Teaching Pragmatics with Memes

A flight attendant is asking a passenger "Coffee or tea?" and holding out a thermos. The passenger answers, "Tea" and the flight attendant replies, "Wrong. It's tea". It's a really funny joke!
from PunHubOnline

I recently discovered these wonderful communication-fail memes from PunHubOnline! Beyond being peak comedy for language lovers, these memes highlight a really important point: communication happens far beyond grammar and vocabulary. Pragmatics, the hidden rules that determine how we communicate with each other, is a huge factor in determining how we communicate. These memes are funny because they break those rules of pragmatics. So there’s nothing more natural than teaching pragmatics with memes.

What is Pragmatics and Why Should We Teach It?

Pragmatics is how we take into account a context and situation when communicating. Put simply, we speak very differently to our parents than we do to our friends, or when we are fighting with someone vs. when we are having a good time. I’ve written more about pragmatics and why it’s important here.

Looking at the meme above, the flight attendant is asking “Would you like coffee or tea?” Now she’s dropped the first part of the question. This might be rude in other contexts, but we know that flight attendants are busy so they can shorten the question, and we’re busy too!

And there a variety of clues that make the meaning of the utterance clear:

  1. Flight attendants often offer people food and drink.
  2. The flight attendant is holding out a Thermos.
  3. People hold things out and show them to you when offering things.
  4. They also adopt a questioning tone and may raise their eyebrows, smile, or in other ways look friendly and opening.
  5. Many people enjoy a coffee or tea after a meal.

There is no reason why a flight attendant would quiz you on the contents of a container! And yet in some contexts, the question “Coffee or tea?” might mean “Guess which one this is.” Maybe it’s a classroom and the teacher is playing a guessing game to review vocabulary, or maybe your friend has discovered a kind of tea that tastes just like coffee and he’s betting you can’t tell the difference.

The point is: the sentence isn’t wrong. The grammar and vocabulary are correct. But the context IS wrong and that’s where the communication fail happened!

Deictic Expressions

A man in a hotel lobby asks a hotel receptionist, "What room am I in?" She answers, "It's called the lobby, sir."

Here’s another example meme, one of my favorites. A man tells the hotel receptionist, “I’ve forgotten what room I’m in.”

The receptionist answers, “It’s called the Lobby!” The joke here is based on the misunderstanding of the designation, “room I’m in”. In a hotel “the room you are in” refers to your hotel room, the place you are sleeping. If we meant the room we are currently in, we’d say “this room”.

Also, there are very few reasons WHY we’d ask what the lobby was called. It doesn’t really matter if we call it a hotel lobby or reception or that big room near the door!

On the other hand, it’s plausible a guest might forget their room number and need to be reminded. So again, context is important and so is purpose. In the real world, we ask questions for a reason!

Another interesting thing is that the man’s statement is really a question. He’s not informing the woman he forgot his room number just for fun. He wants her to tell him the number.

We ask indirect questions all the time. We also ask rhetorical questions that are really statements! Rhetorical devices and their impact are a huge part of communication, but rarely explicitly taught!

Ideas for Teaching Pragmatics with Memes

There are a lot of things you can do with these memes in the classroom. I’ve attached a few above from https://www.eatliver.com but the PunHub Instagram account is the best place to get them-do check them for classroom appropriateness and language level though. You can share them with students and ask them to analyze them with the following questions:

  1. What is the context and what expectations do people have in these contexts?
  2. What hidden assumptions is the first speaker making?
  3. How does the second speaker break that assumption?
  4. Is the second speaker making any assumptions?
  5. What might a real conversation look like?
  6. What rules of social communication can we derive from the misunderstanding?

Students can also write their own memes. This might appear difficult but they probably have a miscommunication story of their own to share. I remember being asked how I’d rate a film once. For some reason, I though the person meant content ratings, so I said, “PG-13”! There may be a colloquialism in English that has just never made sense to them, an expression that has always stuck out for them because the literal meaning is so far off the intended meaning, or even something a foreigner in their own country said wrongly once!

Other Pragmatics Lesson Ideas

You can also help raise students’ awareness of pragmatics through short microsketches. Any dialogue that has a clear purpose can work. We have a lesson plan up on Teachers Pay Teachers, The Favor Microsketch: Learning Pragmatics Through Drama , that helps students learn about the language of asking for a favor, for example.

Feel free to browse all our Drama Resources on Teachers Pay Teachers for more help teaching spoken communication and pragmatics. We also have more drama resources and materials here.

Do you have other suggestions for teaching pragmatics with memes or other teaching ideas?

4 Responses

  1. Hi, these are from @punhubonline. Please contact us if you would like to chat. I would love to hear more about how you have used our memes in an educational setting.

  2. I definitely will and I’ll give full credit too. I’m so happy to know where these come from! In fact, I’m doing a presentation on pragmatics for teachers next week and I’d love to use one of these as an opener. I’d been looking for a snappy way to introduce the concept.

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