Turning over the Rules of Grice

The rules of communication depend on its structure. For example, Grice’s four Conventions of Conversations goes something like this:

1. Quantity: Give all the information that is needed, but no more than is needed.

2. Quality: Say everything you know to be true, and do not lie.

3. Manner: Be as clear as you can, meaning inn avoid being verbose, ambiguous, disorderly, or obscure.

4. Relation: Say everything that is relevant, and don’t veer off topic.

It sounds so logical and simple. When I used to teach Business Communications as a Language Studies professor, the rules of Grice made its way to my lessons.

It is the way of the One and its essence is Patriarchal.

Yet, as a journalist, none of these rules reflected the reality I was covering. The story did not come in neat little boxes ready for me to consume. It was a messy and chaotic echo chamber of contradictory and schizophrenic ideas ambushing me at every turn.

Where to do I begin?

Rule One did not seem to apply to anyone in a business suit. To hide various sins, they would try to overwhelm me with irrelevant information. Being informative seemed to be an antirequisite for the job.

Rule Two did not apply to scam artists. Puffing was common as was downright deception. 

Rule Three did not apply to people who worked in PR. They were wordy and as ambiguous as they could be. I am sure there may have been drinking games based on the use of the most empty phrase they could conjure.

Rule Four did not apply to narcissists who were convinced the subject of the interview was all about them.

And yet it was my job to analyze the hollowness of the rule-breakers to find the truth.

Find it I did, but no thanks to Grice. The rules of Grice are a Patriarchal ideal. I realized early on that every story was told in the rabbit hole that lead straight to a chess board.

Unfortunately, j-school didn’t have classes on intellectual strategy when dealing with a cutthroat environment. We never read The Prince, The Art of War, or The 36 Stratagems of War.

I read those on my own time. I also had a degree in experimental psychology and studied war propaganda.

When I began to write fiction, I used the lessons I learned and began to study fiction in a different way.

One of the most glaring patterns I noticed is most authors did not tackle fiction in a raw way, but used the same Grician template as business communications.

There often is a lack of richness when you just state all the facts needed without considering the basic: whose facts do these related to here? The protagonist, of course. Facts that would help us understand characters independent of the hero are lacking. Everything comes back to the main character, making villains and supporting players less nuanced and interesting.

And none of it reflects the way stories unfold in the real world.

It is reason why the Matriarchal appeals to me so much: not everything revolves around the central hero. We can have flagship characters, but supporting players have an equally rich and textured history, allowing us to explore human interaction that is not rigged to favour the hero.

Grice’s rules are strictly intellectual, yet the heart of communication is emotional. However, when fiction’s structure mimics a memo or incident report, we lose an opportunity to get in touch with our primal emotions and connect in a genuine way.

The Matriarchal is a jigsaw puzzle, but one where we get extra pieces that can fit in more than one puzzle. We learn a single piece of the puzzle can make us feel vastly different emotions.

In one story, the piece makes us feel outrage toward a villain. In another story, that same piece makes us weep as we realize that villain was a victim trying to be a hero with disastrous results.

That was a lesson I learned being a journalist: truth is chaos. The Patriarchal is blind to that fact, yet the Matriarchal grasps this truth with ease.

Yet we don’t have rules that explain other paradigms of communication other than Grice.

We have it even begun understanding fiction, and it is high time that we did.