How Do We Create a Shared World in Conversation? Common Ground

How Do We Create a Shared World in Conversation? Common Ground

So let’s talk about connections. Forming
ties with other people can often seem daunting. But it’s not always the same: when you have
things in common with somebody, it’s usually easier to connect with them than if you’re
from really different backgrounds. Luckily, we have all kinds of ways to make sense of
each other, and to build shared experience as we go along. I’m Moti Lieberman, and
this is the Ling Space. When we have a conversation, there’s a lot
going on other than just words. Our body language and intonation, our emoji and CAPS LOCK, all
of these are cues that help the person we’re talking with get a more accurate feel for
what we mean. We also assume people are using basic communicative maxims that are common
across languages, like, that what the other person is saying is true, and is relevant
to the conversation at hand. But there’s an entire undercurrent of communicative
connection that’s going on even beyond those rules, linking our minds through shared experience.
Maybe you’ve noticed that within families, or tight groups of friends, or even specific
fields or fandoms, words can take on special meanings, and conversations can even skip
some words entirely. You can end up with an exchange that’s pretty opaque to an onlooker
who’s not part of the community. Like, for example: So what happened with the thing?
Well, you know, Steiner was there, so. Ouch. Building still standing? That can be pretty obtuse, unless you happen
to share the knowledge that Steiner is the cousin of the person you’re talking to,
and the two vehemently don’t get along. All this underlying knowledge, the stuff conversation
partners have that allows them to assume things, is called common ground. And it’s super
useful – it makes communication easier, letting you skip explanations and get right to
the good stuff. The more we can assume, the less effort we need to put into the conversation! We like common ground so much that we naturally
use our communicative strategies to build more of it. A huge, almost essential part
of that process is conversational feedback. When you talk with someone, there’s usually
a back-and-forth development of shared reference and vocabulary, happening in real time. And
this is something you’ll see across languages – like, the first speaker says something,
and the other might nod or say “uh-huh” or “hai”, or do some other communicative
gesture to show that they’re following. These are called backchannel responses, like
a stream of low-key information returning back to the speaker from the listener. Of course, another convenient way to have
stuff in common is to like, physically be in the same room with somebody. You can skip
a lot of words if you can just point to something. Like if a DJ has some nice blue hair, and
you want to describe for your friend the exact shade, you can say something like “Blue,
but not that blue,” if there’s a particularly vivid swimming pool nearby. But common visual information isn’t the
only kind of mutual knowledge you can have. There’s a lot that just having a shared
history can bring to the table. This is especially common with families and old friends, or just
being members of the same community. Let’s say that I wanted to describe that same blue
to our graphics team. I might tell them “Blue, but not Adele blue,” referring to the favourite
hue of our director Adele. If I say something like “Adele blue”,
they’ll get it, because they know her and her colour preferences. But you can’t guess
which shade I mean, and if I show you, you probably will have a different name for it – or
no name at all. That kind of thing is true for any kind of group. When you’re a member
of a defined community, that tends to come with its own vocabulary and conversational
norms. Like, the technical jargon you might have as a pharmacist makes information exchange
easy with your pharmacist friends, but you wouldn’t try using it with a police officer. Research on common ground started in the 80s,
and it focused mostly on face to-face communication. Thanks to the internet, though, what makes
up a community is being redefined. You can have that common ground connection with someone
you’ve never met before, anywhere around the world, from Mexico City to Mumbai. I mean,
you all know what Adele blue is now. So with so many of our important relationships today
happening over long distances, or even through text, you could wonder whether the face-to-face
rules even still apply. Well, we’ll get to some differences in a
bit, but it turns out we don’t need to change that much. You do get less backchannel communication,
but most of us still have a tendency to sit and wait for our friends’ next emoji before
finishing our story. And maybe you can’t physically point to something while messaging
and expect your friend in another city to see it. But if you think of online interactions
as taking place in a shared virtual space, there’s a lot of common ground there you
can use. One type of common ground that’s become
a major part of the way we communicate on the internet is memes. Now, the idea of a
meme isn’t that new – it predates widespread use of the internet, the term having been
coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. At its core, a meme is any kind of idea or behaviour
that spreads from person to person. But these days, when most people say “meme”, the
common ground we share about that word usually evokes double rainbows and cute cats. But common ground is exactly where memes are,
it’s how they thrive. Things become memes through being passed around as a common cultural
referent: in social media, blogs, email, and more. But memes are only the tip of the iceberg
when it comes to common ground on the internet. Now that we don’t need to see each other
to form bonds, we’re developing new norms for communication, ways of sharing ideas that
are born from sharing a virtual space. A growing amount of research is being done not only
on things like memes and emoji, but also the syntax and grammar and semantics of how people
talk online. After all, it’s not just image macros and
cultural references that can be used as shortcuts to conversational clarity. Turns of phrase
themselves can carry meaning too. One example that’s pretty common is the phrase “I
can’t even”. Now, usually, the adverb ‘even’ would need a verb after it to be grammatical,
like “I can’t even speak German” or “I can’t even deal with that guy”. But
drop the verb phrase, and you’ve got something that stands on its own to describe exasperation
or being unable to express the intensity of your feelings. And, throw a new phrase in a language and
humans run with it, so we don’t only get “I can’t even”. We get “how do I even,”
or “I’ve lost all ability to even”, or “maybe I’ll even tomorrow”. Similarly,
there’s nothing new about the word “nope”, but a whole concept has sprung up beyond its
literal meaning. Nope implies this whole common ground of fleeing from a situation you would
rather not be in, like: “Will noped right out of there”, or “that whole building
is crawling with nope”, or “oh look, it’s nope o’clock.” So on the internet, changing the way that you write
your words can paint a picture of how you feel. Like for example, you could just say
that something you found tiny and adorable, like a kitten, was small. But when small just
doesn’t cut it, you can make the word itself smaller and cuter. Now the littlest fluffiest
babiest kitten, oh, it is so smol. If you’ve seen smol used around the internet, it’s
become part of the common ground you share with your peers who have too. And so by saying
smol, you’re not just referring to something’s size, you’re echoing all the adorableness that’s
come before. Whether we’re talking in person or online,
we use all the tools at our disposal to communicate. We point and build new phrases and even just
make little acknowledgments that the person talking is getting through to us. We draw
on everything we can to create a space for ourselves to understand each other. And that’s
sensible. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you shared our mutual knowledge, you learned that there’s a bunch of ways you can
achieve common ground with your conversation partners; that even if you don’t have too
much in common with the person you’re talking to initially, you can use communicative strategies
to build a common ground; and that shared culture, be it online or off, can carry a
lot of meaning. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our editor
is Georges Coulombe, our production assistant is Stephan Hurtubise, our music is by Shane
Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you
can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we’ll have some extra material
on this topic. And while you’re there, check out our store – we’ve got some really cool
linguistics stuff! Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep
expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And we’ll see you next Wednesday.
O da abọ!

Danny Hutson

12 thoughts on “How Do We Create a Shared World in Conversation? Common Ground

  1. I love this channel, this episode and the whole idea of The Ling Space. If we could just take the speaker's voice down an octave or maybe just a major fifth, it would be just perfect.

  2. What about "they say I've never been". As in, 'I've got to make it to Vegas while I'm in the U.S.; they say I've never been.'

  3. Technically the sentence "I can't even" was correct even before the internet. "Even" can be a verb that means "to make something more flat/smooth/even". So that sentence could mean something like "I don't know how to turn something uneven into something even". 😛

  4. I'd thought she was Adelaiez. Similarly, I'd thought you were Moe T. And Dr. Tyson was Nieldegrass. Interesting.

    I'm also remembering the comments from several pages of Stand Still Stay Silent.

  5. Thanks for your videos, this one is surely appearing at my Uni presentation on CG in Intercultural interactions

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