Recipient design and common ground fallacy

When a child learns to speak, he or she, step by step, also learns to understand that we cannot speak in the same manner in all circumstances.

This will be an essential constituent of the language command in the child’s future. Many children learn, even before they go to school, to imitate how a teacher speaks. The ability to take into consideration the communication environment may be called register design or genre design.

For our communicative purposes, this is not enough. We need a more sophisticated system of different ways to communicate. Experienced speakers have realised that there are differences between audiences. By using this knowledge and experience, he or she starts to conduct audience design. There is also variation between individuals in how they want to be addressed. This is called recipient design, a term that can be used to cover all the forms of adjusting speech to other participants in the communication situation.

It is easy to see that the ability to conduct recipient design is the very thing which is needed if one wants to be a good car-seller or politician, but this ability is essential not only for “speech workers”, but in all formats of interaction. As a matter of fact, recipient design is a tool to eliminate communication failure beforehand. Let us take a simple example of how we use or should use it. Consider the following phrases:

John studies Chinese language and literature.

John studies Chinese language and biology.

John studies Chinese language and philosophy.

All the phrases (1-3) are, from the purely linguistic point of view, ambiguous, because their syntactic structure as such gives no hint as to whether or not the second noun is within the scope of the adjective. However, there are differences between the phrases when we consider them in the framework of a real situation. In (1) and (2), people usually arrive at similar interpretations of the meaning of each phrase (Chinese literature but not Chinese biology). In doing so, we refer to our mental worlds, which provide us with the same outcome for most interlocutors. The interpretation of (3) is more problematic. No problems occur if the interlocutors’ mental worlds give the same interpretation of the scope of the adjective Chinese, but it is as likely that one of the interlocutors may think of Chinese philosophy, while the other will be thinking of common or general philosophy. The possible discrepancy in interpretation can, however, be eliminated, but only if the speaker realise the potential interpretation problems. He or she may replace the ambiguous expression with another one which allows only one reading (philosophy and Chinese language or Chinese language and Chinese philosophy).

In the example above, it is not easy to realise that a specific recipient design is needed. Let us take another situation where our automatic recipient design usually functions well. A Chinese tourist turns to us in our home town and asks the way to the railway station. Despite the language we use, we automatically switch on a special foreign talk mode and start speaking slowly and as clear as possible, avoiding difficult words. A similar turn in speaking happens when adults meet small children: they start using baby talk.

A foreigner and a baby as recipients are clear cases for using a special speech mode. The problem from the perspective of mutual understanding is that people often fail to realise the differences between their mental world and that of the recipient. Psychological experiments have revealed that people tend to see the world through their own experiences and think that differences between their mental worlds are meaningless. In other words, they fall into the trap of common ground fallacy.

The more similar we are, the easier is to forget the need of recipient design. Conversations with family members and encounters with researchers from other field constitute a typical risk zone for common ground fallacy. These people, obviously, have a lot of common with us, but this does not mean that our mental worlds are identical.

A certain feature of the human brain makes proper “mind reading” impossible. Fresh experiences influence how we react to various stimuli. If we hear the word bat, it activates different objects in our brain depending on whether we have just been in a baseball match or recently seen this animal.

Recipient design as a whole is a key concept in avoiding miscommunication and communicative failure.


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