Communication Has an Instruction Manual. Are we Using it?

Grice's Maxims

A recent social media snafu that made the Italian news involves communication between a government organization and citizens. Thousands of people poured into a Facebook page created to answer questions about social security benefits, generating a chaos that put a strain on the social media managers who run the community.

The social media manager for “Inps for the family,” whose page was flooded with comments, requests, accusations and in many cases insults succumbed to the temptation to blast#, that is to “expose the stupidity of the other to the public.”

Doing this, the blaster becomes the hero of the pack, the chief of the tribe. But is that how a public entity should serve citizens?

Beyond this specific incident (and many others we've read and heard about in the last few years), a better question might be, is this how do we communicate with each other?

When we communicate, we do a number of things 

We’re likely not aware of it. When we’re communicating with others, we’re following a basic set of rules. It would be impossible to have conversations without these rules. But they work in the background, beyond the reach of our consciousness.

British philosopher of language H. Paul Grice called the four basic rules maxims.

  1. Exhaustiveness: the first maxim focuses on the quantity of information we pass on. When talking, we should provide just enough information to get their point across.
  1. Informativeness: the second is about the quality of the information we share. We expect people to say what’s true to the extent of their knowledge. When talking with each other – we expect people to tell us the truth, to be sincere.
  1. Relevance: the third maxim focuses on the relevance of the exchange. What you communicate must be suited to the context and be relevant. Stay on topic, make sure your comments fit with the topic people are discussing.
  1. Modality: the person communicating has to express himself with clarity and brevity by avoiding any ambiguities and obscure expressions. Your comments should be direct, clear, and to the point. You should avoid using vague or ambiguous language.

In an “ideal” world, this is how we exchange messages. These simple maxims give us information when we follow them, and when we break them.

If it’s difficult to navigate meaning in normal circumstances, it’s even more difficult in times of uncertainty.  

Relationship first, then issue and medium

In the INPS social media case, the problem was compounded by the fact that many of the people who most needed the information aren’t entirely familiar or comfortable with technology. Their expectations were compounded by double uncertainty – about the message, and the medium.

When we think about crafting a message, we rarely focus on the skill of the person who will need to deliver it. A community manager should have communication training and practice in understanding human behavior. They need relational skills and techniques.

Sociolinguist and translator Vera Gheno says, “online communication is a question of relationships.” We focus on technology and give little thought to the human relationship.

It’s also the responsibility of the organization to communicate using language that is appropriate and provides clarity, using a medium and method that makes it easier to understand the information.

Social media has broad adoption, there should be a long-term strategy about how we communicate, respond, and interact. The stream, with its reverse chronological order and the potential for inserting multiple comments at the same time is not necessarily the best format for people to find information easily.

A flood of network effects often overwhelms our ability to pause and listen. Different interests pouring in at once create noise in the channel. But interests are feelings, and when communication goes wrong, it’s because we’re not tuned into those feelings.

Address what people care about 

Communicating something important is a form of teaching. Sheila Heen says teaching itself is a negotiation – knowing when to take risks, when to admit mistakes, and see what people have to learn. Owning up to screwing up is a big negotiation in the learning process.

In negotiation we also focus on interests and concerns. “Interests are feelings,” is an interesting take on communication. Because it’s important to respond to what people care about and what they worry about to get a deal done.

Emotion fuels the energy of conversation and when people get excited about something this determines how much risk they’re willing to tolerate and what they can accept. Online, we have the disadvantage that we cannot read body language, or amend a comment that pours out.

It’s much harder to listen for how people are feeling with what happened between them and the person who is communicating online. We often think we’re just focusing on the issue we’re discussing, but in communication emotion comes along.

Skilled communicators have experience in moving between facts and feelings. One choice we can make, says Heen, is to listen for the feeling behind the facts and accusations and respond to the feeling. Our identity is tied to those feelings, so it’s important to address them. For example, we could explain how we feel, acknowledge how the other person feels.

Reciprocity can help us in a conversation with someone else. But how to deal with a flood of comments coming at us from many sources with as many emotions attached to them? Online people don’t converse, they comment, and there’s a big difference between the two.

The best thing we can do is to make our communication as clear as possible. We should think ahead of the questions and potential problems – learning what people care about, and figuring out a way to address interests and concerns.


Among the challenges of public entities are a legacy bureaucratic mindset that kept citizens behind a counter with feedback fragmented to one-off conversations and communication in general flowing from the entity to people in the form of laws and rules, and that’s it.

Organizations and brands are not the only ones learning how to deal with communication online. We are, too, as individuals.

Someone can write a comment to a talk you give, or an article you’ve written and post it in social media without much context as to the feelings attached to it. Even email can be cruel, because it’s not a conversation (asynchronous), yet it feels like one (maybe because we treat it that way?)

When the comment happens to me, I try to make no judgement and approach the message with curiosity. It’s important we learn to listen for the emotional impact and accept it’s there, without wrapping our identity or sense of self to the comment.

All we can control is how we communicate, and listening is a great place to start.

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