Volume 1 (2010) Issue 2 - Article Pham
JLLT Volume 1 (2010) Issue 2.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 1 (2010) Issue 2 (PDF)

pp. 197 - 219

The Cooperative Principle: Does Grice’s Framework Fit Vietnamese Language Culture?

Dinh Trong Pham (Regensburg, Germany)


This study investigates how native speakers of Vietnamese observed Grice’s maxims. Three hundred conversational contributions in live talk exchanges from varied Vietnamese television channels and naturally occurring discourse were analysed. The results showed that Grice’s maxims were fulfilled in many instances. Nevertheless, in many other situations, two kinds of non-fulfilment of the maxims were observed: (i) the speaker deliberately exploited a maxim, which fits Grice’s framework and (ii) the speaker failed to observe but did not exploit a maxim, which leads to the possible interpretation of the cultural patterns of the Vietnamese language: “circular” discourse, communicative politeness, high context culture and the values of harmony in communication, all of which are regarded as the cultural identities and values manifesting in Vietnamese culture. The results implicate that understanding different ways of speaking in different cultures is a crucial point in intercultural communication and (foreign) language teaching and learning.

Key words: CP, maxims, maxim fulfilment, maxim non-fulfilment, cultural identity, cultural values

1 Introduction

In order to communicate successfully, human beings are supposed to adhere to a certain mode of interaction. For this reason, the linguist and philosopher of language Herbert Paul Grice, developed a mode of interaction for successful communication called the Cooperative Principle (CP) and its maxims based on ordinary language philosophy. The CP has been mentioned or closely studied in many scholarly works on pragmatics such as Yule (1996), Leech (1983), Peccei (1999), Lindblom (2001), Levinson (1983), Thomas (1995, 1998), Mooney (2004), Clyne (1994), Wierzbicka (1991) and Grundy (2000) for its great influence on the development of the field of pragmatics.

1.1 The Cooperative Principle

In order to communicate with each other successfully, interlocutors in everyday conversations are assumed to follow certain conversational rules. On the basis of this assumption, Grice developed the Cooperative Principle, which human beings should conform to in order to realise successful communication. Grice (1975: 45-46) points out the CP as follows:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of talk exchange in which you are engaged.

Maxim of Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true.

1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Quantity:

1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of exchange).

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relation: Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner: Be perspicuous.

1. Avoid obscurity of expression.

2. Avoid ambiguity.

3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).

4. Be orderly.

An example of all the maxims observed is as follows:

(1) A: Where is Peter?

B: He is in the garden, I’m sure.

It can be seen that speaker B, according to Grice’s framework, observes all of the maxims as he answers speaker A’s question clearly (Manner) and truthfully (Quality). Moreover, speaker B’s contribution is sufficiently provided (no more or no less information is given) (Quantity), and his answer is directly relevant to speaker A’s question (Relation).

Interlocutors in talk exchanges are often expected to conform to the suggested principles in order to communicate successfully. Nevertheless, there are certain circumstances in which people fail to observe the maxims; they may intentionally or unintentionally fail to fulfil the maxims due to their purpose(s) of interaction. Grice points out that a participant in a talk exchange may fail to fulfil a maxim in various ways as he states:

A participant in a talk exchange may fail to fulfil a maxim in various ways, which include the following:

1. He may quietly and unostentatiously violate a maxim; if so, in some cases he will be liable to mislead.

2. He may opt out from the operation both of the maxim and of the Cooperative Principle; he may say, indicate or allow it to become plain that he is unwilling to co-operate in the way the maxim requires. He may say, for example, I cannot say more; my lips are sealed.

3. He may be faced by a clash: He may be unable, for example, to fulfil the first maxim of Quantity (Be as informative as is required) without violating the second maxim of Quality (Have adequate evidence for what you say).

4. He may flout a maxim; that is, he may blatantly fail to fulfil it. On the assumption that the speaker is able to fulfil the maxim and to do so without violating another maxim (because of a clash), is not opting out, and is not, in the view of the blatancy of his performance, trying to mislead, the hearer is faced with a minor problem: How can his saying what he did say be reconciled with the supposition that he is observing the overall Cooperative Principle? This situation is one that characteristically gives rise to conversational implicature; and when a conversational implicature is generated in this way, I shall say that a maxim is being exploited.

(Grice 1989: 30)

Grice makes a distinction between violating a maxim and openly flouting a maxim. If the speaker flouts a maxim, he has deliberately and openly failed to observe one or more maxims for (a) communicative purpose(s), which leads to implicatures in a conversation. Below is an example of flouting a maxim:

(2) Leila: Whoa! Has your boss gone crazy?

Mary: Let’s go get some coffee.

(Yule 1996: 43)

According to Yule, Mary intentionally flouts the maxim of Relevance to make an implicature in her answer to Leila’s question. There are certain reasons that makes Mary reply to Leila’s question by unrelated answer and Leila has to make some inference from Mary (for example, the boss might be nearby) and she understands why Mary makes an apparently non-relevant remark. The implicature here is that Mary cannot answer the question in that context.

Different from maxim flouting, maxim violation, as Grice defines, is quiet and unostentatious. If the speaker violates a maxim, he or she is liable to mislead or to provide insufficient, ambiguous, or irrelevant information, which might negatively affect communication and do not lead to implicatures. Let us consider the following example for a better understanding about maxim violation. This example is an extract from a fictional interaction between Martin and his wife, Alice:

(3) Alice has been refusing to make love to her husband. At first, he

attributes this to post-natal depression, but then he starts to think she may

be having an affair:

‘Alice. I’ve got to ask you this.’

He stopped.

‘Ask me then ­–’

‘Will you give me a truthful answer? However much you think it’ll hurt me?’

Alice’s voice had a little quaver.

‘I promise.’

Martin came back to his chair and put his hands on its back and looked at her.

‘Is there another man?’

Alice raised her chin and looked at him squarely.

‘No,’ she said. ‘There isn’t another man.’

(Thomas 1995: 73)

Later Alice asserts that she is not having an affair with another man but with another woman, but Martin cannot help believing her on the basis of information she provides (Thomas 1995). The fact is that Alice is having an affair with another woman, but she does not want to reveal such information; therefore, she misleads Martin and, according to Grice’s framework, violates conversational maxims.

Besides the two kinds of non-fulfilment of the maxims mentioned above, some other kinds of non-observance of the maxims have also been discussed. In certain interaction, the speaker does not observe the Gricean maxims because he or she may infringe, opt out of, or suspend a maxim (for more details about non-fulfilment of the Gricean maxims, see Thomas 1995 and Mooney 2004).

1.2 Criticism of the Cooperative Principle

Being considered from cross-cultural perspectives, the CP has been in question: can Grice’s CP and its maxims be observed similarly in different cultures / discourse styles? Clyne claims,

Contrasts in discourse structures indicate an anglocentric element in the maxims of the Cooperative Principle as worded by Grice and their inapplicability or limited relevance to cultures where content and knowledge are core values. (Clyne 1994: 12)

Wierzbicka (1991) also states that it is quite impossible to apply a cooperative principle (if it exists) of a language to another language because there are different modes of interaction in cultural differences. Grice’s conversational maxims are also examined cross-culturally by Keenan (2000). Concerning the maxim of Quantity cross-culturally, Keenan claims:

In testing the maxim “Be informative” cross-culturally, we do not expect to find that in some societies the maxim always holds and in some societies the maxim never holds. It is improbable, for example, that there is some society in which being informative is categorically inappropriate. Differences between societies, if there are any, are more likely to be differences in specification of domains in which the maxim is expected to hold and differences in the degree to which members are expected to conform to this maxim. In some societies, meeting the informational needs of a conversational partner may be relatively unmarked or routine behaviour. In other societies, meeting another’s informational needs may be relatively unexpected or marked behaviour (2000: 217-218).

Kochman (1981) shows different ways of communicative cooperation between blacks and whites. For instance, in Black American culture, being cooperative means saying a lot and showing immodesty. Kochman, therefore, makes a distinction of the differences of communicative strategies between blacks and whites, claiming that black and white cultural differences are generally ignored when attempts are made to understand how and why black white communication fails. The reason is:

Cultural differences play a covert role in the communication process. When blacks and whites interact in public meetings, their agenda does not typically include a discussion of the way they are interpreting each other’s behaviour, the reasons they are interpreting it as they do, or the way they are expecting the meeting to evolve (Kochman 1981: 7).

Schiffrin (1984) also claims that the CP is impossibly applied to different cultures; the author studies a mode of interaction in Jewish culture and goes against the CP as Jewish speakers also provide more information than the situation requires. This is contrary to the CP, which assumes that people in conversations should be cooperative by providing no more or less information.

1.3 Objectives and Hypotheses

The objective of this study is to investigate to what extent native speakers of Vietnamese observe Grice’s maxims and to test whether the maxims fit the Vietnamese socio-cultural norms and cultural values system. Since “cultural values systems influence discourse patterns and promote the different communicative styles” (Clyne 1994: 200), the central hypothesis under this study is that the Gricean framework is culturally dependent and its maxims Quantity and Manner are differently observed in Vietnamese culture due to the language-cultural identities and socio-cultural norms and values of the Vietnamese society.

2 Method

The data collection techniques in this study are based on ethnographic methods (Duranti 1997 / 2006; Newman, Paul & Martha Ratcliff 2001). Audio recordings, observation, and note-taking while recording conversational exchanges were carried out. Three hundred conversational contributions from live talks on different Vietnamese television channels - as well as naturally occurring discourse - were recorded and transcribed into Vietnamese for analysis. The subjects in the talk exchanges were varied; they were between 18 and 50 years old, having vastly differing occupations such as students, singers, businessmen, governmental officials, sports specialists, professors, fashion designers, musicians, poets, actors and actresses, etc.

In the case of naturally occurring discourse, different thought-provoking topics were discussed among different participants in order to keep the participants talking and let them talk freely (Labov 1972). This is very important because it can lead to natural conversations. During and after the processes of each recording, note taking was done before making another recording. This is important for data analysis and for further elicitation if necessary.

The purpose of collecting data for this study was to record talk exchanges that were as natural as possible so that good data could be collected for pragmatic analysis. Although interview techniques have been carried out by many linguists such as Paul (1970) and Briggs (1986), natural conversations are more useful for this study and they are preferable to individual interviews.

Grice’s theory of the CP has been developed for talk exchanges. Therefore, data collection should be carried out in an appropriate manner, otherwise problems might occur. In this study, only conversational contributions have been analysed; they are studied in the context of conversational exchanges, not just as mere utterances, because an utterance may carry a given proposition but has different illocutionary acts in different situations of speech. For example, the sub-maxim of Manner “Be brief” is criticised by Wilson and Sperber, who claim that no clue is given how brevity should be measured (in terms of word-counts, syllable-counts, phrase-counts, syntactic or semantic complexity), and they demonstrate this by the following example:

(4) a. Mary ate a peanut.

b. Mary put a peanut into her mouth, chewed and swallowed it.

(Sperber & Wilson 2000: 363)

Wilson and Sperber explain that by any brevity-measure, the (a) member of these pairs is shorter than the (b) member. However, there are contexts in which the (b) member would be more appropriate and in which no conversational implicature would result from the consequent violation of the maxim of brevity.

It is clear that the meaning of (4b) may be similar to that of (4a) because ‘to put something into one’s mouth, chew and swallow it’ means ‘to eat’. So, in a certain context, the two sentences are semantically similar. However, if we consider different contexts in which the two sentences are uttered, there may be a distinction between the two. For example, with the question What did Mary eat?, the answer is often (4a), not (4b). If the speaker makes a contribution like (4b), he or she may deliberately flout a maxim. This means the illocutionary act may be different from the propositional content of the utterance because in ordinary language, a response like (4b) is unexpected. Instead, in a given speech community, (4a) is expectable as an answer to the question What did Mary eat? So, without any other communicative goal, the speaker usually does not provide a response like (4b). The purpose of the study is to investigate the speakers’ contributions in conversational exchanges on the basis of Grice’s theoretical framework..

3 Analysis of the Results

Our data indicate that, in many situations, the interlocutors in the talk exchanges observe the Gricean maxims. Nevertheless, in many other instances, the speakers do not adhere to the maxims. Therefore, there are two conversational settings to be analysed: fulfilment of the maxims and non-fulfilment of the maxims.

3.1 Fulfilment of the Maxims

The results of our data show that the four maxims, Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner are observed in different degrees.

From the corpus of 300 conversational contributions, the results indicate that the maxim of Quantity is not observed in all the talk exchanges in terms of the two sub-maxims: “Make your contribution as informative as is required” and “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”. In 101 contributions only, the maxim of Quantity has been respected. The number of “appropriate” contributions which the conversational partners provide is quite small, approximately one third of the total number of the contributions in all the conversational exchanges. A typical feature of the observance of the Quantity maxim in talk exchanges lies in the fact that the information expected to be provided in these situations is not very complicated. The speakers’ simple questions lead their conversational partners to providing sufficient information which fits the criteria of fulfilling the maxim of Quantity.

As for the maxim of Quality, it might be quite difficult to observe to what extent the speaker fulfils the maxim in terms of its criteria: “Do not say what you believe to be false” and “Do not say for which you lack adequate evidence”. The problem here is how the outsider is able to understand the meaning intended by the speaker. How can we understand what is going on in the speaker’s mind? However, from the researcher’s observation and on the basis of the information provided by the interlocutors in the conversations and the different contexts, all the conversational contributions are adhered to the maxim of Quality because the speakers do not say what they believe to be false and certainly, they do not say for which they lack sufficient evidence nor do they intend to deceive their addressees.

Like the maxim of Quality, the maxim of Relation is observed nearly in all the cases as our data show. All the conversational contributions are relevant to the questions raised by the speakers in the conversations. As can be seen in Table 1 above, 299 out of 300 contributions are adhered to the maxim of Relation. These conversational contributions do not change the topic of the conversation and hence fit the goal of the speaker in asking the question.

The results also indicate that once a contribution is stuck to the maxim of Quantity, it is also adhered to the maxim of Manner. The interlocutors in the interactions make their conversational contributions in a clear way; their utterances meet the criteria of fulfilling the four sub-maxims: not being obscure, not being ambiguous, being brief and orderly.

3.2 Non-Fulfilment of the Maxims

There are two kinds of non-observance which need to be analysed in this research: deliberately exploiting a maxim which fits the Gricean framework and not exploiting a maxim.

According to Grice, in many situations, speakers in talk exchanges openly and blatantly fail to observe a maxim. In this case, they intentionally flout a maxim in order to achieve a certain purpose of communication. Out of 300 contributions from our corpus, contributions belonging to this category are relatively small in number as can be seen in the table below:

There is one situation in which the speaker intentionally flouts the maxim of Quantity and which, statistically, equals 0.33% only. The number of the interlocutors’ conversational contributions in the talk exchanges which do not observe the maxim of Quality in this category is also relatively small: there are only three situations, i.e. 1 %, in which the speakers do not adhere to the maxim of Quality.

The results also show that there is only one talk exchange in which the propositional content of two contributions is not related to the topic introduced. The speakers in this case openly flout the maxim of Relation. Only two out of three hundred conversational contributions belong to this category, which makes approximately 0.66 %.

As for the maxim of Manner, there are only five situations in which the speakers fail to observe the maxim, i.e. 1.66 %). Flouting this maxim takes place in only three talk exchanges. The following example is taken from our data:

(5) A: Bạn có thích ngành đó không?

B: Dạ trước đây thì em thấy là em thích đi về tâm lý nhưng mà học xong rồi có một số cái không như em mong muốn.

A: Do you like that major (= Educational Psychology)?

B: I liked studying psychology before, but once I had finished studying, I was not very satisfied with some things.

Instead of saying No, I don’t (like it), speaker B makes her contribution in an unclear way and intends her partner to understand what she means. One important aspect that should be noticed in this talk exchange is that speaker B has graduated from a famous university in Vietnam and that it is a pride for anyone who can attend this university. Thus, her expectations may have been too high. Before entering this university, like other people, she might have thought that she would be happy with what she would gain during the four years at school, but hopelessly, she is rather dissatisfied with the results and with the department in which she did her studies.

However, there must be a reason why she cannot speak out. Therefore she makes her conversational contribution in this way in order to avoid a face-threatening act. If she had expressed herself more directly, her illocutionary act might be interpreted as a threat to another person’s face. Therefore, she has to perform a face-saving act. For this reason, the speaker deliberately has to fail to observe the maxim of Manner in this circumstance so that she can achieve her goal of communication.

It is quite noticeable that, in many speech situations, the interlocutors fail to observe the Gricean maxims according to the CP. However, the way they fail to fulfil a maxim is completely different from those Grice suggests. The speakers in these interactions often fail to fulfil the maxims of Quantity and Manner: they make their conversational contributions more detailed than is required. It should be stressed that a maxim non-observance of this kind is not intentional and that it does not lead to any implicature. The speaker does not intend or expect his so-called unnecessarily long contribution to be recognised by the hearer and the hearer himself is satisfied with the way the speaker responds to his question; the speaker, in turn, is understood as being cooperative:

(6) A: Đối với em nếu như mà rảnh rổi thì em có tới đó không?

B: Không, em thì em không thích những cái loại hình giải trí như vậy. Nếu như em rảnh thì em hay đọc sách, còn nếu như có vui chơi thì em chỉ nghe ca nhạc hay giãi trí bình thường thôi, em không tới những cái nơi… em thấy không phù hợp với cái tuổi của em.

A: Nói chung là không nên đầu tư quá nhiều thời gian cho việc đó đúng không?

B: Đúng rồi.

A: Em có nghĩ vậy không?

C: Cũng không phải, nhưng mà em thấy vui chơi nhiều khi cũng tốt, tức là tùy. Nhiều lúc mình cảm thấy mệt mỏi thì mình cũng cần có một thời gian thư giản hoặc là đi quan sát xem bên ngoài xem xã hội như thế nào nhưng mà nó ở mức độ vừa phải, còn nếu mà nhiều quá thì nó sẽ tốn nhiều thời gian công sức của mình.

A: Will you go there if you have free time?

B: No, I won’t. I don’t like such a kind of entertainment. If I’m free, I’ll read books and if I want to relax, I’ll listen to music or enjoy an ordinary kind of entertainment. I won’t go to the places… that are not suitable for my age.

A: Generally we shouldn’t spend much time on that, should we?

B: No, we shouldn’t.

A: Do you think so?

C: No, I don’t think so. But I see entertainment is sometimes good. It depends. Sometimes when we feel tired, we should have time for relaxation or go out and observe how the world goes by, to a moderate extent. But if we spend too much time on that, it’ll be a waste of time and effort.

As can be seen in (6) speaker B, according to the CP, makes her conversational contribution more detailed than is expected. The response No, I won’t would be sufficient in terms of the required information speaker A wants to convey and the rest of the information speaker B provides seems to be the answer to the – unasked - question Why won’t you go there? Does the additional information speaker B gives convey any more meaning, that is, does it lead to any implicature? On the basis of speaker A’s goal of asking the question and speaker B’s non-verbal action - and some other linguistic features such as intonation and tone -, the propositional content of the utterance is the speaker’s illocutionary act. The speaker does not implicate anything besides the literal meaning.

Similarly, in the case of speaker C, the response is also longer than required. The question is Do you think we shouldn’t spend much time on that?, and the answer No, I don’t think so should be accepted as satisfactory. However, the speaker also voices her ideas that are contrastive to the previous ones. She does not make any implicature besides the literal meaning. Although the first idea can be cancelled by the second one, it can be seen that the speaker does not adhere to the CP. Therefore, she might quietly violate or deliberately flout a maxim. Nevertheless, since she neither makes any implicature nor intends her words to be recognised as having another meaning, her utterance cannot be considered a kind of non-observance of the Gricean maxims.

The number of non-fulfilment of this kind is quite considerable. In 154 out of 300 conversational contributions, the maxim of Quantity is not observed, which makes 51.33%, and in 61 contributions, the maxim of Manner is not adhered to, which equals 20.33%. As for the maxims of Relation and Quality, no conversational contribution belongs to this category as the table below shows:

4 Discussion

As our results indicate, there is a considerable amount of situations in which the speakers do not adhere to the maxims of Quantity and Manner in terms of the CP. In the case of non-observance of the maxim of Quantity, the speakers provide additional information before and after the core information they want to convey. Furthermore, they often speak in an unclear way and hence fail to observe the maxim of Manner according to the CP. Nevertheless, the speakers in these situations fail to observe - but do not exploit - a maxim in order to achieve their communicative goal(s). Why is that so? The possible interpretation lie in the cultural patterns of the Vietnamese language: circular discourse, communicative politeness, high context culture, and the values of harmony in communication.

4.1 Circular Discourse

Circular discourse is not only shown diachronically (theoretical foundation) but also true in terms of a synchronic point of view (empirical study). In many situations, the speakers do not make their conversational contributions directly: they “beat around the bush” (cf. Tran 2002), opening their conversations by some information that seems to be unnecessary to the question raised:

(7) A: …Ông có thể cho khán giả truyền hình Việt Nam được biết là tình hình chuẩn bị đội tuyển Olympic Việt Nam như thế nào?

B: Vâng, lời đầu tiên cho phép thay mặt đội tuyển bóng đá Olympic Việt Nam xin… năm mới xin gữi lời xin chúc sức khỏe đến toàn thể các quý vị khán giả và những người hâm mộ yêu bóng đá của nước Việt Nam, đặc biệt yêu bóng đá đội tuyển nam nữ bóng đá Việt Nam. Ah… chúng tôi như các bạn đã thấy chúng tôi… và ngay chiều nay chúng tôi tập buổi đầu tiên. Bây giờ đội tuyển chúng ta chỉ vắng có mỗi Vũ Phong…

A: Could you let Vietnamese television viewers know how the Vietnamese Olympic football team is preparing?

B: Yes, first of all, let me, on behalf of the Vietnamese Olympic football team, on the occasion of the New Year (Tết ‘the Vietnamese Traditional Lunar New Year Holiday’) wish all the television viewers and football fans in Vietnam, especially fans for the male and female football teams, good health. Ah… we, as you can see, we… and right this afternoon we carried out the first training session. For our team, only Vu Phong was not present…

The core information which speaker A may expect speaker B to convey is how the Vietnamese Olympic football team is getting prepared. This question is very brief and clear. However, speak B does not respond to it directly, but his answer is highly indirect and circular. The opening statement he makes does not convey any additional information besides the meaning which is expressed literally: a wish of good health to all the Vietnamese television viewers and football fans from all parts of Vietnam. This implicates that, although he does not observe the maxim of Quantity as he provides this seemingly unnecessary piece of information in terms of the CP, he does not intend to exploit this maxim. His contribution to the conversation is perceived as an ordinary way of speaking, which is regarded as an important component of cultural identity.

Circular discourse should be one of the components of cultural identity manifesting in Vietnamese language culture. Very often, Vietnamese people open a conversation by saying something that is probably not related to the main issue of the talk. The results of this study show that there are many situations in which the speakers do not make their conversational contributions directly, but show their indirectness by “beating around the bush”.

4.2 Communicative Politeness

Communicative politeness is highly valued in the Vietnamese society. This empirical study shows that, after having made their main conversational contribution, the speakers add even more information, which may be regarded as unnecessary:

(8) A: Nếu cho đi xe buýt và xe đạp thì đi phương tiện nào thích hơn?

B: Em thấy đi xe buýt thích hơn chứ, khỏi phải đạp xe. Đường thành phố nhiều dốc với lại em thấy sợ xe cộ đông lắm. Đi xe đạp qua mấy cái bùng binh mệt lắm. Chạy chậm hơn người ta mệt lắm. Đi xe buýt thì khỏe hơn cứ ngồi đó ngắm cảnh rồi tới nơi. Em thấy nó chạy cũng không tới nổi chậm lắm!

A: Which means of transportation do you prefer, the bus or the bicycle?

B: I prefer to go by bus, not having to cycle a bicycle. There are many steep roads in the city, and I’m also afraid of busy vehicles. It’s tiring to go through roundabouts. Going more slowly than other people is tiring. Going by bus is better, just sitting on it and sightseeing and getting there. I find it running not very slowly.

In speaker B’s mind, it seems that the information I prefer to go by bus is not sufficient with respect to the question Which means of transportation do you prefer, the bus or the bicycle? She provides much more information, which is unrelated to the choice between going by bus or by bicycle. All the aspects she contributes after mentioning the choice between the two means of transportation represent the reasons for her choice.

The answer to the question why speaker B makes her conversational contribution in such a way lies in the concept of politeness in communication. The phrase of “cụt lủncurt talk’ is often heard as a reprimand among Vietnamese people, and cụt lủn here is really an appropriate response if it is put in the context among native speakers of English (Of course, the speaker in this case does not make any implicature in his speech by using some linguistic features such as intonation). Vietnamese people sometimes think that providing enough information such as the response Yes, I do to the question Do you like living here? seems to be uncooperative and impolite in everyday conversations. Therefore, the conversational contribution should be something like: Yes, I do. I do because I have been living here for a long time and got used to it. People here are interesting and the weather is good. In brief, native speakers of Vietnamese often communicate additional information in order to expand their conversational contribution for reasons of communicative politeness.

Indeed, politeness is a means of conversational cooperation among Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese often show politeness in communication by providing more information than the conversational partners expect. There is one more thing that should be taken into consideration: the concept of communicative politeness here is not employed on the spot: the speaker does not exploit a maxim (the maxim of Quantity in this case) in the very moment in order to be polite in conversations. Politeness here seems to be fixed in the speaker’s mind from his or her early childhood on. Therefore, the concept of communicative politeness represents a Vietnamese cultural aspect.

4.3 High Context Culture

One possibility which explains why many speakers, as our data show, often communicate with their partners in an unclear way is what Hall (1976, 1989) suggests as high context culture, which is also regarded as an important component of Vietnamese cultural identity. High context culture is defined in such a way that most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while only very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. High context transactions feature pre-programmed information which is in the receiver and in the setting, with only minimal information being encoded in the transmitted message. Hall also claims:

When talking about something that they have on their minds, a high-context culture individual will expect his interlocutor to know what’s bothering him, so that he doesn’t have to be specific. The result is that he will talk around and around the point, in effect putting all the pieces in place expect the crucial one. Placing it properly – this keystone – is the role of his interlocutor. To do this for him is an insult and a violation of his individuality. (Hall 1989: 113)

According to Gudykunst et al. (1996), high context communication is also indirect, ambiguous, harmony-maintaining, reserved and understated. All these characteristics are different from low context communication, which is identified as being direct, precise, dramatic, open, and based on feelings or true intentions. High context culture is sometimes considered a reason why there are misunderstandings in intercultural communication due to its respective characteristics. People often encounter severe problems understanding their counterparts and interpreting correctly what the latter want to convey. Furthermore, in high context communication, the speaker provides part of the message and leaves the rest to be filled in by the listener. Although the speaker talks around what he wants, he expects the listener to understand what he actually wants to say.

4.4 The Value of Harmony in Communication

There exist many situations in which the speakers fail to observe Grice’s maxim of Manner, but they do not exploit this maxim so as to achieve their communicative goal(s), which leads to the possible interpretation of another Vietnamese cultural value: harmony in communication. Nguyen (1991) states that harmony is central to Vietnamese culture as communalism and collectivism lead Vietnamese people to the notion of harmony. Thus, Vietnamese people do not want to perform a face-threatening act but choose a face saving act instead in order to avoid conflict.

Nguyen (1991) also claims that the Vietnamese values of preserving harmony and concern for a face-saving act sometimes make the hearer in a conversation pretend that he understands everything although he understands nothing. Due to the notion of harmony, the hearer often accepts ambiguous utterances and rarely complains about potential contradictions. This may result in misunderstandings in talk exchanges, which will lead to a non-observance of the maxim of Manner.

5 Conclusion and Implications

In our study, the interlocutors in the talk exchanges in some situations observe all the maxims, especially those of Quality and Relation. In many situations, however, the maxims of Quantity and Manner are not observed in a way that is different from what Grice suggests, which leads to a possible interpretation of the cultural patterns of the Vietnamese language. The Gricean maxims of Quantity and Manner are culturally dependent and differently observed in Vietnamese culture, possibly due to the different notions of “quantity” and “manner” in Vietnamese language culture in comparison with Anglo-American language culture(s) theoretically suggested by Grice.

Different cultures show different discourse patterns, which is a crucial point in intercultural communication and language teaching and learning. Every discourse community develops its own rules of community behaviour, which become part of their individual and group identity. Failing to recognise such aspects creates stereotypes (Clyne 2006). It should not be thought, however, that Vietnamese people deliberately do not adhere to the maxims of Quantity and Manner, thus violating them. Their linguistic behaviour rather mirrors the cultural patterns of the Vietnamese language. In order to communicate successfully with Vietnamese people, speakers with different cultural backgrounds should therefore understand Vietnamese cultural identity. If, inversely, a native speaker of Vietnamese wants to communicate with people of different cultural backgrounds, he or she should learn their respective cultural patterns of language usage so that intercultural misunderstandings and conflict will be avoided.

There doubtlessly exist differences in communication styles. However, we have no intention to give the impression that one system is better than another, only that they are not only different but representative of the respective culture and consistent with everything else (Hall 1976). It should not be imposed that a mode of interaction in one culture be better than that of another as Wierzbicka claims:

As human beings, we cannot place ourselves outside all cultures… To achieve this, we must learn to separate within a culture its idiosyncratic aspects from its universal aspects. We must learn to find ‘human nature’ within every particular culture. Wierzbicka (1991: 9)

There may be a cooperative principle in every discourse context, but how it can be built up depends upon the discourse patterns of each culture. In order to match cultural variation, Grice should be culturally adapted to fit the cultural norms, values, and identities of each society (cf. Allan 1991; Clyne 1994).


This paper consists of part of my MA thesis, so I would once again like to thank Prof. Dr. Susanne Mühleisen, University of Bayreuth, for her guidance. I am also grateful to Prof. Dr. Roswitha Fischer, University of Regensburg, and the linguistic scholars from the Regensburg Linguistic Forum for their great ideas and comments on this paper when it was presented at the University of Regensburg. I would also like to express my gratitude to the editor of JLLT and two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and comments.


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Dinh Trong Pham, M.A.

University of Regensburg

Department of English and American Studies

Universitätsstr. 31

93053 Regensburg


E-mail: phamdinhtrong@gmail.com