The Role Of Pragmatics in Social Situations: How we get our thoughts across to others through the use of Pragmatics
By: Betsy Bell
March 1, 2013
I Hate to admit it, however I am told quite often at times, particualrly at work, that I do not look “happy” or “overjoyed” to be there. I find this quite odd, because I do not think that I am any different from the rest of the world. If you think about it, most people do not walk around with a smile glued to their face, that would be a little creepy looking. However whats even more interesting is that whenever I am told this, I automatically, almost involuntarily work up a smile on the spot. However what is this kind of smile really saying to the reciever. Shouldn’t they know that it is fake, due to how quickly it erupted? Shouldn’t they realize that it serves as a response to their statement? Or do they think Im simply being polite, by looking like Im am indeed interested in their request for some enthusiasm? It all comes down to Pragmatics. The textbook defines Pragmatic Rules as “emotional expres-sions [that] are tempered, modiﬁed, masked, or exaggerated in public according to a given culture’s norms for emotional displays.” In other words Just as Dialogic Rules are used in the verbal side of communicating, Pragmatics deal with how these emotions we are trying to display, and how they come across.
An article by Tim Wharton enititled An Exchange highlights how emotions which are often shown through the use of facial expressions, can either be suppressed or covered up by other emotions, which are either used to show other intention than what you are really feeling or thinking. For example, my
fake smile. A person has to ask themselves was that smile sincere? Or did she smile in order to avoid rolling her eyes at the absuridity of my statement?
I love the metaphor that this picture displays, and that is that a forced smile is as uncomfortable as pinning your cheeks up with clothes pins. It really displays the Force in it. But I think more importantly it gives the message that any emotion that has to be forced, is unnatural and uncomfortable, and if it comes off as being detectable, that it is forced, it can be highly unattractive. This is a concern, because when dealing in important social situations, for example an interview, meetings, dates,and so forth, emotions and gestures need to seem natural to others, in order for you to succeed in life.
In the article Wharton notes on a very important, and what I would say is undoubtedly a rather sad but true statement about human interaction.
“Because humans have such predictive purchase, they can act on each other’s men-
tal lives. They do this by manipulating each other’s expectations of relevance.”
Now I feel that there are three major points to this statement that we need to focus on.
- Predictive–meaning we can easily foreshadow someone else’s reaction to our own message. For example if we send a message of hate or hostility towards someone, most likely they are going to respond the same. Likewise if we know for a fact someone does not feel the same as we do, we often predict rejection, and therefore do not act on our feelings or emotions.
Mental Lives–meaning the human pshcye has a life of its own, and our emotions are geared towards different things depending on the person or subject matter. For example, if your goal is to date a certain person of interest, your most likely to engage in some kind of mental game to attain their affection, this could be derived in good or bad, depending on the intention of the person.
Expectations -last but not least expectations, I believe is what leads us either in the right or wrong direction. For example say your the hardest working person at your job, and you expect to nab that promotion, and then you dont. This plays a lot of trouble on your pschye, you start reveling in thoughts of self doubt. When expectations are not met, it is a natural emotion to be upset, however you must play it off like your fine, in order to get along.
Another important factor that the article points out is the use of gestures. Are they natural? As the article states in regars to certain common gestures:
“There is a coded element to culture-
dependent headshakes that is barely present in acts of pointing”
I want to touch on this a bit because I feel that it is important when deciphering gestures in a social situation. For example the article lines out that common gestures such as headshakes and pointing are deemed natural and unatural in communicating our emotions. It states that they are part of “cultural codes.” I feel that this needs to be discussed because how much it varies, especially between age groups. For example when you are little and your with your parent at the store and they ask you what would you like, you are more likely to point and say “that one” rather than actually voice the name of the item, lets say juice for instance. Whenever they ask you would you like grape or apple, you are more likely to either shake your head yes or no, than actually voice the option you want. Its interesting to me how pragmatics start to play out in childhood, however as you age you tend to become more verbal and more comfortable with verbal expression, than non verbal expression. However you can easily read non verbal communication better than children, although you do not practice it as much, as you do in childhood.
The use of Pragmatics is key to how successful you are in social situations. Basically If you can hold a nice conversation with credible gestures, that do not seem aided at the wrong intention, you can easily succeed in life. I feel that this part of non verbal communication is very important to study.
Pragmatics and nonverbal communication by Tim Wharton: An Exchange. (2011). Gesture, 11(3), 383-394.