When we're talking with people, we have to follow some rules beyond just what our syntax tells us is okay to have a smooth conversation. We've talked about some of these rules before: they let you believe that what the other person is saying is true, relevant, and more. But there's more to building fluid conversations than that, and much of it comes from using a common ground between you and who you're talking to. If it's someone you know already, you have a lot of shared experience and vocabulary to draw on, which means you can leave more out and still get your message by relying on the common ground between you. And we signal that we are attentive and engaged in the conversation by using backchannel responses, nodding or making little noises like "uh-huh" or "hai" to show you're following around. As you deepen a conversation, you use tools of spreading messages and words to create a common ground between you and who you're talking with, even if you didn't have a shared background to begin with to draw on.
Much of the research about common ground stems from face-to-face communication, but in online settings, we use the same strategies. There are memes we use to communicate that only fully function online, even! We can recognize bits of internet language as helping us form a common ground to draw on, like describing something extra small and cute as smol. But we can also use larger phrases, like variations of can't even, or adjust words we have already, like using nope as a verb. These are all markers that show we're part of a particular internet language subculture when we use them appropriately. And that's without the common grounding we draw on to let us leave things unstated in technical fields or fandoms. We build and draw on our common ground all the time! It's a sensible communication choice.
Common ground is getting built and used all the time when people talk to each other. If we want to see how essential it is, one way is to see how communication breaks down when it's missing. A good example of this is known as the Actor-Observer Effect.
Imagine that you're waiting for your friend Capheus to show up with his van, but he's late. You get annoyed; you've got people waiting for a ride, and they're blaming you, and you blame Capheus. Even if you get a text message from saying "I got held up", there's not a lot of information there to keep you from getting annoyed.
For Capheus, though, he's in the middle of the situation that's making him late. He knows exactly what's going on, and his delay in getting to you is certainly not his fault! Let's say what's kept him from getting to you is some armed guys stopping his van and making demands. From his perspective, he even managed to send a quick text off to you in the middle of the holdup! You can't really expect more from someone than that, so there's no reason to get angry.
When something goes wrong, people who are involved in a situation, acting in it, tend to see the situation itself as responsible. If you're an actor in the scene, you rarely put the blame on yourself. If armed robbers hijack your van, that's totally out of your control. But when you're on the outside, you don't know any of that. That whole situation is all one-sided, and so nothing about it is shared with you. You're just the observer, and without that common ground of knowledge about the situation, you're going to blame Capheus for being late. At least until he shows up and explains things.
The less common ground you share with someone, the more likely misunderstandings like these are to occur, and that's why they crop up more often in online conversations than in person. Being involved in a situation, or at least able to view it directly, makes it a lot easier to share that common ground. Since so many of our exchanges over email or social media are fragmented and offer only limited amounts of context, the risk of people not getting the whole picture is much higher. After all, if you were there with Capheus in the van, you'd know exactly who to blame!
So while there are many ways to make use of common ground when you're online, it's easier to fall prey to problems like the Actor-Observer Effect when you're away from the physical action. Just something to keep in mind before you lose your patience!
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about how we build shared referents, and what we do with them afterwards. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!
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