In a conversation, we often take into account the knowledge of the other person. You will probably talk differently, less technically, to your family about your work or studies than to your colleagues. But do we take others into account in every situation? And do some people do this more often than others?
The fact that people take into account the knowledge and beliefs of their interlocutor is known as recipient design. There are two prevailing ideas on recipient design. The sociocentric idea is that people take into account the knowledge of their interlocutor in every situation. The egocentric idea is that people initially do not take into account their interlocutor when they form sentences in their minds, but only if it proves necessary, for example when someone interprets something in a different way.
Currently, there is more evidence in favor of the sociocentric idea of recipient design. An example of such evidence can be found in an experiment in which an instructor gives certain instructions to a participant. In between the participants is a board with figures of different colors, of which some can be seen by both the instructor and the participant and others only by the participant. During the instruction “Place the blue triangle on the red one” the researchers observed that the eye movements of the participants fixated an equal amount on the two red triangles if these triangles were visible for both people involved. If, however, there was one red triangle visible for both people and one red triangle only visible for the participant, the participant fixated immediately mostly on the red triangle that was visible for both participants. This shows us that people intuitively take into account information that is shared with the other person.
The extent to which people take into the interlocutor varies from person to person and has to do with multiple characteristics. People who are better at suppressing their impulses or irrelevant information, are better at recipient design. Your personality also has an influence: more empathetic people are better at recipient design, while people that enjoy engaging in complex or difficult thought will be worse at it. Your mood also makes a difference: when you’re sad, you tend to think more deliberately and therefore take into account other people more often than when you’re happy. Lastly, your culture is also relevant: when you live in a collectivist culture, like in East Asia, where people value cohesion between people and the interest of a group a lot, you are better at recipient design than when you live in an individualist culture, like in the West, where people value being independent over identifying with a group.
In the end, most of the time we are not egocentric when we are talking. We usually take into account the knowledge and beliefs of others when we are communicating. And that’s a good thing, because thinking about how your interlocutor or your audience is interpreting something is important in order to send a clear message. After all, language is not a one-way street!