Relevance in telling the time

In Truthfulness and relevance in telling the time, Jean-Baptiste Van der Henst, Laure Carles, and Dan Sperber (Mind and Language, vol 17, No 5, November 2002, pp 457-466) examined an intriguing phenomenon: "Someone approached in the street and asked "What time is it?" at a point when her watch reads (for instance) 3:08 is likely to answer "It is 3:10"".

We argue that a fundamental factor that explains such rounding is a psychological disposition to give an answer that, while not necessarily strictly truthful or accurate, is an optimally relevant one (in the sense of relevance theory) i.e. an answer from which hearers can derive the consequences they care about with minimal effort. A rounded answer is easier to process and may carry the same consequences as one that is accurate to the minute. Hence rounding is often a way of optimising relevance. Three simple, near-"natural" experiments, which involve approaching people in public places and asking the time, give support and greater precision to the view that relevance is more important than strict truthfulness in verbal communication. (...) To determine what is relevant to someone, it is necessary to attend to his or her states of mind. There is an extensive psychological literature on "theory of mind" or "mindreading" abilities, exploring how humans are capable of attending to one another's states of mind (e.g. Baron-Cohen, Tager-Flusberg & Cohen, 2000; Carruthers & Smith 1996; Davis & Stone, 1995). There is also a rich literature on perspective taking in communication which has shown that speakers take into account the point of view of hearers in a way that facilitates comprehension (see Krauss & Fussell 1996 for a recent review). The present study shows that such a mindreading ability and attention to the point of view of the hearer is at work even in the simplest forms of everyday communication between strangers. Speakers tend to make the effort of inferring what information may be relevant, i.e. be both consequential and easy to process, for the hearer. In so doing, they go beyond facilitating comprehension, and attend to the interests that make comprehension desirable to the hearer in the first place. Helpful speakers aim at relevance rather than accuracy (and hence strict truthfulness) in what they say. They spontaneously adjust the level of accuracy of their utterances - up or down as the context requires - so as to optimise relevance.

Why do I blog this? because I am currently writing the theoretical framework part of my PhD dissertation and I used Sperber and Wilson's Relevance theory. Even though this telling time conversation issue is simple, it involves mechanisms that are also at stake in other interactional contexts (such as Catchbob coordination).