Common ground is an interesting phrase that has been in usage for a long time. A more modern treatment of the phrase is rendered by social psychologists. It refers to the “mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions” that is essential for communication between two people (Clark & Brennan 1991).” Perhaps the words “belief” and “assumption” could be compacted to belief alone, since all beliefs are essentially assumptions lacking solid proof. The notion of “belief” is that it is an “assumption” taken as the unvarnished truth, whereas an assumption implies some degree of doubt. The word “knowledge” in contrast to “belief” would mean things that are verifiable; that they can be proven. Common ground could then be rephrased to mean “mutual facts and beliefs that are essential for accurate communication.”
People of different cultures try to communicate all the time, but do they truly understand what the other means? The national outrage at foreign call centers is indicative of this problem. While the person on the other side of the line speaks recognizable English, we are often annoyed that they don’t appear to hear us accurately. Even Americans raised on one coast or the other constantly complain about the attitudes and values of those on the other coast. The other coast just doesn’t get it. The degree to which politeness or directness is utilized can be perceived as either reassuring or offensive. Notions of personal responsibility and a personal work ethic vary throughout this country, and this variability is magnified when examining other countries.
People think that because they speak the same language, their common ground is essentially the same. Many Americans with extensive experience in both France and England report shock as to the degree they feel comfortable with the French, and come to regard the British as a foreign culture. Several years ago, European Journal broadcast a series of video pieces on this very subject, noting how Americans axiomatically believe that England is an extension of American values and culture. While the media emphasizes the “special relationship” between England and America, personal experience tends to find more common ground in France.
The author was reminded of common ground recently at a gathering of old friends and colleagues. Less personal monitoring was necessary because these people have known the author for a long time. Misunderstandings were less likely to occur for the very same reason. Because the group holds similar beliefs, less time was spent in an explanation of the belief, than whether the belief should be held at all! Members of the group may become irritated with one another, but less from a personal misunderstanding, than a disagreement about the fact or belief itself. Facial expressions were accurately interpreted as serious or humorous, which has the tendency to make people more animated. Even the emotional satisfaction of the gathering was magnified by the common ground. Constantly explaining one’s beliefs and core facts is unavoidably draining, and does not appear to have the satisfaction afforded by common ground. Perhaps the curative factor in group therapy for depression is the development of a common ground. It was a wonderful gathering, made even more so by the common ground we still share.