers’ past emotional experience is also part of mutually shared background knowledge, which determines their choice of language data on a particular occasion of speech event. The problem can be viewed from the pragmatic perspective, taking into account the essence of the supreme cognitive processes, which ensure a better understanding of the multifaceted nature of emotions.

Moreover, when we think of the ways we use language, we think of face-to-face conversations, telephone conversations, reading and writing, and even talking to oneself. These are arenas of language use—theaters of action in which people do things via language. But what exactly are they doing with language? What are their goals and intentions? By what processes do they achieve these goals? In order for one person to understand the other, there must be a kind of "common ground" of knowledge between them. This common ground from their past conversations, their immediate surroundings, and their shared cultural/educational/personal background, as well as their knowledge about their emotions, beliefs, dreams, and desires, is of utmost importance in building mutual understanding.

A proposition A is mutual knowledge among a set of agents if each agent knows that: A. Mutual knowledge by itself implies nothing about what, if any, knowledge anyone attributes to anyone else. Suppose each student arrives for a class meeting knowing that the instructor will be late. That the instructor will be late is mutual knowledge, but each student might think only she knows that the instructor will be late. However, if one of the students says openly, “Peter told me he will be late again,” then each student knows that each student knows that the instructor will be late; each student knows that each student knows that each student knows that the instructor will be late, and so on, ad infinitum.

It follows from the above that in case we want to create a positive atmosphere in which each individual is appreciated in the process of communicative interaction, we should also base our assumptions on background information to be able to detect the unstated thoughts and feelings of the interlocutors.


1. Rostomyan, A. (2012). The Vitality of Emotional Background Memory at Court. Berlin: DeGruyter.

2. Verschueren, S. (1999). Understanding Pragmatics. London, New York: Arnold.

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