The cooperative principle and America’s favorite misanthrope

Sheldon: (knocks) “Leonard…”

Leonard: “What is it?”

Sheldon: “I made tea”

Leonard: “I don’t want tea”

Sheldon: “I didn’t make tea for you!

At the risk of ruining a joke by over-explaining it, I am going to show how a scene from The Big Bang Theory illustrates one of the most important principles in linguistic pragmatics.

In order for there to be mutual understanding, there must be a systematic relation between what the speaker says and what he intends to convey. Herbert Paul Grice’s cooperative principle explains how the speaker gets the hearer  to recognize the intended meaning of the utterance. The speaker relies on hearer’s ability to reason backwards from the speaker’s communicative intentions, which is made possible with guidance by additional assumptions. The problem is that in principle, any action can have an indefinite number of goals and intentions.  In John Nash’s Game Theory,  shared assumptions help narrow down the search space by relying on each other’s cooperativeness and common goals. Here, the common goal is for the speaker’s utterance, and intentions behind it, to be understood by the hearer. Grice’s cooperative principle is based on this, and his conversational maxims lay out the rules of the game.

Grice posited that the assumptions we operate under in our conversations fall into four categories, the conversational maxims: Quality, Relation, Quantity, and Manner. Under quality, the hearer should assume that the speaker is not knowingly lying or misrepresenting the truth. Under relation, the hearer can assume that the what the speaker contributes to the conversation is relevant. Under quantity, the contribution is expected to be as informative as required for the purposes of the exchange, but no more than is required. Lastly, manner has to do with the composition of the contribution itself: it should be brief, or not unnecessarily long, avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and it should be orderly. It’s pretty simple, really: for conversation to work, we need to be able to assume that we aren’t trying to deceive each other, that there is a point to our contribution, that the contribution won’t keep us there all afternoon without a good reason, and that we can understand what was said. To be a cooperative participant in a conversation, don’t lie, don’t needlessly complicate things, don’t inconvenience your friend, and try to be clear.

Back to the clip: the humor of the “I made tea” misunderstanding rests on the fact that the hearer, Leonard, is operating under the assumption that the speaker, Sheldon, is guided by the cooperative principle. Which, by experience, is a faulty assumption, but where would sitcoms be without it? Sheldon is an expert in many things except, notably, human social interactions. Leonard, the ordinary human being, assumes that a speaker’s contribution is relevant to the exchange. Upon entering Leonard’s bedroom, Sheldon declares that he has made tea. The reasonable interpretation upon hearing this is that he is being offered tea, especially given the context of Leonard’s emotional state and Sheldon’s timidness upon entering.  Put plainly, why else would you walk into someone’s bedroom and say that you’ve made tea other than to offer it to them? How is it relevant? Well, it’s not, and that’s why it’s funny.


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