The Role of Background Knowledge in Communication

What background knowledge do two people need to share to be capable of communicating with each other? Let's take an example.

Here's a story about a football game I played as I might tell it to a team member who had missed the game. In telling the story to my fellow team member, I can count on him having an enormous amount of concrete knowledge about the team:

They tried to do what they always do. But we used the new option a couple of times and we used the quick pitch and they fell for it. By the end, they didn't know which way to turn. We pretty much steamrolled over them.

This story will make little, if any, sense to you, because you are missing the concrete information needed to tie it together. Who are "they"? What is the "new option"? What do I mean by "which way to turn"? Without knowing some facts about the game, you will not be able to make heads or tails of such a communication. Here's the same story as I would tell it to a typical adult under the assumption that he or she knows the things which most American adults do, but may not be particularly familiar with football, or my team:

I am probably one of the world's oldest intramural athletes. I play intramural football every year. Every year, there is one team that gives my team trouble because on defense they always fanatically rush whoever has the ball. This style upsets my team's rhythm and we always have a hard time scoring against them. When we played them this year, however, we plotted out a few special plays to take advantage of the risks the team left themselves open to and we really shredded them up. By the end of the game, they had stopped taking such risks because they knew we could take advantage of them. But they did not know how to play defense without taking such risks, so they more or less just fell to pieces.

Most adults will be able to understand this story. One reason for this is that this version fills in the concrete facts which were missing in the first version. Another equally important reason is that most adults understand the abstract knowledge about life that underlies the story. Every adult knows what it means to take a "risk." Every adult knows what it means to plot a strategy. Every adult knows what it means to have a plan of action that usually works go wrong, and not know how to react. Adults can understand this story because they know stories that, in the abstract, are just like it. They understand the abstract schemas on which the story is based.

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