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When we write to communicate something, often we miss out on certain details because we implicitly assume it to be obvious and that the reader would comprehend it without seeing it in words. Is there a word or a phrase to refer precisely to this human tendency?

Example usage quoted below:

A common problem with communication is unwritten assumptions. Naturally, not everything in our mind gets translated to text. This leads to a sort of void in the reader's mind, which -- given the propensity of the human mind -- leads to "filling in" with assumptions of their own.

We call this behaviour in human communication ____. The problem of ____ in communication can be mitigated by a number of ways:

  • by being explicit in communicating one's thoughts and ideas, leaving nothing 'assumed', albeit at the expense of being verbose
  • by grounding

(The first paragraph of this example is actually from this blog post of mine which might give addition context to the single-word-request.)


Perhaps there is a term in psycholinguistics (specifically language production) to refer to this phenomenon?

Related phrases

EDIT 1: Argument analysis is another field that could potentially help?

when people present arguments, they do not always mention all of the beliefs which they hold which are pertinent unstated claims, the truth of which is a necessary condition of the argument’s working the way it should. People could not state everything pertinent to the argument in this way. They necessarily leave much unstated. Often unstated assumptions would be accepted by virtually everyone, and it would be a great bore for the arguer and the audience to spell them out. Sometimes arguers are not aware of their unstated assumptions; sometimes these assumptions are highly questionable, and neglecting to spell them out lulls the unwary audience into accepting things it would not have granted on critical scrutiny. It is often said that such unstated assumptions are the missing premises of the stated argument. https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/wsia062018/chapter/5/

This is the key part from the quote above:

Sometimes arguers are not aware of their unstated assumptions; [..] and neglecting to spell them out lulls the unwary audience into accepting things it would not have granted on critical scrutiny

This makes sense from logic/argumentation point of view, but applied to the more general communication (not argumentation) context, it would instead look like this:

Sometimes writers are not aware of their unstated assumptions; [..] and neglecting to spell them out lulls the readers into assuming different things than the writer intended (and assumed)

And this is precisely what the word being requested here would refer to.

EDIT 2: Implicit communication (similar to implicit assumption) seems to touch on the heart of the matter, though the phrase can mean something else.

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  • Looking for projection? Oct 19, 2021 at 13:52
  • GoodTherapy lists 'failing to account for cultural differences in communication' as one common failing in (attempted) communication. Everybody has a diferent (sub-)culture. And we all make false assumptions about where the correct tension between being imprecise and being pedantic lies in individual conversations. // 'Assumed knowledge' has been defined as 'the minimum level of knowledge you need for a particular subject' (/ topic of conversation), but one also assumes certain opinions when chatting. Oct 19, 2021 at 13:54
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    A text can contains inferences and implications that are not stated....
    – Lambie
    Oct 19, 2021 at 15:08
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    The technical term for what you're looking for is Presupposition. There's an enormous literature on it in philosophy and linguistics, where it's not limited to writing, but extended to all speech. Some common triggers for presuppositions, from Levinson. Oct 19, 2021 at 20:21
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    Uh, how about "normal"?
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 19, 2021 at 21:20

2 Answers 2

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Intuition and perception come to mind.

We call this behaviour in human communication intuition/perception.

  • intuition - "immediate apprehension or cognition" - MW
  • perception - "quick, acute, and intuitive cognition" - MW
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  • Intuition does apply (take an upvote), but I think it is a far-ranging concept applying to more than unwritten assumptions. Oct 19, 2021 at 14:09
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We call this behaviour in human communication grounding.

Grounding

Grounding in communication is a concept proposed by Herbert H. Clark and Susan E. Brennan. It comprises the collection of "mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions" that is essential for communication between two people. Successful grounding in communication requires parties "to coordinate both the content and process". The concept is also common in philosophy of language. Wiki

Dialog acts and grounding

Grounding in dialog is the phenomenon that the participants in a conversation update their common ground, in particular adding elements to the perceived common ground. In Clark and Schaefer's classical model of grounding. (Clark and Schaefer 1989) participants in a dialogue try to establish for each utterance the mutual belief that the addressees have understood what the speaker meant. Yan Huang; The Oxford Handbook of Pragmatics

As the word "coordinate" above implies, the concept applied to dialog entails a process of synchronization with feedback. For example you would probably start to add more explanatory detail, backtrack, or ask specifically about comprehension if the person you are speaking to furrows their brow or forehead in confusion as opposed to nodding to signify that they agree or at least follow you.

In writing, an imperfect match between the writer's and the readers' assumed mutual knowledge can induce a translator to footnote a word judged to warrant an explanation.

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    thank you for this. I had not heard of this notion, which is very appropriate for the specialist area of pragmatics (to which I am also an empty vessel. I'm not sure, though, that it fits the context of the question, if only because the statement "I'm afraid your communication is ungrounded" would seem to mean that it was not properly justified by reasoned argument. In general, also, the specialised use of the word 'grounding' is not exactly in line with dictionary definition [dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/grounded]. I wonder why a single word is needed.
    – Tuffy
    Oct 19, 2021 at 14:56
  • The OP's tag is psycholinguistics and the example is "We call this behaviour in human communication ____." Why assume you can add "un" to any answer and have it necessarily make sense? If an answer were "common knowledge", you wouldn't say uncommon knowledge, but rather "Your communication assumes too much common knowledge."
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 19, 2021 at 15:27
  • However interesting this is, I think "grounding" is only a cognate word here. It is something that is utilized after this "error" in communication, and acts to address it. The word I'm looking for is to describe this "error" itself. Oct 19, 2021 at 15:51
  • @SridharRatnakumar Your question is looking for a "Word referring to unwritten implicit assumptions in communication"
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 19, 2021 at 16:00
  • @DjinTonic That is correct; word referring to unwritten implicit assumptions (the 'error' itself), and not referring to the process people use (such as grounding) to address that error. (Another way to address the error is to just be explicit about everything). Oct 19, 2021 at 16:03

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