EQUIVOCATION AS AN INTERACTIONAL EVENT
Nicole Chovil University of British Columbia
There is an assumption shared by many professionals and lay persons that communication should be clear, direct, and complete. Rhetoricians such as Aristotle have advised public speakers to strive for clarity and avoid ambiguity. Speech courses also emphasize the need for a straightforward manner of speaking. According to Grice ( 1975), even ordinary conversation generally proceeds by the "cooperative principle." Conversants expect speakers to contribute messages that are relevant to the purpose or direction of the talk, to say no more or less than is required for the understood purpose, be truthful, and avoid obscurity and ambiguity.
Although much of our discourse with others generally appears to follow this principle, there are many instances when our communication with others violates linguistic standards. Of particular interest here are equivocal messages: unclear or nonstraightforward messages that may, at best, be only tangentially related to the preceding talk.
Psychologists have often attempted to account for inadequate communication by turning to sources within the individual. Unclear or nonstraightforward messages are often viewed as the result of individual error, inadequate verbal skills, deliberate attempts to be deceptive, or disordered thought processes (e.g., symptoms of mental illness). Although individual differences in verbal skills undoubtedly exist, these explanations ignore the context in which these messages are produced.
Other scholars have suggested that explanations of these messages can be found by closely examining the interpersonal situation in which they oc