TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Januar 2010

Sektion 2.7. Neue Entwicklungen in der Psycholinguistik / New Developments in Psycholinguistics
SektionsleiterInnen | Section Chairs: Elly Brosig (Stuttgart, Germany)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Misunderstandings in e-communication from the relevance-theoretic perspective

Anna Niżegorodcew (Jagiellonian University, Kraków / Poland) [BIO]



1. Introduction

According to Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986/1995), human beings automatically pay attention to the most efficient information, that is the information that will enable them to arrive at contextual assumptions with the smallest expenditure of energy. The process of paying attention is understood as an involuntary automatic process. When attention is paid to particular input, it is relevant for the hearer. According to Sperber and Wilson, input is relevant when it produces enough contextual effect for the least processing effort. In other words, in order to comprehend the speaker’s intention expressed in an utterance, the hearer has to arrive at contextual assumptions on the basis of his/her present knowledge, without putting too much effort into the process. Contextual assumptions and contextual effect  refer to the hearer’s use of his/her knowledge  in the context of particular communication, that is, taking into consi-deration the speaker’s identity and the circumstances in which the utterance is produced (see Niżegorodcew 2007).

In this paper I would like to outline a possible interpretation of mutual misunderstandings between  a tutor and her student in the light of Relevance Theory. Relevance theory is a pragmalinguistic theory which assumes that most human communication is focused on recognition and expression of speakers’  intentions. It claims that all human beings automatically aim for the most efficient information processing, that is why the information they pay attention to in the input must be optimally relevant, which means requiring the least processing effort to be comprehended. The hearers interpret the utterances they have heard according to the rationality principle, which postulates that the first acceptable interpretation of an utterance is the only acceptable interpretation. That is what Sperber and Wilson call the Cognitive Principle of Relevance (Wilson and Sperber, 2004).

Such a view, however, should also take into account the context of communication. Jodlowiec (1991:76) elucidates the comprehension process in relevance-theoretic interpretation of utterances, saying that the context of utterance interpretation must be chosen by the listener. According to this view, I would like to claim that the context of existing assumptions which are brought to bear on the interpretation of the interlocutors’ utterances in tutor/student communication  has to be chosen by them.

The question how to apply Relevance Theory to the interpretation of misunderstandings in human communication is a challenging perspective. Misunderstandings may arise, firstly, when what the interlocutors say is not fully explicit(1) , and secondly, when they do not take sufficiently into consideration the speakers’ identity and the circumstances of the communicative event. This second aspect is focused upon in the present paper.

Implied meanings, according to Sperber and Wilson, are a characteristic feature of human communication. The code model of human communication claims that the meanings which are encoded by one interlocutor should be decoded as accurately as possible by the other. On the other hand, the inferential model of human communication, postulated by Sperber and Wilson, claims that the decoding process is linked to the inferential process, in which the intended meanings communicated implicitly by one interlocutor are to be inferred by the other. When we say something, not only do we inform our interlocutors of something. We also communicate our wish to inform them of our informative intention.

For example, if a student informs her tutor that she is interested in Topic 1 and 2, and then she asks the tutor which topic is better, she not only informs the tutor of her interests and asks about the tutor’s opinion on the topics, but she also asks the tutor to choose the topic she would like to supervise. The tutor infers that the student, on the basis of her rights and obligations, suggests that she choose the topic.

In order to comprehend mutual intentions, both the tutor and the student have to take the academic context into account. They should know about supervisors’ and undergraduates’ rights and obligations. They should know that it is the students’ responsibility to suggest topics of their diploma projects but that it is the tutor’ s responsibility to approve of them.

The aim of the following case study is an interpretation of misunderstandings  in e-mail  communication between  a student (S) and her tutor (T) in the light of Relevance Theory. The interpretation views the mutual misunderstandings as stemming from contextual choices which are partly incompatible with each other.


2.  The case study

2.1 Background

Tutor/student face-to face communication during one-to-one conferences is part of a diploma seminar for English teacher trainees. Diploma projects involve lesson planning, teaching the planned lessons and reflecting on the lessons taught previously. A diploma project should also involve a background chapter based on literature.  The whole diploma project should be about 30 pages long, the background chapter approximately half of it.

Students embark on diploma project writing in the third (final) year of their studies. The year is divided into two semesters: Semester I (October-January) and Semester II (February-June). Semester I is usually spent on lesson observations, reading literature and conferencing with the tutor. Students are supposed to hand in a part of the diploma project by the end of the first semester. It is usually the background chapter.

In the academic year 2007/8 four students of the third year of the Teachers’ College received European Union grants (ERASMUS) to spend the first semester in another European country at a local higher school education department. The implementation of the Erasmus programme resulted in a number of problems concerning the students’ diploma projects. The following e-communication between the tutor (T) and one of the students (S) can serve as an example of mutual misunderstandings, partly due to S’s lack of communication with T before her departure and similar neglect on the part of the Teachers’ College.

However, the misunderstandings can be also interpreted in the light of RT as stemming from incompatible contextual choices. Thus, interlocutors’ attitudes and feedback they provide for each other can be interpreted in the light of Relevance Theory as too little effort (and attention) paid by them to the context of the communicative situation, due among other things, to the specificity of e-communication .

2.2 Data and discussion

Mail 1: Student writes to Tutor


I am a student of […]

I have been notified that there are problems with my diploma paper.

On this account I would like to explain my absence in class. I wanted to contact you before going to [...] but I did not know then who was my tutor.

At the moment I am in […] It is a six-months grant. After I come back I would like to write my diploma project.

I thought about taking advantage of my present situation and staying in […] to write a comparative paper – Teaching Young Learners.

However, I don’t know if I can find enough materials here in […]

Now I am teaching in a kindergarten, which I could also refer to in my project.

In the project I would like to present different ways of teaching in the primary schools in […]  as well as in Poland.

I am also wondering if it weren’t better to choose another topic […]

On this account I would like to ask you what you think about the above topics and    which one according to you would be more interesting.

I am also wondering if it was at all possible for me to write a diploma project from […]

Do you prefer me starting to write the diploma project right now?

Best wishes
Name and affiliation

Interpretation by T:

T understands that S is away but she wants to write her diploma project under T’s supervision and that S wants to connect her staying in a foreign country and teaching children there with her diploma project. According to T’s expectations  S asks about T’s preference as to her two proposals for a diploma project topic. T accepts S’s excuses and does not mind S’s inconsistencies and vagueness in what she says being used to students’ poor written argumentative skills. In other words, T imposes her own expectations  upon S’s vague and inconsistent remarks.

T expects S to follow academic requirements of her college, which involve handing in by the end of the first semester (end of January) an introductory chapter of the diploma project and some evidence of current teaching (e.g. lesson plans, lesson observations etc.).

However, S probably does not know much about the requirements concerning diploma projects. She has not attended any diploma seminars conducted since early October by the tutor (where the requirements were being explained) because she obtained a European Union grant to study abroad for a semester and went away without finding out about the requirements.

Apparently the College did not provide S with the information about the requirements before she left. Later some information was sent to her (‘I have been notified that there are problems with my diploma paper’). T did not know about S’s stay abroad and learned about it only informally. The College did not inform T about S’s case and what information (if any) was sent to S.

Mail 2: T answers S’s mail


Thank you for your mail.

The first topic "Teaching English to Young Learners in […]and in Poland" is much better on the basis of your experience in teaching kindergarten children in […] and in Poland in the second semester.

Please collect as many documented observations, lesson plans and very detailed descriptions of what you are doing there. Please send them to me by […] to the following address […]

After you come back, you will be continuing your work in Poland.

Best wishes

T’s mail is matter-of-fact and  contains explicit information. It follows T’s expectations that   it is her responsibility to tell the student explicitly  what she should do.

Mail 3: S writes again to T


With regard to lesson plans and documented observations I will be in […] on […] and is it at all possible to bring all the lesson plans and observations I will be able to collect by then?

I would like to write my comparative diploma project on teaching in the primary grades 1 – 3. I have an appointment with one of the heads of the primary schools, where I could do my project.

I am working in a kindergarten but I wouldn’t like to write a diploma project on kindergartens in […] and in Poland. I would also like to make sure if lesson plans and observations are enough for a credit for the first semester.


Interpretation by T:

T does not like S’s way of addressing her. T thinks that S imposes her expectations on her tutor and that she is interested only in formal requirements (lesson plans) but not in what she is going to observe. Consequently, T perceives  S as a person who cares primarily about formal requirements and not about the content of her diploma project.

Mail 4: T answers S’s mail


I will be in class in January so I will collect whatever you leave for me. I won’t be in the College on […].

Lesson plans and observations are not enough. To get a credit for the first semester you should write  about 15 pages of a diploma project, partly based on relevant literature and partly on your observations, lessons etc.

It is quite possible to write a project based on grades 1-3 but kindergarten teaching is also interesting.

[You should include] As many own experiences and reflections as possible.

Your text should be continuous, not just items or lesson plans.

I would rather you started your mail with ‘Dear + title and name’ and not with ‘Hi’. ‘Hi’ can be used with peers but not to address a professor.

Actually, I never use ‘Hi’ addressing my students because it is not a very polite form. 

Best wishes

T implies that she does not like S’s imposition (‘I will collect whatever you leave for me’). She shows S her place by mentioning in formal terms a number of S’s obligations  (‘ To get a credit for the first semester you should write  about 15 pages of a diploma project, partly based on relevant literature and partly on your observations, lessons etc.’). T explicitly tells S how to address her. She implicitly refuses to explain in detail what is involved in diploma project writing by giving only some hints (‘As many own experiences and reflections as possible. Your text should be continuous, not just items or lesson plans’).

In the meantime the Head of the College calls T and tells her that S claims that T has agreed to supervise S’s ”distance writing” of her diploma project.

Mail 5: from T to S


I have learned that you claim that I have agreed to supervise ”distance writing” of your project.

I wish to immediately clarify it.

You should first receive an agreement from the College Head.

I assumed that your mails to me meant that the Head had already agreed to such an arrangement, and       that you only want to settle the topic and requirements for a credit.

I won’t agree to anything unless it is first sorted out with the Head.

Best wishes

T is getting angry with S. She believes  that S has misinterpreted her words and has taken unfair advantage of T’s willingness to help her. However, it is not known what S has told the Head and how the Head has interpreted it. Especially, in the situation when it was S’s mother who acted on her behalf. T is not explicit about what ”distance writing” means. Probably she does not know it herself. Apparently, she is worried by the Head’s call and vents her anger writing a quick mail to S.

Mail 6: S to T

Hello Professor + name

I would like to apologise for the chaos I have introduced concerning my diploma project.

I am very concerned about graduating at the end of this academic year and that is why I wrote directly to you.

After receiving your mail I contacted the College secretary’s office.

It has turned out that I won’t be able to write my diploma as a ”distance project” because what matters is attending seminars.  

 I have been informed that if I manage to write my project in the second semester, I  can graduate in    September.

 I apologise once again for the chaos I have introduced.

 With best regards
 Sincerely yours

After receiving the above two mails from T, S changes her tone into an obedient student’s tone. She apologises for her behaviour. Her mail implies that she wants first of all to come to terms with T. T is satisfied with S’s apologies and explanations. T assumes that S will not bother her any more  with her problems concerning the diploma project. However, in a couple of days T receives another mail from S.

Mail 7: S to T

Hello Professor + Name

I request your written agreement to my  writing of a part of my diploma as a ”distance project” via e-mail.

I would write the remaining part after my return from […], that is after 20th February.

Your written statement of agreement is necessary for the Head […] to consider my application.

In case you agreed to supervise my diploma project in the first semester by mail and the Head agreed to give me a credit for the first semester, I would like to enquire by what date I should send you a short description of my project.

I am still working in a kindergarten and observing primary classes in […], and I wish to take advantage of these experiences in order to write a comparative study on ways of teaching English in the primary schools in […] and in Poland.

Your sincerely

T is confused. She does not understand why S has written this last mail which is inconsistent with the previous one. T suspects that somebody (mother?) who does not know about all the mails between S and T has persuaded S to write it.

Mail 8: T to S


Regretfully, I cannot formally agree to your diploma to be written as a ”distance project”.

I have already given you information on the requirements to get my credit for the first semester.

You should send me your texts by surface mail (not e-mail) to the college address.

You wrote before that you would be in [...] on 19th December.

Apart from it, you should write a 15 page chapter, I have also written you about, and I should get it at the latest by mid-January to be able to assess it by the end of the first semester.

I have an impression that you misunderstand me and you do not tell me what it is all about.

For instance, recently you apologised for the ”chaos”. I understood that you wanted to finish that matter.

Now you are again creating such a ”chaotic” situation.

Could you please stop this ”chaotic” correspondence.

Best wishes

T has made up her mind to explicitly refuse to give written agreements to supervise any diploma projects of the students who are abroad in the first semester. Apart from S, there are three such students. Each of the four students presented a different version of the Head’s requirements. T also feels that the Head of the college and other staff members are partly responsible for the whole misunderstanding. T feels surprised and offended that the College has not contacted her in that matter and that the students wrote to her about her duties as a supervisor (being themselves confused about their duties). In consequence, T’s mail to S is more categorical than she would like it to be.


3.  Conclusion

As has been said before, interlocutors’ interpretations of what the other person has said based on their knowledge can be equated in Relevance Theory with contextual assumptions the hearer arrives at with the least effort in a given communicative situation.  Deeply rooted expectations and attitudes are cognitive short cuts, as such they can be treated  as contextual assumptions which are useful in many situations. However, they can also prevent mutual understanding and can lead to hidden conflicts.

In face-to-face interaction it is possible to clarify misunderstandings more easily. First of all, face-to face communication is usually more explicit because it is partly verbal and partly non-verbal. Non-verbal communication provides numerous (very often subconscious) signals that can make verbal messages clearer.  E-communication, a recent technological invention, may result in more pragmalinguistic misunderstandings than face-to-face interaction because it is deprived of non-verbal signals and does not take the context of communication into account (e.g. does not follow rules of politeness). 

Relevance Theory, which claims that what we pay attention to is most relevant to us, can be applied to the interpretation of misunderstandings in e-communication. Our cognitive short cuts (like stereotypes) help us in quick categorization of reality. In new situations, however, arriving at contextual assumptions without paying attention to the whole complexity of the context  can lead to misunderstandings and pragmalinguistic errors. Being aware of the context, that is paying attention to more aspects of the communicative situation, will make these aspects relevant. In consequence, we will be more able to understand implied information.

In the case study under consideration, if T and S had been more aware of the circumstances involved in diploma project writing, they would have paid more attention to implied problems and  inconsistencies. If they had abandoned (at least partly) their deeply rooted mindsets of, in T’s case, a tutor imposing her requirements on the students, and in S’s case, of a student mainly concerned about her credits, they would have probably avoided a lot misunderstandings and stress.



1 Explicit communication can also lead to misunderstandings due to the interlocutors’ lack of attention or their unwillingness to follow what has been said. These cases, however, are excluded from our discussion.     
2 Translations by this author.

2.7. Neue Entwicklungen in der Psycholinguistik / New Developments in Psycholinguistics

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 Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Anna Niżegorodce: Misunderstandings in e-communication from the relevance-theoretic perspective - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2010-01-27