Clyne’s Revision of Grice’s Maxims Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 28 March 2016

Clyne’s Revision of Grice’s Maxims

Grice’s Maxims have been criticised for being too Anglo-centric. Michael Clyne proposes revisions to the four maxims in his 1994 book Intercultural Communication at Work. Do Clyne’s revisions of this model go far enough in universally accounting for intercultural conversation? Why or why not?

Grice’s General Cooperative Principle has been under continuous debate for the past three decades. It is mainly through the maxims that Grice’s paradigm has been challenged as highly ethnocentric, however such readings may tend to take the maxims too literally rather than as “reference points for language interchange” (Allan as cited in Clyne, 1994, p. 11). There is some agreement in this, but as suggested by Mey (1994, p. 74), the principle and maxims are “always defined relative to a particular culture”. It is this idea of cultural values underlying communication that has caused the contention of Grice’s cooperative principle and its subordinate maxims. Many linguists (Keenan, 1976; Wierzbicka, 1985; Clyne, 1994; Bowe & Martin, 2007) have criticised Grice’s Maxims for being too ethnocentric – claiming that its assumptions are based on Anglo-Saxon norms and culture.

This Anglo-centric nature is problematic for intercultural communication as the maxims are inapplicable to many cultural values systems; namely European and Southeast Asian cultures where harmony, respect and restraint play a key role (Clyne, 1994, p. 192). In an attempt to better reflect intercultural conversation, Clyne (1994) has proposed a set of revised ‘maxims’ to make Grice’s principles more universal. His revision of Grice’s model certainly accounts for a wider variety of contexts and cultures, however it cannot be said to universally account for intercultural conversation. As conversation is unique to its context and participants, in reality no single theory could universally embody real life language use. Although people of all backgrounds generally do attempt to facilitate successful communication (if it doesn’t conflict with their purpose or cultural values), factors unique to each participant can affect any given conversation. Thus, it can be said that while individuals are conditioned by their culture and environment, discourse patterns will always be influenced by personality factors (Watts, 1991) and pragmatic and intercultural competence.

On the surface, Grice’s cooperative principle seems to provide little difficulty for intercultural analysis; its degree of uncertainty is certainly appropriate for discussions of cultural diversity. Making a contribution “such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice, 1975, p. 45) seems to allow for the acceptance of different purposes and requirements in different contexts, and does not exclude the influence of norms associated with a variety of different speech communities. Although intercultural analysis was not Grice’s main concern, he has defined the discourse of his cooperative principle as “concerted enterprises” that allow “a high degree of diversity in the motivations underlying quite meagre common objectives” (1989: 369). Grice himself makes no explicit claims of universality, using characteristically modest language to refer to a “first approximation of a general principle” (1989: 26).

He is extremely careful not to overstate the case for ‘cooperation’; suggesting that “each participant recognizes in them (talk exchanges), to some extent, a common purpose, or at least a mutually accepted direction” (1989, p. 26). It should be pointed out however, that Grice’s maxims depict an idealised and simplified language use, whereas reality is much more complex and multi-dimensional. In everyday conversations, telling the entire truth might be seen as impolite or inappropriate in certain cultures. There also tend to be intercultural differences that do not always follow a universal principle. Some cultures and languages (i.e. Chinese) often dictate that their speakers use indirect speech in conversation, which means they are unable to follow Grice’s maxims of quantity and manner.

In such cases, there is a clash between Grice’s maxims and the pragmatic rules of conversation, which are culturally sensitive. For example, when being offered a drink, a typical Chinese person would automatically say no the first time, while expecting the offer to be made at least two or three times more. This resembles a kind of phatic language communication; saying no, but not really meaning no. In this sort of situation, if someone doesn’t adhere to the cultural norm – choosing to follow Grice’s maxims instead, then they would sound odd and out of place.

The above example demonstrates that Grice’s maxims aren’t relevant in all contexts as they clash with certain cultural values systems. Many linguists (Clyne, 1994; Hymes, 1986; Loveday, 1983; Walsh, 2009) have picked up on this discrepancy between theory and data, claiming that the maxims are only relevant to the English speaking Western world. In particular, Clyne (1994) has pointed out that they have limited relevance to cultures where content and knowledge are core values. For example, speakers of Malagasy, “whose form of co-operation seems to consist in making their contributions as opaque, convoluted and non-perspicuous as possible” (Keenan as cited in Mey, 1994, p. 74) could be seen as flouting the Maxim of Quantity.

This is because information, especially ‘new’ information gives the holder a certain amount of prestige, thus Malagasy people tend to use indirect, evasive language. It is obvious then, that environmental factors, social interaction and cultural norms need to be considered when interpreting conversational implicature. This is reinforced by Hymes (1986), who notes that Grice was correct in assuming that any culture will have some sort of orientation towards telling the truth (quality), being informative (quantity), staying on topic (relation), and being clear (manner), but that this orientation and how it is articulated cannot be assumed to be the same in all cultures. It is necessary then to recognize that each language and/or culture will have its own settings for each of the maxims (Bowe & Martin, 2007).

In an attempt to reduce the cultural bias of Grice’s maxims, Clyne (1994) has proposed revisions to the four maxims (quantity, quality, relation, manner) by considering different cultural norms and expectations. An example of this is the modification of the maxim of quality so that it reads ‘do not say what you believe to be in opposition to your cultural norms of truth, harmony, charity, and/or respect.’ This revision accounts for situations in which the hearer may not want to respond truthfully in order to preserve face or harmony (Lakoff, 1973). This cultural value of harmony is especially prevalent in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures. Nguyen (1991) claims that communalism and collectivism has enforced harmony as a central cultural value in the Vietnamese people. Because of this emphasis on harmonious relations, Vietnamese frequently utilise ambiguous communication behaviours in order to avoid conflict. Although this language use could flout one or more of Grice’s maxims, by introducing cultural parameters such as truth, harmony and face, Clyne’s (1994) revisions can better account for intercultural conversation.

Clyne’s (1994) revised maxims for intercultural analysis certainly have more regard for the communicative patterns of non-English cultures; however, they don’t altogether meet the needs of intercultural communication. In intercultural communication a high level of pragmatic competence is central to an interlocutors performance. As Thomas (1984) points out, it is commonly the differences in pragmatic competence that are problematic in intercultural conversation. Furthermore, it is possible to have achieved a very high level of linguistic proficiency, while having a relatively low level of socio-pragmatic proficiency. This can result in speakers using a language, which for some reason is deemed inappropriate, incomprehensible or even offensive (Thomas, 1984). This will be demonstrated by the following example:

An Australian manager has been reassigned to the Athens office of his organization and is assigned a Greek secretary. On a daily basis, he assigns work to her by using conventional indirect requests such as ‘Could you type this letter?’ One day, she complains to a colleague, ‘I wish he would just tell me what to do instead of asking me. After all, he’s the boss and I’m here to do what he wants.’

In the above example, we have a mixture of assumptions about the rights and obligations of two parties in a relationship characterized by asymmetrical distribution of power, and the way this power will be exercised and acknowledged. The Australian boss attends to the face wants of his secretary by attempting to minimize the power distance between the two. This is done by the use of politeness strategies that seemingly give the subordinate the option not to perform a requested act – ‘Could you type this letter?’ Thomas (1995, p. 161) observes that ‘allowing options (or giving the appearance of allowing options) is absolutely central to Western notions of politeness’.

An Australian secretary would presumably know that a direct, on-record refusal of this request would be face threatening to her boss – as well as threatening to her own job. She could potentially employ indirect refusal strategies (i.e. hints), which would avoid on record refusal and sustain the appearance of harmony. As Green (cited in Thomas, 1995, p. 147) points out “the speaker is really only going through the motions of offering options or showing respect for the addressee’s feelings. The offer may be a facade, the options nonviable, and the respect a sham. It is the fact that an effort was made to go through the motions at all that makes the act an act of politeness.”

It is clear that in this example the two parties have not yet negotiated a shared set of norms. The secretary acknowledges and accepts the power difference between herself and her boss. She is dependent on him for work, and she accepts that he has the right to tell her to carry out various secretarial duties. To her, the Australian boss seems insincere when he requests her to do something for him, because as far as she is concerned, the power relationship admits no options. That is; she does not interpret the deference that her boss displays towards her as an act of politeness. There are obviously socio-pragmatic differences between the two parties. The Australian boss has carried his socio-pragmatic norms into the Greek setting, where they violate the expectations of his Greek subordinate. Each party is defining and acting within the situation differently.

Despite this, their encounters are not entirely unsuccessful: the boss makes requests for work that the secretary completes. However, the Greek secretary feels dissatisfied with her boss’s politeness strategies. It can be said that neither party is completely interculturally competent. That is; communicating in a culturally competent way requires interlocutors to learn about the ways culture influences communicative utterances of individuals concerned. After all, if the secretary constantly doubts the sincerity of her boss, the relationship is threatened. And if the boss is unaware of the effects of this, he may experience a rude awakening in the near future.

Based on what has been discussed, it can be concluded that Grice’s maxims cannot be taken as absolute rules; this would be neither right nor practicable. Language is not as clear-cut as mathematical formulas; it frequently integrates with culture and society. Thus cultural and pragmatic considerations are vital to successful intercultural communication. Moreover, linguistic competency may not always cause a breakdown in communication; very often when language form and cultural norm clash, culture supersedes language form. Clyne’s (1994) revisions of the conversational maxims better reflect cultural variation, however they do not universally account for intercultural communication.

The examples aforementioned demonstrate that factors such as pragmatic and intercultural competence also play a key role. Intercultural communication then becomes something that is negotiated at local level by participants, involving mutual adaptation. Difficulties may arise, of course, in the process of negotiation through limitations in the socio-pragmatic and strategic competence of some or all participants. After all, there are individual differences in these competencies, and as Agar (1994) points out, we have to remember that in any intercultural conversation, ‘it’s persons not cultures that are in contact’.


Agar, M. (1994). The intercultural frame. In International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18/2:221-237.

Bowe, H. J. & Martin, K. (2007). Communication across cultures: Mutual understanding in a global world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clyne, M. (1994). Inter-cultural Communication at Work: Cultural Values in Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.

Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. London: Harvard University Press.

Hymes, D. H. (1986). Discourse: Scope without depth. In International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 57, 49-89.

Keenan, E. O. (1976). On the universality of conversational implicatures.
Language in Society 5.67-80.

Lakoff, R. (1973). The logic of politeness, or minding your p’s and q’s. In Papers from the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. 292-305.

Loveday, L. (1983). Rhetoric patterns in conflict: The sociocultural relativity of discourse organizing processes. In Journal of Pragmatics, 7, 169-90.

Mey, J. (1994). Pragmatics. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thomas, J. (1984) Cross-cultural discourse as “unequal encounter”: Toward a pragmatic analysis. In Applied Linguistics, 5(2), 226-235. Thomas, J. (1995). Meaning in Interaction. An Introduction to Pragmatics. Harlow /Munich: Longman. Walsh, M. (2009). Some neo-Gricean maxims for aboriginal Australia. Retrieved from (accessed 22/10/2013) Watts, R. J. (1991). Power in family discourse. Berlin: Mouton. Wierzbicka, A. (1991). Cross-Cultural Pragmatics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

Wierzbicka, A. (1985). Different cultures, different languages, different speech acts. In Journal of Pragmatics 9.145-78.

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