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 https://www.eatliver.com/coffee-or-tea/ Does anyone know the actual maker’s name?

I recently discovered these wonderful communication-fail memes, such as the one above. But beyond being peak comedy for linguists, language lovers, teachers, and language students, this meme and others like it point to a really important point: communication happens far beyond grammar and vocabulary. So here are some of my ideas for teaching pragmatics with memes.

Cultural rules play a huge role in communication. In the above picture, the flight attendant is asking a question, with most of the question left unsaid. What she means is, “Would you like coffee or tea?” Now the first part of the question has been dropped, maybe because the flight attendant has to ask it a million times.

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

  1. Flight attendants offer people food and drink periodically.
  2. The flight attendant is holding out a Thermos which presumably contains a hot beverage.
  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 hot caffeinated beverage after a meal. Coffee and tea are the two most popular choices, and most people prefer one or the other.

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.” Obviously, this example is ridiculous, which is what makes it so funny, but we’ve all made mistakes like this.

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”.

The other important piece here is that there are very few reasons WHY we’d ask what the lobby was called. I suppose you might want to ask someone to meet you there. But then you could say “reception”, “the big room near the door”, or “that place where you check in, what’s that room called, oh yes, the lobby”. On the other hand, it’s plausible a guest might forget their room number and need to be reminded. So again, context is important. We’re also reminded that conversations in the real world have purpose, something that is sometimes lacking in the classroom!

Another interesting thing to note is that the man’s statement, is really a question. This is something we do all the time. There are a number of ways asking questions indirectly. We often do it in formal registers. We also may do it because we aren’t sure if the person we are talking to knows the answer. A direct question would force them to admit their ignorance, but an indirect one lets them save face by saying, “Hmm, me neither.” This idea that a statement can be a question is rarely taught explicitly in ESL/EFL textbooks and can be confusing to someone who is learning English and has many other things on their mind.

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 also from https://www.eatliver.com. You can share them with students and ask them to analyze them. What assumptions do we have in these contexts? How were those norms broken?

If you can find more memes, you can share them although I’ve found them devilishly hard to google because there’s no agreed-upon category for them! I call them communication-fail memes.

Students can also write their 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.

Students can even create longer scenes or dialogues filled with mistakes and misunderstandings.

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 print books out on using drama in the classroom. Click to learn more and find other helpful resources.

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

2 Replies to “Teaching Pragmatics with Memes”

  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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