What Are The Basic Rules People Exploit When Lying?

To understand the verbal strategies we use to deceive each other – it helps to understand how the typical conversation works.

Paul Grice, a famous scholar, noted that all conversations follow a basic set of rules, which people use to express themselves when speaking.

Grice’s rules (called maxims) are at work every time we talk to someone.

Without these rules, conversations would be impossible to have. While everyone follows the rules, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are aware of what the rules are or how they work. In fact, Grice’s maxims often work in the background – outside of our immediate awareness (see Brown & Levinsen).

What are the implicit rules we follow when talking to each other?

The four basic rules (maxims) are:

Maxim of Quality

According to the first rule – people are expected to say what they know to be true. When talking with each other – we expect people to tell us the truth.

If your spouse asks, "...have you seen my car keys?" An honest answer is expected.

Maxim of Quantity

According to this rule – when talking, people are expected to provide just enough information to get their point across. People should not provide too much or too little information.

So, when you get home from an important meeting and your spouse asks, "What happened today?” – you are expected to answer the question without providing too much detail ("The meeting started three minutes late, I sat by the door, the first person to speak...") or too little information ("Not much.").

Maxim of Relation

According to this rule – you are expected to stay on the topic. In other words, make sure that your comments fit with what is being talked about – make sure your comments are relevant.

If your spouse asks "How was your day?" and you say "I hate tomatoes" – you are not playing by the rules... you are expected to make a contribution that is somewhat related to the topic at hand.

Maxim of Manner

Finally, the last rule states that your comments should be direct, clear, and to the point. You should avoid using vague or ambiguous language when speaking.

If your boyfriend asks, "How does my new shirt look?" and you respond "It’s interesting," you have broken Maxim of Manner – you are not being clear and direct.

Overall, these simple conversational rules are very useful – both when they are followed and when they are noticeably broken.

Following the Rules/Maxims

When the rules are followed it is very easy for people to understand each other. What people say is explicit, direct, and to the point. People say what they mean.

Noticeably Breaking the Rules/Maxims

These rules, however, are useful even when they are broken. If a speaker breaks the rules in a way that is noticeable (called "flouting"), we try to figure out why it happened – "...why did she say that?"

The following examples show how this works:

If someone asks you, “How much did your house cost?” and you respond by saying “Enough” – well, hopefully they will get the point ("It’s none of your business.")

This is how we imply meaning – we say things without actually having to say them by breaking Grice’s rules overtly (out in the open).

One more example of flouting the maxims: Imagine that you and a friend at work are sitting around work complaining about your boss. Mid-sentence your friend abruptly switches the topic (breaks the Maxim of Relation). Without saying a word your friend has told what you need to know.

As can be seen, Grice’s rules are important – we follow them when we want to be explicitly clear and direct.

And we break the rules in an obvious, noticeable in order to make a point without having to be explicit about the point being made.

We also exploit these four basic rules when trying to deceive each other...