Help Me ID this Communication Style
January 23, 2015 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Several years ago I read an online piece (may have been a blog post, may have been a feature ... kinda fuzzy now) about a particular communication style that is typified by the speaker providing the absolute bare minimum response to a question. Does this style have a name?

I only recall that an example given related the author's experience shopping for clothes and getting this treatment from a salesperson. I can't remember the actual exchange verbatim, but the gist was that the author was looking for something fairly generic (say, a black dress). She picked one out and it didn't fit so she asked the salesperson if it they had it in a medium and the salesperson simply answered "no."

The author's point was that some people would grok that it really didn't matter if it was that particular dress and might offer to find other, comparable dresses in size medium, offer to call other stores, etc. They would understand: "This woman is actually just looking for any cute black dress that fits, she appears willing to try on several, and whereas her question might literally just be about this one I know that she's asking about black dresses in general." Others (e.g. this saleswoman) simply respond to the literal question and do not make inferences about the broader context.

The main point (and what I'm trying to find out) is that I seem to recall that the author represented that this was not simply "a salesperson being lazy" but was, in fact, a particular type of communication style and the article went on to discuss tactics both for dealing with this kind of style as well as what to do if this is your communication style. She may or may not have named this style, or it may or may have already have had a name.

So, I'm not necessarily looking for that article; I'm just wondering if this describes anything recognizable in communication research circles so I can do some additional reading about it - like, "Oh yeah, that's the Murkleton-Barr style" or "That's called hyperliteral-superannoying and here's the seminal article about it."
posted by majorsteel to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In the context of giving a deposition, this is usually phrased as "don't volunteer information." An example:

Q: Do you know the time?
Bad Answer: It's 5pm.
Good Answer: Yes.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:43 AM on January 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Literal vs Inferential
posted by empath at 8:47 AM on January 23, 2015

Ask any NE Patriots fan and they'd say "Belichicking".
posted by Gungho at 9:45 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by prewar lemonade at 9:55 AM on January 23, 2015

There's a style called Precision Questioning and Answering that fits this mold.

It's more of a "think of the exact information you need and ask that question" style of conversation, matched with "don't waste time saying anything more than the answer" response. The goal is improved meeting efficiency better TPS Reports blah blah blah but yeah, it can really come off as mean in the wrong context.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:48 AM on January 23, 2015

Passive aggression. At least, that's the way a lot of people experience it.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:37 AM on January 23, 2015

posted by Jubey at 1:53 PM on January 23, 2015

"One-word answers"
posted by serena15221 at 5:54 PM on January 23, 2015

Best answer: The philosopher Paul Grice developed a theory of conversation based on the importance of our 'groking' what information people are seeking even if they don't spell it completely out, which they usually don't. He called it conversational implicature, and elaborated certain maxims of conversation that are not normally violated when people are being reasonable, and that we use to fill in the blanks of not fully explicit utterances. The clerk could perhaps be accused of uncooperatively violating Grice's maxim of quanity, which tells us we should "make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange." (He went on to note that clear violation of his maxims is often used to signal the indirect communication of meanings it might not be polite or clever to articulate fully.)

However, in the field of cross-cultural communication, there is the concept of high-context vs. low-context communication. Some cultures expect low-context communication, where the message is exactly what is said and nothing more, while others expect high-context, where participants use inference and general knowledge to complete the meaning of utterances. On this view, the clerk may not have been unreasonable or uncooperative but merely operating from within the assumptions of a low-context culture.
posted by bertran at 6:33 PM on January 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!

bertran: I think the high-context vs. low-context communication is close to what I was looking for. I loved reading about Grice's theory, too, and will definitely seek out more information about that.

empath: The link you provided points to a local file - I can't access it.

For the phenomenon I'm seeking to understand, I don't think the intention is negative or even trying to be unhelpful. I just think that individuals who exhibit this behavior don't realize they are doing anything "wrong."

The main reason I was seeking this information is that someone I work with does exactly this thing. I vaguely remembered the article I referred to and was hoping to find some guidance on how to better understand it, and potentially how to coach him.
posted by majorsteel at 9:03 PM on January 23, 2015

It sounds similar to the work of Deborah Tannen, although I wasn't able to find the story about the saleswoman with a quick search. But maybe look into her stuff as a starting point, if you're willing to do some more digging.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:06 PM on January 23, 2015

Glad I got near what you're looking for. The classic paper from Grice on this is Logic and Conversation. The introduction is kind of arcane -- unless you are somehow concerned with debates about formal logic -- but the rest is fun in a thorny sort of way.

There's a whole sub-area of corporate communication lore which is supposed to help people get past differing communication styles in the interest of more effective team work. Maybe that literature would be a place to look? Here's a random example of a quickie article in the genre; there are surely better ones out there to be found. It sounds like what you want to do is sensitize your co-worker to the limitations of their own communication style and coax them out of it a little...

Good luck!
posted by bertran at 10:15 PM on January 23, 2015

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