How on Earth Do People Understand Each Other in Everyday Conversation?

A third and very interesting finding is that people draw immediate assumptions about common ground from their conversation partner's community membership. The categorization of a person in a certain category or community (e.g., nationality, age, gender, occupation) activates a stereotype that allows one to make reasonable assumptions about what the other person knows or beliefs. When strangers meet they will immediately try to categorize each other and make generic assumptions about the other person's knowledge. Based on each other's appearances (a police officer, man in expensive suit, a little kid) or the situation in which they happen to be in (behind a post office desk, in a soccer stadium) people make immediate inferences. Based on these assumptions people adapt their utterances. Without contemplation you know you do not need to explain a postman about stamps, two English speakers can assume they are both familiar with the meaning of English vocabulary, and one can reasonably assume that a police officer is knowledgeable about traffic rules. The student in my previous example assumed that I was his lecturer simply because I was standing in front of the lecture room, and consequently inferred that I would be able to answer questions about a textbook.

Thus, based on immediate inferences about what they share with a conversation partner, people adapt their utterances. That this may occur quite unconsciously and on the basis on very subtle cues is shown in a classic field experiment by Douglas Kingsbury (1968). Kingsbury asked randomly selected pedestrians on a Boston street for directions to a department store several blocks away. However, he asked his question in either the local Boston dialect, or employing a dialect spoken in rural Missouri - one seldom heard in downtown Boston - or he prefaced his request with the statement "I'm from out of town". The results showed that when the request was made in the exotic dialect, the directions given were significantly longer and more detailed, compared to when he requested directions using the local dialect. In fact, the directions given to the exotic dialect request where quite similar to when it was explicitly stated that he was from out of town. Apparently, on the basis of his foreign dialect alone, people assumed that his level of local expertise was low and, without being asked, provided additional information. This, and other research, demonstrates that people categorize others on the basis of very subtle cues. This enables them to infer what the person is likely to know and to formulate a message that is understandable in light of such knowledge.

Of the individuals we know well, we also carry around quite some information about their expertise and the knowledge we share with them. For instance, if you have lived together for years with your husband, you assume that your shared vacations, preferred meals, disagreements, and private jokes are mutually known and can be referred to.

It should be clear that the amount of common ground between conversation partners has a huge impact on their utterances and the course of their conversation. People adapt their utterances based on the perceived common ground. But common ground is not static, it changes on a moment-to-moment basis. The conversation continues to unfold, new topics are introduced and even the environment and context may change. Whether something is already part of common ground or not influences how people refer to it.

A straightforward example is that with accumulating common ground, people change from indefinite descriptions, like 'a lawyer' or 'some houses', to definite descriptions, like 'the lawyer' or 'those houses' (Linde & Labov, 1975). The first mention of something, when it is not yet part of the common ground, is usually done with indefinite articles (a, an). Later, when a topic has been grounded (i.e., added to the common groundClark & Brennan, 1991) definite descriptions are used. This can also be seen in how stories are build up: "This is a story about a girl. The girl lived in a big castle".

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