Linguistics and sexting have more in common than you might think. More specifically, the linguistic sub-field of pragmatics and its cooperative principle are reflected quite strongly in sexting.

What did you say? Who am I and why am I writing this? Great questions. I won’t be answering them, but I will answer the implied question of what the cooperative principle is.

The cooperative principle refers to a set of maxims as described by the language philosopher H.P. Grice. Essentially, the maxims are four rules that should be used to keep the content of conversational dialogue “such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange.”

This includes conversations carried out digitally, which, naturally, includes sexting.

Sexting is associated with a degree of notoriety, yes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be academic. You go to URr, for goodness’ sake. Your nipples are practically made of knowledge. With all that said, why don’t you and your nipples sit down for a moment while I learn you a thing. Here’s how to sext according to Grice’s four maxims.

  1. The maxim of relation: stay on topic. Once your conversation has taken a turn for the steamier, you’re going to want to stay there by maintaining relevance. Now is probably not the time to be talking about patterns of neural firing in the occipital lobe, which is definitely not something I do, why would you even think that.
  2. The maxim of quality: don’t lie. In relation to sexting, this maxim can be pretty salient. Sexting is intimate and personal, you want to respect that intimacy by being honest. As a general rule, don’t say anything you wouldn’t actually do in real life. Also, while it is nice to be creative, if you’re not actually wearing “nothing but a pair of black panties ;),” don’t say that you are. Reality is usually hotter, anyway.
  3. The maxim of quantity: don’t share too much or too little. Use this one at your own discretion. My general rule is to be as specific as you can. No one needs an APA-cited essay on how exactly you want to go down on them, but please don’t be the person that just says, “Haha and then what,” either. Be brief, but not so brief that it’s uncomfortable.
  4. The maxim of manner: avoid ambiguity. You get the idea. Say what you want, and state it definitively. Imagination can be nice, but too little clarity can put a damper on the immediacy of the situation.

The idea is that following these maxims will lead you to a more productive, successful conversation, or in this case, exchange of sexts. However, I would like to highlight the differences between normative accounts (what you “should” do), and descriptive accounts (what actually happens).

Unfortunately for Grice and many linguists, human communication and behavior often combine to create something much messier and difficult to categorize than what a set of maxims can provide for us.

That’s precisely why we take into account the possibility of a maxim being breached, an act that is referred to as the “flouting” or “violation” of a maxim.

Flouting a maxim triggers implicatures, a technical term that refers to conversational phrases that suggest something rather than state it forthright. The presence of implicatures in any conversation can be problematic because of their tendency to muddle meaning, and their presence in sexting is no different. Although we are texting suggestively, we don’t really want the text itself to be suggestive. That joke was brought to you by “semantic ambiguity.” Thanks, linguistics.

In any case, flouting happens, but as mentioned, people are messy, and things like context and social cues can prevent a maxim violation from being as dire as it sounds.

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical situation. Your name is Rachel, and you just transferred to UR. You’re shy, reserved, and just a little misunderstood. Classic Rachel.

Anyway, you’ve been going to a lot of parties recently in the hopes of making some new friends. Maybe even something more, and one day at Drama House, this “something more” comes to you in the form of Brian, the Canadian Business major.

None of this backstory was relevant at all, but, basically, after obtaining Brian’s number (with his consent), you want to sext him real bad. You start off casually, with a simple “hey.” He responds almost immediately, with a “hey ;).”

Oh, it’s on. You keep it casual with an “are you trying to hang??” One minute goes by, then another. Then, after a whopping two minutes, he finally responds: “My bed is really warm.”

Wait, what? This response essentially flouts every maxim. It’s seemingly irrelevant, possibly a lie, too short, and definitely ambiguous. However, let’s think about the social implications and context. With the connotations of the iconic linguistic sign “;)” combined with the concept of sex having categorical overlap with the term “bed,” one could interpret this as a relatively successful, albeit vague, sext.

Regardless, you (Rachel the transfer student) would most likely have to follow up with some sort of clarification question, making the intent of his suggestive implicature more explicit. Semantic ambiguity not intended.

I would also like to make clear that everyone’s concept of sexting varies. This further complicates any linguistic analysis in the way that what seems sexy to one person may come across as banal to another, such as the bed example. This introduces cognition as the inseparable counterpart to a large portion of linguistics. However, psycholinguistics is a whole nother story, and I have a word limit.

Instead, I’ll reinforce the terms “normative” and “descriptive.” Although I have outlined for you what would be Grice’s normative account of sexting, the real world descriptive accounts of sexting often vary greatly.

With all that said, maybe just save yourself the trouble and send a picture instead.

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