By Inbal AbarbanelSeptember 09th, 2021

Imagine you’re a fly on the wall in a meeting room where a big deal is going to be sealed. You’re watching both sides, the seller and the prospect, negotiating the terms and conditions of the deal, and you’re trying to predict the outcome. You sense that both the seller and the prospect use certain verbal strategies to influence the perceptions of the other delegate with regards to their own social status and position. It appears that they are doing so by controlling to which extent they are not “adhering to the rules”.

Which rules are these, and how do the participants know when someone made such a verbal strategic move to infer a social repositioning? How do people know to look for an implied social meaning in someone’s utterance and no to take utterances literally?

A person who claims dominance over another person is likely to perform less adhering behavior to a few conversational conventions. It turns out that mainly on fresh acquaintances, where participants are negotiating their social power, speakers are mostly violating these conventions. The more dominant you are, the more “freedom” you have to deviate from conversational conventions, and transgress the rules, leaving the impression your superiority does not need ratification. So what are these conventions exactly?

The four Maxims

According to Paul Grice (1967) we all assume that the other interlocutors are aware of and being cooperative with few conversational conventions. These are called the Four Maxims: (a) saying enough but not too much (quantity), (b) being truthful (quality), (c) being relevant to the context (relevance), and finally, (d) being clear and orderly (manner). However, as I already mentioned, these Four Maxims are rarely adhered to in real-life interactions, and in fact, the intensity and trend of their violations help the participants process “true meaning”, i.e. meaning within a social context. In other words, whenever a violation of these maxims occurs, that’s a cue to search for the intended meaning which aims to reflect the new consequences on the social status map.

So back to the meeting room

You inspect the scene and trying to account for the following course of events:

C asks about presenting both sides’ current offer.
A: “It is not to be submitted yet.”
B: “It is in progress, and subject to delay due to the holidays. I deeply apologize, it should be submitted by the end of this day.”

C, the mediator, is asking both sides about documentation submission. It is clear from A and B’s responses they are socially differently placed. While B responds at length, offers rich information about her deadline, A allows herself to be laconic and under-informative, not even adding any new knowledge to the discourse. The quantity maxim is in inverse proportion with the dominance axis. In this discourse A is more competent and therefore allows herself to laconically express, while B’s inferiority leads to elaborated extended speech.

B: “It is going to be very hard for me to accept this condition”
A: “I don’t see what condition you are willing to accept”

B demonstrates difficulty to converge on one of the deal conditions. A, in return, comments that she didn’t meet any condition that B is comfortable with, which is probably not the case. There must be few conditions which both sides agreed upon. A appears to assert an untruthful claim, impairing the quality of her utterance. By doing so, she implies her dissatisfaction with B’s statement and ratifies her superiority over B. While an inferior speaker will doubtfully violate the truthful quality of her speech, a dominant speaker is very likely to fault it without concern for the consequences.

B: “Is it ok if we reschedule the beta for when our platform gets stable?”
A: “I have a hard stop. Talk to Cindy.”
B: “Of course, I understand that, I’ll touch base with her tomorrow morning.”

B is trying to tackle a topic while A discards B’s topic entirely. She is ignoring it and bringing up a different issue instead. B consents immediately to A’s new borders of relevance. A now has the upper hand by changing the discourse.

B: “What did you feel about the proposal I sent over to you?”
A: “What do you think?”

A does not account literally for B’s question. Instead she shifts it back at her, leaving her with an obscure response and with no concrete answer. Although B doesn’t get clear details to her point of interest, she does get a notion for A’s social positioning over her.

Dominance and adherent behavior

To sum up, Interactants are continuously negotiating their social status. One of their ways of doing so is by maintaining or leveling up their phase lines, according to how coherent they are with the conversational rules. The more dominant a person is, the less she is bound to adherent behavior, as her status enables her the freedom to stray from the four maxims.