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How Abusers Exploit Conversational Conventions to Control Others

Trivializing, undermining, belittling, and gaslighting.

Key points

  • When we conversationally imply something without explicitly saying it, we rely on "violations" of conversational norms.
  • Verbal abusers sometimes exploit violations of conversational norms for personal gain and power.
  • Some verbal abusers master the "art" of subtly violating conversational norms and cooperative principles to retain or regain power.
Rodnae Productions/Pexels
Source: Rodnae Productions/Pexels

You are no doubt familiar with instances of verbal abuse that wear their name on their sleeve, as it were. Say you're at the store when you hear a woman ask her companion: "Do you think we need more milk?"

Her companion gets in her face and yells: "How the f**k would I know? Why didn't you check before we left? You're always wasting my time."

To your dismay, the first woman quietly apologizes to her companion.

"That's one toxic relationship," you think to yourself. "Thank goodness none of my connections are that bad."

But it's possible that your own connections (romantic or otherwise) differ not in kind but only in degree from the one you encountered.

Abusive anger, e.g. yelling, screaming, swearing, slurring, and name-calling, is only one type of verbal abuse. Another category exploits violations of conversational norms as a tool for the abuser to retain or regain power.

Verbal Abuse and Conversational Maxims

The linguist and philosopher Paul Grice argued that most people tend to follow a cooperative principle, which comprises four norms, or maxims:

  1. Quality: Only say what you believe to be true and backed by evidence.
  2. Quantity: Don't say more or less than the conversation calls for. The silent treatment and ghosting are extreme violations of the maxim of quantity.
  3. Relevance: Don't say anything that is irrelevant to the topic of the exchange.
  4. Manner: Be clear; for instance, avoid ambiguity and obscure or cryptic expressions.

Although they may look very similar, the maxims of quantity and relevance differ in subtle ways. The maxim of quantity suggests not leaving out essential information or adding information that isn't called for. The maxim of relevance, by contrast, suggests not changing the topic.

To illustrate:

Violation of Quantity:

Receptionist: You said it's your first time with us?

Jamie: Yeah—of course, I've been to the dentist before but we just moved here from New York. Well, actually, we stopped for five days at my sister's in Cleveland on our way here. They just had their first baby, and....

Receptionist: Just fill out this paperwork. You can sit down over there.

Violation of Relevance:

Brie: Do you want to watch a movie?

Andy: My dog is called Zeus.

Violating these maxims isn't always a bad thing. In fact, we violate them all the time when we assume the listener can work out what we meant to imply. If the weather is absolutely awful, and you say to a coworker "Wonderful weather today," you technically violate the maxim of quality, as you don't believe this to be true and backed by evidence. But you presumably take it for granted that your colleague can work out that you meant the opposite of what you actually said, but employed irony to lighten the situation.

While implied meanings (or "Gricean implicatures") are prevalent in ordinary language, verbal abusers sometimes exploit violations of these maxims as a tool of abuse. As with other forms of psychological abuse, the verbal abuser's ultimate purpose in abusing their victims is to chip away at the latter's confidence and sense of self and thereby retain or regain power.

Verbal Abuse that Violates the Maxim of Quality

Several subtypes of verbal abuse exploit violations of the maxim of quality. What these subtypes share in common is that the abuser knows that their statements are false or lack evidence. Here are a few examples:

Sarcasm. While sarcasm can sometimes be used as a form of humor, hurtful sarcasm is a form of verbal abuse that violates the maxim of quality. Abusers who exploit sarcasm as verbal abuse attacks others by saying the opposite of what they mean. Examples:

  • "It was great to meet your new beau. Wish I had a boyfriend with as many blackheads."
  • "That mustard stain goes really well with your new hair color."
  • "Have another doughnut, so you can keep up that double-chin."

Trivializing. In trivializing, the abuser seeks to make the victim's accomplishments seem insignificant, despite the fact that they know that their trivializing statements are false or lack evidence. Examples:

  • "You painted the living room. So what?"
  • "Did you really just refer to your college degree? I would hardly call that a college degree. That school has an 80 percent acceptance rate."
  • "You write poetry? I always found that to be a waste of time."

Belittling. Some verbal abusers purposely make condescending or patronizing statements about you, despite knowing that their statements are false or lack evidential backing. Examples:

  • "You have no sense of humor. Maybe that's why no one likes you."
  • "Do you really want to go for a walk by yourself? You're never going to find your way back. Not with your sense of direction."
  • "You know nothing about money. Just leave the money decisions to me."

Undermining. In undermining, the abuser violates the maxim of quality by making negative statements about your suggestions, opinions, or arguments, despite knowing their statements are false or lack evidence. Examples:

  • "I can't believe you insist on voting when you don't understand politics."
  • "Are you really suggesting we go out for sushi? That's really dumb. You know we always leave hungry."
  • "That's the stupidest argument I have heard so far."

Gaslighting. Gaslighting is an attempt to make you question your perception, your memory, and even your sanity. Gaslighting need not be verbal in nature, but gaslighters often violate the maxim of quality.

  • Victim: You said you were with John last Saturday.
    Abuser: I never said that. Your memory is terrible.
  • Victim: Did you hear that sound?
    Abuser: No. You must be hallucinating.

Verbal Abuse That Violates the Maxim of Quantity

Deception. Grice himself offered an example that can be re-interpreted as an instance of verbal abuse: John is out of gas and asks a passerby where he can get gas. The passerby says "There is a gas station around the corner." Here, it's implied that the gas station is open and has gas. If, however, the passerby knows that the gas station is closed or doesn't have any gas, he is violating the maxim of quantity by leaving out essential information. While he isn't lying, he is being deceitful.

Withholding. Verbal abusers who withhold information or purposely fail to share their thoughts and feelings violate the maxim of quantity.

  • Victim: I made that your favorite dish.
    Abuser: Ok.
  • Victim: Could I see your credit card statements? Perhaps I can figure out if we can make some cuts in our budget.
    Abuser: No way. You're not gonna scrutinize my credit card statements.

Verbal Abuse That Violates the Maxim of Relevance

Blocking and Diverting. Blocking and diverting are forms of verbal abuse in which the abuser assumes they have the right to decide the conversational topic.

  • Victim: "Something really funny happened at work today."
    Abuser: "Do we always have to talk about your workday?"
  • Abuser: "Your argument is circular. I can't discuss this issue with you."

Verbal Abuse That Violates the Maxim of Manner

Verbal abusers who violate the maxim of manner may use pretentious language to make you feel unintelligent: "I suppose you aren't acquainted with Yeats's oeuvre."

Gaslighters may use non-sequiturs as a crazy-making tactic:

  • Victim: Do you think this table is too big for our living room?
    Abuser: Of course not, it's made of wood.

Facebook image: Viachaslau Govorkov/Shutterstock


Grice, P. 1975, ‘Logic and Conversation’, in The Logic of Grammar, D. Davidson and G. Harman (eds.), Encino, CA: Dickenson, 64–75

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