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

Similarly, when speakers are trying to explain what they are talking about, they first tend to offer a conceptualization that is tentative or provisional, using hedges such as sort of, kinda, looks like (e.g., "the guy that acted kinda like Mr. Bean, you know?"). Once conversation partners agree to a conceptualization, they drop the hedges and use more definite descriptions (e.g., the Bean guy; Brennan & Clark, 1996Clark & Bangerter, 2004).
Related to this is another important finding, namely that with accumulating common ground conversations gain in efficiency. Conversation partners need less words, less turns, and less time to get mutual understanding on a topic (Wilkes-Gibbs & Clark, 1992). You will not need to tell your husband the whole story about your mutual holiday to France in great detail. When referring to this mutual experience you can simply say "just like France", and he will understand. In other words, when common ground between conversation partners increases, they can understand each other more easily (Schober & Brennan 2003).

Miscommunication and grounding

Just as the presence of common ground is enormously important in reaching mutual understanding, many forms of miscommunication are the result of a failure to consider common ground. One thing is that relying on general rules of thumb or heuristics in assessing common ground can lead to errors. First, the reliance on the heuristics of physical and linguistic copresence doesn't guarantee a correct judgment. A conversation partner may have missed the person passing by, and have forgotten about or missed something you previously mentioned. In a similar vein, community membership doesn't guarantee knowledge on a subject. General expectancies based on categorization to a category or community (i.e., stereotypes) do not always fit particular instances. We have beliefs about what elderly people are like in general, but this doesn't mean that each individual older person is exactly like that. As a result, people may address an elderly woman using a loud voice, even when she is not deaf at all. Similarly, if someone speaks with a particular foreign accent, they may have lived in your city for a decade, and may not need extensive directions to the supermarket.

Other types of miscommunication arise from a type of egocentrism in which the other person's perspective is simply not taken into account. In everyday conversation people often speak about ideas that pop into their mind (e.g., about a singer you hear on the radio), yet they fail to realize that they have not informed their conversation partner about the shift in topic. Also, taking another person's perspective requires the right knowledge, ability, and motivation that people often do not have (Horton & Keysar, 1996;Schober & Brennan, 2003). The student in the textbook example simply couldn't know I was teaching another course, because he hadn't seen his own lecturer.

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