How Much To Say

Knowing how much to say is always a bit tricky.  If you don’t give people the information they’re looking for, you’ll be seen as uncooperative, uninterested in the conversation, even hostile. (Think, for example, of the surly teenager who responds to his parents’ requests for information:  “Where have you been?” “Nowhere.” “What were you doing?” “Nothing.” etc.) On the other hand, if you go on too long, you’ll be seen as overly chatty, annoying, self-centered, uninterested in the person you’re talking to, etc.

An extended, everyday kind of example

Jackie:   What classes are you taking this semester?

Kat: Well, I have this organic chemistry class that is absolutely terrible.  The professor doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about and he, like, just sits in front of class and reads out of the book. Oh my gosh. How did he even get to become a professor? Yesterday, he told us all about his college days and getting drunk and blowing stuff up in his chem lab. Seriously! The man is an idiot.  Anyways, I also have statistics and a music class, and oh, I gotta tell you about my world religions class, you’re not gonna believe that one. There’s this one kid who sits in the front row….

Jackie: Sorry, I gotta get going!

If Kat had simply listed the courses she was taking, she wouldn’t seem to be expressing much interest in the conversation or desire for it to continue. (It would be a good response if, say, Jackie were Kat’s advisor or parent or employer and just wanted to know the simple facts.) Kat’s actual answer shows that she expects Jackie to be interested in these details, interested in Kat’s thoughts and opinions – in short, that they’re good friends. But even good friends don’t want to listen to a long lecture; they want some give-and-take in a conversation. Kat failed to monitor Jackie for signs that she (Kat) has crossed the line, that she’s giving too much information.  Most likely, Jackie has been signalling throughout the last several sentences that she’s getting bored, that she would like to get a word in edgewise, that she thinks Jackie is going on too long. When Kat shows no sign of allowing any give-and-take, Jackie finally abruptly ends the conversation.

If Kat had answered “Organic chem, statistics, a music class, and world religions. What about you?”, Jackie would have replied in turn, at which point Kat could tell Jackie about her chemistry class, then listened while Jackie told a story about one of her classes (or responded with another relevant comment or story), then Kat would have gotten another turn to tell her story about her religion class, then back to Jackie, etc.

Or Kat could have said something like “Well, I have organic chem, but it sucks….” and then waited to see how Jackie would respond. If Jackie wanted to hear more about why organic chem sucks, she’d ask. If she had had organic chem herself, she might agree and they could bond over the shared gripe. Or she could express sympathy and concern. Or she might try to get the conversation to go in a different direction by asking, “What else are you taking?” (showing that she doesn’t really want to hear about the chemistry class, but does still want to continue chatting with Kat).

In any of these scenarios, the conversation could have lasted much longer and both parties could have come away not just feeling satisfied with the conversation, but satisfied with the relationship. Instead, Jackie comes away thinking Kat is boring and not wanting to begin another conversation with her, and Kat comes away thinking Jackie is rude and unfriendly.

Inferences: leaving out the 'obvious'

One way to keep answers and comments relatively short is to assume that the other person can “connect the dots” and make the appropriate inferences. In this case, you’re not leaving out information because you don’t want to share, but because you think the other person should be able to figure it out based on the information you already gave. So if you offer me a cup of coffee and I say “I’m jittery enough today,” I don’t have to spell out all the connections: coffee contains caffeine, caffeine makes people jittery, I don’t want to be more jittery, so I don’t want coffee….

One of the problems with relying on inferences, aside from the obvious problem that some people may not understand the intended connections, is that because you’re not directly stating your true meaning, some people may lie by omission. If I ask you “Do you want to go to the movies (with me) this weekend?” and you tell me “I have to write a paper,” I will assume that that is the reason why you won’t (can’t) go to the movies. (Otherwise your comment wouldn’t be relevant.) Technically, it may be true that you had to write a paper, but if I later find out that you went to a party that weekend, I will feel that you lied to me (because you didn’t give me the right amount of information).

The most important key to making appropriate inferences is relevance. Unless someone is deliberately changing the topic, their comment must be somehow related to the conversation, and must be trying to give you the right amount of information for you to make the appropriate inferences.

What do they already know? What do they want to know?


closed factual questions

Closed, factual questions such as “what time is it?” or “are you married?” or “where can you buy a decent bagel around here?” typically only require a quick response – perhaps only one word! But you will interpret the question differently depending on who the person asking is, and what they presumably want to know. (That is, you will try to figure out the relevance of their question: why are they asking?) If the person just wants to eat a yummy bagel, then telling them the closest, most convenient place would be the most helpful answer. If the person wants to open a new bagel shop and is trying to figure out where the best location would be, to avoid direct competition with other bagel shops, they might be hoping for a comprehensive listing of all the bagel-sellers in the area. Similarly, if the person asking “are you married?” is a census-taker, and just needs to check the appropriate box, anything but a “yes/no” answer would be too much information and kind of weird. On the other hand, if someone is flirting with you, you might need to respond at greater length (depending on whether or not you are married and/or whether or not you are interested in flirting back): “I was, but it didn’t work out,” or “No, but I’m not really looking for that,” or “I’m afraid so” or “Nope. Free as a bird!” or whatever.

open-ended questions

Open-ended questions invite you to give the listener more information, often about yourself. E.g., You’re at a job interview and the interviewer asks, “What are some of your strengths?” or someone you’re romantically interested in asks “What do you like to do in your free time?” or you’re browsing in the mystery section at a bookstore and another customer asks, “Which authors would you recommend?”

This type of question might appear to be an invitation to go on as long as you like, but as we’ve seen above, that can lead to conversational disaster. Rather, we might suggest that you start with one thing, and wait to be invited to add more. “Well, my greatest strength is…..” or “Well, number one on my list would be….” or “My all-time favorite is….” If you really don’t have a “number one” on your list, it’s fine to list two or three things, but don’t try to give details at this point – just list your two or three, then wait for the other person to ask you to elaborate: “What else do you like?” “Tell me more!” “Why those ones?” etc.

self-disclosure

How much does anyone want to know about you, personally? Only your doctor needs to know the color and consistency of your bowel movements. There are lots of things you just wouldn’t volunteer in conversation, no matter how close you are – things no one should ask about, either. Typically, “opening up” to someone (gradually disclosing more and more intimate things about yourself) is key to developing a closer relationship, but it has to be reciprocal: you shouldn’t ask a question that you wouldn’t feel comfortable being asked yourself, and you shouldn’t tell someone things that are noticeably more personal and/or embarrassing than the sorts of things they tell you.

Do not be too hasty to share personal details, or to request someone else to share them. If you tell someone something very personal, and they do not reciprocate, it is probably a sign that you are trying to force the relationship to develop too quickly – which may well scare off the other person.

if you’re not sure

If you’re not sure why somebody is asking you a question, then it’s awfully hard to know how much information to give. (Everybody occasionally miscalculates this, and the person asking will have to adjust the question: “No, what I meant to ask was….” or “I just wanted to know….”) In most situations, you can simply ask, “Why do you ask?” or say something like “I’m not sure what it is, exactly, that you’re asking.” (The former may sound more like a challenge, whereas the latter makes it clear that you want to be helpful, you’re just not sure what the helpful response would be.) If you are in a subordinate position, speaking to someone who has power over you, you may not feel comfortable questioning the questioner. In that case, you can send other kinds of social signals indicating that you are uncomfortable with the question (see signs of discomfort in polite=indirect).

telling people what you know they already know

If you’re a chef, I don’t need to tell you that Italian cuisine features a lot of different kinds of pasta, or that asiago is a type of cheese.  If you’re a computer programmer, I don’t need to explain to you the difference between hardware and software, or between RAM and ROM.  Whoever you are, I don’t need to tell you facts about you: who you are, what you think, what you mean, etc. And yet people do this all the time!

Sometimes, we simply miscalculate: I tell you something because I’m not sure if you know it, and then I’m embarrassed when you point out that you did already know. (This threatens our sense of solidarity; we don’t know each other as well as we thought!)

Often, however, telling someone something they already know is intended to trigger an inference (as discussed above, and in the indirect speech section). Again, you must seek the relevance of the comment: why is this person reminding me of this fact (which they must know I already know)? How is the fact relevant to the situation?

E.g. If I fail at a task, someone could console me with “you’re a human being” or “you’re exhausted,” the inferences being (respectively) that nobody could have succeeded or that I will succeed when I’m better rested. If I say something unintentionally rude, my husband might say, “You mean…..” and then rephrase whatever I said in a less hurtful way. (The inference there is that I should have meant what he said; that whatever I said, I didn’t mean to be rude.)

If it is not an honest mistake, and it is not intended to trigger a relevant inference, then the act of giving too much information will seem condescending and insulting. One useful strategy if you’re not sure whether or not someone knows something is to “remind” them:  “I think I already told you this, but….” or “I’m sure you already know this, but….”   This ensures that they now have the relevant information, but avoids the social gaffe of assuming they don’t.

Repair Strategies:  what to do if you’ve misjudged

you went on too long

If someone reduces their active listening cues and begins to look distracted, bored, and/or uncomfortable while you’re speaking, you’ve probably gone on too long.  A quick apology (“I’m sorry, that was probably more than you wanted to know”) will reassure the person you’re speaking to that you do care about them, and give them the chance to redirect the conversation, if they would like to do so.

you didn’t give enough information

If you leave some information out of your story or comment because you have reason to believe the other person already knows it (e.g., you already told them), they may just be confused and ask for clarification, with no hurt feelings. They will probably say something like “Wait” (or “Hang on” or “Hold up” or “Can we back up a sec?”) and then ask you to explain.

For example, I might start a conversation with my husband saying “That woman came back today,” assuming he’ll remember the story I told him a few days ago and relate the present comment back to it. If he doesn’t make the appropriate connection, he won’t know who “that woman” is, so he’d just ask: “Wait, what woman? Who are you talking about?” All I need to do to “repair” the conversation is to provide him with the information he was missing – I don’t need to do any extra politeness work.

Don’t assume that they weren’t listening to you originally or that they don’t care enough about what you tell them to remember. We all have trouble making relevant connections at times!

If you haven’t given a particular piece of information because you think any reasonable, intelligent person should know it, the other person may be embarrassed as well as confused – so embarrassed that they may pretend to know what you’re talking about, not giving any overt verbal cues at all. This can lead to all sorts of miscommunication down the line. If you detect signs of confusion, you can back up and ask “Wait, I should have asked, are you familiar with X?” or “I’m sorry, I feel like maybe I left out something important here. Do you know X?” You should try to ask the question in an off-hand way, so you don’t imply that the person should have known. (And certainly don’t mock them for not knowing!)

you’ve told them something they already know

If the information is fairly esoteric or obscure, and you have no reason to know that the other person would have known it, there is no need to “repair” the error. The person will probably say “Yes, I know,” but will not sound upset or offended.

Example: If I want to tell my friend a story about Ada Lovelace, I might not expect my friend to know much about her, so I might start to explain that she was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. If my friend already knows this, it is unlikely that they’ll be offended (or feel condescended to), because it is, after all, somewhat obscure knowledge. My friend can say something like “Yes, I know. I read a biography of her. She was a pioneer in the development of computers!” We’ll both feel proud of ourselves that we know about this remarkable woman, and – since we’ve now established even more common ground between us – we’ve improved our sense of solidarity.

If you tell someone something they already know, and the knowledge is common knowledge or something you should know that the other person knows (because they’ve told you before, or because they have an education or experience in the field), you will be seen as “talking down” or condescending to them. This threatens both their sense of solidarity (because apparently you don’t know each other as well as close friends should) and their sense of power (because you appear to be putting yourself above them in knowledge and expertise). The person might say “Yes, I know,” with extra stress (with or without a sarcastic tone) or “duh.” Depending on how offended the person appears to be, a quick “sorry” might repair the situation. Otherwise, you might want to take it a bit farther: “I’m sorry, of course you know that!” or “Sorry, I’m so used to talking to students… I forgot I was talking to an expert!” or some other acknowledgment of their knowledge and/or expertise.

Scholarly Sources

  • Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics vol. 3: Speech acts (pp. 41–58). Academic Press.
  • Holtgraves, T. M. (2002). Language as social action: Social psychology and language use. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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