Pragmatic is a way of understanding language that considers how people use it in real life. It’s the study of social signs and body language that accompany speech, as well as the underlying meaning of an utterance. It also includes what’s not said, such as long pauses that might convey disagreement, surprise, or contemplation. It’s the reason why we need to take cultural norms into account when we are interacting with others, as what might be appropriate in one culture might not work in another. For example, a gesture that is perfectly acceptable in the United States (putting your hand up with the palm facing away from you) is considered highly insulting in Greece.
The concept of pragmatics is important to understand because it’s part of how we communicate with others and how we interpret communication. For example, if someone says “How are you?” we don’t expect them to give a full report on their health; we might be more interested in hearing how they are feeling or what their plans are for the day. This is because a person’s utterances and responses might be more about performing social tasks, like establishing rapport, rather than conveying specific information.
In linguistics, there is a school of thought called Critical Pragmatics that rejects the notion of a semantically determined meaning for an utterance. Instead, the referential and utterance-bound content of an utterance are determined by the speaker’s intention, or at least that’s how it’s perceived in real time.
Researchers have a lot to learn about how people pragmatically produce and interpret utterances and their meanings. But it’s important to remember that any experimental study will impose certain implicit or explicit task demands on participants, which is part of what makes pragmatic research difficult. In fact, failures to replicate are more common in pragmatic studies than they are in other areas of psychology and neuroscience. These failures to reproduce are raising serious concerns about the reliability of many published pragmatic findings.
Fortunately, there are some ways to overcome this challenge and do pragmatic research that is valid and meaningful. For instance, scholars have proposed using a ‘task-centric approach’ to pragmatics that prioritizes the task environment over epistemological and ontological arguments, which can help researchers avoid the problems caused by attempting to create universal theories of pragmatics that supervene over different experimental pragmatic situations. This is a good idea, as it can make it possible to develop theories that are useful in interpreting results from different experiments and might even be able to help with the replication crisis currently occurring in many academic fields. Ultimately, though, the goal of any pragmatics research should be to better understand the unique nature of human communication in a variety of situations. That way, we can better communicate with and understand each other. And that is a goal worth pursuing in the future.