Economics of Language and Courtesy
“Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit.” (Bach 2005).
The maxims can thus be seen as an application of the economic approach to understanding behavior—the assumption that individuals have objectives and tend to choose the best way of achieving them. The objective is communication, the maxims describe how best to do it, and a listener dealing with potential ambiguity in speech—for example ambiguity in the meaning of “most”—can sometimes resolve it by assuming that the speaker is using the word with a meaning that achieves that objective. Where what is relevant is which candidate won an election, “most” is likely to mean a majority or even a plurality: “The party that got most votes was …”. Where what is relevant is whether there is a substantial minority for whom a statement is not true, “most” is likely to mean an overwhelming majority: “Most of my students understand English, so there is no need to provide translations of the readings into other languages.”
For a second application of economics, consider a scenario offered by a friend in a recent conversation on courtesy. Someone cuts into the checkout line ahead of you. One possible response is to accuse him of cutting into line. An alternative is to point out to him where the end of the line is, with the implication that he merely made a mistake.
My objective is to get him to go back to the end of the line, getting me through a little faster, and to do it with a minimum of unpleasantness. By treating his act as a mistake I lower the cost to him of doing what I want, since doing so does not require him to implicitly confess a deliberate violation of local norms. Lowering the cost to him of doing what I want makes him more likely to do it. What my friend regarded as behavior due to courtesy appears to me as a simple application of economics.
One can carry the argument one step further. If, instead of offering the norm violator an easy out, I loudly upbraid him, he will be less likely to quietly concede his error . But, since I will have raised the cost to him of cutting into line, he may be less likely to do it again. If my objective were the general good rather than my own private good, that might be the sensible choice, deterring future offenses against other people at some cost in current unpleasantness. In my friend’s view, the reason to be courteous was the benevolent desire to maintain social harmony. But courtesy, at least in this case, causes me to sacrifice the general good for my private good—precisely the behavior that economics predicts.