On Poetry and Culture Shock

Preferred and dispreferred responses

I have dedicated four separate entries to Grice's Maxims, which are very useful for the construction of dialogues. The maxims have to be seen in the context of preferred and dispreferred responses. The theory is very easy: If you ask someone to marry you, you hope a “yes” and you fear a “no”. Anything that is not a “yes”, including “maybe” (which is uninformative), extra information, being asked back something else (“Will you marry me?” “How long have to been waiting to ask?”), jokes, irony, anything, is a dispreferred response.

When you say a compliment, you expect a thank you. Sometimes you expect modesty: “What a lovely meal” “Oh, it’s nothing, it’s a very simple recipe”. That is a preferred response. Anything else is dispreferred.

When you ask for permission, you hope a yes and fear a no. You ask your boss if you can leave early on Thursday. Yes is preferred. “Yeah, right, and next week you’ll ask Thursday off, and the following week you’ll ask Thursday off and a rise”. That sentence is not a “no”. Still, it is a dispreferred response because it is delaying a real yes or a real no. It is breaking Maxims Three and Four. As answers to “Can I leave early on Thursday?”, the difference between “How are you doing with this week’s workload?” and “You can leave early on Thursday if you’re nearly finished with the week’s assigned work” is that the question is a dispreferred response; the conditional yes is not a good as a plain “Sure!”, but still, it is a preferred response because it is straightforward.

In short: the preferred response is what a person (or character) wishes or anticipates to get as a plain answer. Anything else is a dispreferred response.

The worst dispreferred response of them all is silence.

1 comentario

Jose Angel -

Well, I'll write a comment so there'll be no dispreferred response to this post. You know, Geoffrey Leech proposed his own (wider) theory of pragmatics, and he added a principle besides Grice's Cooperative Principle, which is the Pollyanna Principle: all things being equal, in communicating we tend to focus on the bright side of things... Well, at least Pollyanna, and Leech, and most people, do. There are also some disgruntled communicators who tend to choose, all things being equal, dispreferred responses.