Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication

Susan R. Fussell & Roger J. Kreuz (Eds.) (1998)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. ix + 298
ISBN 0-8058-2270-4 (paper)
US $32.50
(also available in cloth; ISBN 0-8058-2269-0; US $59.95)

This volume collects a series of articles related to aspects of interpersonal communication seen from social and cognitive angles. It was planned to solicit contributions discussing experiments on language use and understanding with the aim of illustrating the strength of experimental research on human communication. The main goal is to highlight the interaction between the cognitive mechanisms underlying speech production/speech comprehension and social factors such as politeness norms and beliefs about interlocutors.

The book is divided into four sections. The first one (chapters 1-3) has an introductory character and provides the theoretical foundation of the book by expanding Grice’s (1975) cooperative principle. The second section (chapters 4-6) focusses on nonliteral language and claims that it does not require more effort or time to understand than literal language. Section 3 (chapters 7-9) addresses how interlocutors take into account each other’s perspectives when producing and interpreting messages. Section 4 (chapters 10-11) analyses the relationships among language, social interaction, and cognition.

Section I: Introduction and Background

The introductory chapter (Susan R. Fussell & Roger J. Kreuz, “Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication: Introduction and Background”) sketches the themes and the methodologies that the contributors, who belong to several different scientific fields, adopted in order to shed light on communicative complexity. Consequently the topic is approached from diverse perspectives, such as psychology, sociolinguistics, and language philosophy. Most contributions are in line with Grice’s (1975) view that successful communication entails the exchange of communicative intentions. Some share Austin’s (1962) and Searle’s (1990) speech act theory; others claim that conversation should be considered as a cooperative endeavour. Conversational analysts propose a collaborative theory of communication. Finally, some contributors assume that communicators tailor speech to their addressees. [-1-]

The second chapter (Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., “Varieties of Intentions in Interpersonal Communication”) explores exactly what it means to recognize the speaker’s intention. The author assumes that any individual speech event contains a hierarchy of intentions. High-level intentions refer to those emotions and behaviour the speaker wishes to cause in his/her interlocutor. Middle-level intentions refer to the planned means to achieve high-level intentions. Low-level intentions refer to the material means used by the speaker (sounds in spoken speech, graphic signs in written communication) to get the hearer to behave in the wanted manner or to adopt certain beliefs. Each level has a different relationship to consciousness. Consider, for example, the sign New Grass in a garden. The intention is clearly that of getting people not to step on it, thus allowing the new grass to grow. The high-level intention is to let the grass grow, the middle-level intention is to keep people out of the grass; the low-level intention is represented by the material object, the sign, which makes people understand both high- and middle-level intentions. Because communicative intentions are social products, speaker and hearer must coordinate their mutual beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes if they want to understand exactly what is intended. When the intention is recognized, the hearer has correctly inferred the speaker’s meaning, i.e., the hearer has drawn an authorized inference. Otherwise, he or she has misunderstood the speaker’s intention, that is, has drawn an unauthorized inference. Hence intentions are a joint accomplishment of interlocutors. This is in line with Searle (1990), according to whom individual intentionality is not sufficient to describe discourse because, since interaction is a collective activity, people are guided by collective intentions, or we-intentions. This means that communicative intentions are generated by collaborative interaction between speaker and hearer. Each interlocutor we-intends to achieve the collective goal by doing his/her part in the communication.

In the third chapter (Norbert Schwarz, “Communication in Standardized Research Situations: A Gricean Perspective”) the author reports the result of research procedures devoted to investigate how the Gricean cooperative principle influences the negotiation of meaning between experimenters and participants. In order to preclude the negotiation of meaning, experimenters expose participants to highly standardized communication so as to make answers comparable. Participants are asked to read questions verbatim and to provide standardized answers. Despite the fact that communication in a research setting is highly constrained, participants tacitly assume that researchers will follow the cooperative principle and be informative, truthful, clear, and relevant. Even when experimenters are explicitly uncooperative, participants draw on the context to make inferences and to understand the meaning of the experimenters’ utterances.

Section II: Indirect Speech and Figurative Language

The fourth chapter (Thomas Holtgraves, “Interpersonal Foundations of Conversational Indirectness”) explores the reasons that make a speaker choose to speak indirectly, thus violating the maxims of Grice’s cooperative principle. The research is conducted through the analysis of two types of indirect speech: requests and disagreement. Holtgraves’ theoretical framework includes, besides Grice, Brown & Levinson’s (1987) theory of politeness, and a theory based on Goffman’s (1967) studies on face and face-work. Face is the public display of the self, whereas face-work refers to communications apt to create, support, or challenge face. The concept of face was subdivided into [-2-] two universal needs by Brown & Levinson: a need for freedom from imposition (negative face) and a need for solidarity with others (positive face). Hence indirectness is conceived as a sensitive action performed in a nonthreatening manner. But indirect requests involve violations of the Gricean maxims. Politeness is related to the interpersonal dimensions of power and distance. The greater the addressee’s power or psychological distance is, the more polite the request, and vice versa. As for disagreement, people attempt to mitigate their disagreements by hedging their opinions (I think; Yes, but). Furthermore nonpreferred responses are delayed with respect to the typical adjacency pairs in conversation, or are implicit or syntactically complex. The second part of the chapter analyses the comprehension of indirect speech acts. The author claims that recognition of the speaker’s meaning depends on the social context or could be due also to individual and cultural differences. Studies have shown that the literal meaning of indirect remarks is not always activated and the understanding of metaphors and idioms does not rely on the literal meaning. In order to understand the variables in indirectness, Holtgraves has developed a conversational indirectness scale (CIS), useful to measure the individual tendency to speak indirectly (a production dimension) and to seek indirect meanings in others’ remarks (an interpretation dimension). A possible result is that people who speak more indirectly perceive themselves as more distant from their partners and lower in status. Hence the author assumes that, through communication, speakers perform two types of acts: speech acts and interpersonal acts.

The fifth chapter (Roger J. Kreuz, Max A. Kassler & Lori Coppenrath, “The Use of Exaggeration in Discourse: Cognitive and Social Facets”) reports a series of experiments on the use speakers make of hyperbolic statements. Starting from the consideration that speakers can choose from a range of exaggerated expression to describe a state of affairs (e.g. I’ve been waiting for you for hours/days/weeks/months/years/ages), the authors propose three hypotheses to evaluate the degrees of exaggeration and their effectiveness in interpersonal communication. The three hypotheses are labelled respectively “the more the better hypothesis,” “the optimal level theory,” and “the threshold model.” The first one shows that the higher the degree of exaggeration, the better the expression; the second one states that when the exaggeration is up to an optimal point, any further exaggeration is perceived as less effective; the third explains that speakers need to reach a certain degree of exaggeration if they want to signal their nonliteral meaning. However, experiments provide little or no support for the three hypotheses; the authors thus conclude that literal meaning is preferred over hyperbolic expressions. The issue is then to understand why people use exaggeration if it does not seem to give particular advantages. The authors’ opinion is that the materials used in the experiments were not suitable to investigate the problem, or rather that the communicative functions of hyperbole appear to be inappropriate in experimental contexts. [-3-]

The sixth chapter (Susan R. Fussell & Mallie M. Moss, “Figurative Language in Emotional Communication”) focusses on metaphors and idioms in the communication of emotional states. After examining the literature about figurative language in descriptions of autobiographical emotional states, the authors report their experiments about figurative language. The participants were exposed to standardized emotional stimuli (movie clips showing characters undergoing emotional experiences), and then asked to do various tasks: for example, to describe a chosen character’s emotional state to an addressee who had not seen the clip; or to describe emotions such as panic, anger, sadness, and elation. The results show that speakers make wide use of figurative language when they have to report negative emotions like sadness and depression, with the aim of attenuating the effect on the addressee. But when speakers describe positive emotions, they use figurative expressions less than anticipated by the experimenters.

Section III: Perspective-Taking and Conversational Collaboration

In the seventh chapter (Michael F. Schober, “Different Kinds of Conversational Perspective-Taking”) the author focusses on the importance of coordination of perspective between speaker and hearer in successful communication. Schober distinguishes four interrelated uses of speaker’s perspective:

  1. time, place, and identity: these entail indexical expressions, which can be speaker-centered, addressee-centered, object-centered, or environment-centered;
  2. conceptualization: to discuss the topic at hand the speaker chooses words, propositions, informational structure, and discourse strategy, which limit the set of possible interpretations;
  3. conversational agenda: this refers to the purpose or the underlying intentions in utterances during interpersonal communication;
  4. knowledge: that is, background thoughts and beliefs which influence personal conceptualization and agenda.

Although the four perspectives exist simultaneously in communication and can be interrelated, the author claims that they operate independently and involve different mental processes. As for collaborative effort in interpersonal communication, he assumes that speakers minimize it, thus developing particular conversational moves, e.g., when speaker and hearer share knowledge on a topic, collaborative effort is quite straightforward. The author concludes, however, that more challenging experiments are required to describe how perspective-taking works and to delineate the inferential paths participants follow to take another’s perspective.

In the eighth chapter (Boas Keysar, “Language Users as Problem Solvers: Just What Ambiguity Problem Do They Solve?”), after analysing the topic of perspective-taking in communication, the author places the focus on the problem of ambiguity and on the addressee’s procedure for identifying the speaker’s intention. The author refuses the traditional opinion that [-4-] recipients interpret the literal meaning of the speaker’s message, that is, perspective-free interpretation. On the contrary, he assumes that recipients first compute the message from their own perspective and then adjust their interpretation by taking into account the speaker’s perspective. This entails that addressees do not perceive language as ambiguous, since they perceive utterances not literally but in a perspective-bound and contextualized way. Similarly speakers produce their messages taking into account the recipient’s perspective and the context. According to Keysar, computing messages is possible only through a perspective-dependent approach, with the term perspective being synonymous with “access to information.” Thus, an addressee’s perspective consists of the information he has access to. The author labels this approach the Perspective Adjustment Model.

The ninth chapter (Susan E. Brennan, “The Grounding Problem in Conversations With and Through Computers”) considers how grounding, that is, communication as a coordinated activity, which occurs in any type of communication, varies depending on the communication medium, with the medium placing different constraints. Both in human communication and in human-computer interaction, people need evidence that their message has been received and understood. With computers the problem is that users need an extra effort to catch the feedback from computer graphical interfaces. Brennan proposes that interaction should be based on incremental conversational contributions so that users could clearly understand what to do next.

Section IV: Cognition, Language and Social Interaction

In the tenth chapter (Gün R. Semin, “Cognition, Language, and Communication”) the author compares language devises such as verbs, nouns, and adjectives to tools and, consequently, language use is conceived as tool use. Hence, Semin proposes a model for language analysis, Tools and Tool Use Model (TATUM), which brings up a series of fundamental questions: how can tools be classified and what are their properties? What is their relation to cognition in communicative contexts? Answers are not at all easy, and require further target experiments that clarify how language and cognition are related to communication and culture.

The eleventh chapter (Chi-yue Chiu, Robert M. Krauss & Ivy Y-M. Lau, “Some Cognitive Consequences of Communication”) places the focus on the influence that language has on cognition. After reviewing the debate on the Whorfian hypothesis, the authors report a series of experiments which has led them to assume that, for example, the description of a stimulus affects memory, but also that perspective-taking has basic effects on cognitive processes. [-4-]


The organization of the book is perfectly logical and accessible, and the ordering and presentation of claims, arguments, and experiments is clear and lucid throughout. Each essay introduces the topic at hand by shedding light on the complex evolution of the ideas being drawn upon. The authors discuss a wide range of previous theories critically but fairly. All claims and arguments are well supported with examples and detailed analyses based on a substantial corpus of experiments. The bibliography, extensive and updated, is meant to lead readers further into the literature related to the topic.

In conclusion, the issues presented prove to be an interesting exploration into the fascinating domain of interpersonal communication and they are relevant enough to trigger debate among scholars. Placing the topic in the larger context of disciplines which go from linguistics to philosophy of language and ethnomethodology, the book assumes familiarity with those factors that influence discourse understanding; consequently, it is probably best suited for advanced students of linguistics and for specialists. For these readers, it provides a stimulating perspective on how speaker and hearer take into account each other’s perspective and how they are cognitively influenced by this perspective-taking.


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Brown, P. & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds.). Syntax and semantics: Vol. 3, Speech acts (pp. 41-58). New York: Academic Press.

Searle, J. R. (1990). Collective intentions and actions. In P. Cohen, J. Morgan & M. Pollack (Eds.) Intentions in communication (pp. 401-416). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Whorf, B. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Annalisa Baicchi
University of Pisa

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