Archives for posts with tag: conversation

Tannen (2007) outlines several primary functions which repetition serves in conversation: production, comprehension, connection and interaction. The analysis that follows focuses primarily on the connective function by which evaluative statements can be made, foregrounded or intensified. I will demonstrate that repetition of lexical items in two examples is evaluative of both the topic of discussion and of the participants’ attitudes toward the topic. At the same time, the repetition of a set syntactic formula is a means by which a set of evaluations can be connected and can potentially strengthen one another. In this way repetition of both form and content serve to evaluate and emphasize the opinions of those involved in the discussion, and establish solidarity between them.

Previously in the interaction from which these two examples have been taken, my parents, my sister Mary, my friend Ashley and I reminisce about the playground at the elementary school to which Mary, Ashley and I went as children. The conversational frame shifts, however when my mother raises the topic of the removal of apparently unsafe playground equipment from schools. Initially, my mother does not explicitly indicate her opinion regarding the decision to remove this equipment, however it is evident to her listeners that she disagrees with that decision based on pre-established co-occurrence patterns of her use of lowered voice pitch and final falling tone with a sense that the discussion is serious or argumentative. Reproduced below are two separate instances in which both Mary and Ashley offer explicit evaluations consistent with my mother’s indications of disagreement with the decision to remove the equipment for liability reasons while employing the same syntactic form: Object Pronoun + Verb + Adjective (squared below). Their utterances are each responded to by my mother who picks up their adjective choice (bolded below) and repeats it in her own turn thereby ratifying their evaluations while simultaneously intensifying them.

Let us go from macro to micro and begin by discussing the repetition of syntactic form. Mary is the first to explicitly evaluate the decision to remove playground equipment in line 68 with “That’s stupid.” In doing so, Mary establishes a syntactic formula (Object Pronoun + Verb + Adjective) by which other explicit and direct evaluations can be made. Additionally, my mother responds in line 69 to Mary’s evaluation with an affirmative “Yeah,” which not only signals agreement with Mary, but also expands the turn-taking pattern to include both participants. Later in the conversation, Ashley and my mother repeat this interactional pattern which Ashley initiates in line 90 with “That’s sad.” My mother follows Ashley’s evaluation immediately with “Yeah” in line 91 and then continues her turn. In employing the same syntactic pattern used previously in the conversation, Ashley connects her explicit evaluation that the decision to remove playground equipment is “sad” to Mary’s previously ratified evaluation that it is “stupid.” Furthermore, repetition of “that’s” ties both utterances to the overarching discussion in addition to each other by maintaining the same reference term (that) indicating the same concept (removal of playground equipment for liability reasons). In this way, the evaluative dialogue is connected across the discourse and work to strengthen each other emphasizing that the removal of this playground equipment is both “stupid” and “sad,” with consequently negative repercussions. It is important to note that Mary’s utterance, “That’s stupid,” was indeed ratified and accepted into the conversation by my mother giving the other listeners an example of a successful means of commenting on a topic that my mother herself raised. My mother’s affirmative response marks “That’s stupid” for other listeners as a ready-made and reusable formula of which Ashley makes use in line 90 with “That’s stupid,” simply replacing “sad” for “stupid.” It is possible that the ratification and acceptance of my sister’s “That’s stupid” is what allows for the continuation of this pattern later in the discourse.

In addition to the repetition of syntactic structure in both these examples, we also see the repetition of two lexical items, “stupid” and “sad,” which are initially used by Mary and Ashley respectively to describe the removal of playground equipment. Both terms are picked up by my mother who takes the turn immediately following each of theirs and uses “stupid” again in lines 70-71 after Mary’s turn: “Yeah. I think it’s stupid too,” and “sad” in line 91 after Ashley’s turn: “Yeah it is sad.” The initial use of both adjectives by Mary and Ashley serves an explicitly evaluative function as my mother has not yet described exactly how she feels about the removal of playground equipment for liability reasons. My mother’s repetition of the adjectives in both examples is foregrounded by her altering the prosody of the language surrounding the terms, namely the marked stress on “too” and “is” in “I think it’s stupid too” and “It is sad.” This repetition and emphasis serves to ratify and strengthen Mary’s and Ashley’s evaluations, but her repetition also serves to positively evaluate Mary’s and Ashley’s contributions to her topic and argument, thus demonstrating a level of solidarity with both her participants. Thus, the repetition of both lexical items in combination with the repetition of the syntactic form creates a sense of involvement and solidarity among the participants and serves to tie evaluation of the topic together across the conversation.


An important question that I feel is often left unanswered in both academic and journalistic writing is “so what?” – the writer may make interesting and important observations, but unless those findings are connected to the real world by way of actionable solutions or suggestions, they may be forgotten before they have a chance to be useful.

I recently wrote a mini analysis of a discourse interaction between my sister and my mother for this blog. I point out that strategies in discourse may be used to achieve power over or solidarity with another person, or they may be used to show power and solidarity simultaneously (as in the example between my sister and mother).

So what?

The crux of this argument is simply that the strategies an individual uses to communicate an intended relationship message to another, may differ from person to person. Communicative style develops from even the most early interactions we encounter as children and no two styles are the same (though they may be similar). Therefore when we interact with someone who seems to clash with us, or whom we perceive as being passive aggressive or confrontational, it may not be that they are trying to be aggressive, it may just be that our own style does not align with theirs. This does not mean that we should attempt to accommodate the different style to assuage the encounter (although that may be a strategic option), instead it is important to be aware of these stylistic differences and their varying meanings. What I mean may not necessarily be what you hear, and what your listeners hear may not necessarily be what you intended.

Take away: In any situation where you aren’t “getting along” with someone, take a step back. Pay attention to how language is being used and think about its various and polysemous meanings. Maybe your meaning is getting lost in translation.

The relationship between parents and their children is marked by a high degree of closeness strengthened throughout childhood and adolescence, as well as a strong sense of hierarchy where the parent typically holds power over the child. It is in this instance, where hierarchy and closeness form core characteristics of the relationship, that there is potential for ambiguity and perhaps polysemy in the interpretation of power and solidarity moves. The simple interaction between my sister, Mary, and my mother discussed below exemplifies this phenomenon of ambiguity and stresses the importance of attention to surrounding linguistic details to achieve the most accurate interpretation possible.

Earlier in the conversation from which this example has been taken, my parents, my sister Mary, my friend Ashley and I have been reminiscing about the playground at the elementary school to which Mary, Ashley and I went as children. The conversational frame shifts, however when my mother raises the topic of the removal of apparently unsafe playground equipment from schools. The act of raising a topic in itself might be considered a power move and in this instance may also serve to imbue my mother with power additional to that which she already has as a parental unit in the family hierarchy. As the conversation progresses, my sister Mary moves to align herself with my mother and express her opinion regarding this practice. It is here that the ambiguity presents itself:

Mary:   That’s stupid.
Mom:   Yèah. I think it’s stupid tòo.

Growing up in this household, my siblings and I were socialized to recognize our mother’s use of lowered voice pitch and lowered volume in combination with falling intonation at the end of intonation units as contextualization cues signaling a frame of “serious discussion” while simultaneously indexing her intelligence and power in the household. As members of this community, my siblings and I understand that this particular combination of paralinguistic features when employed by my mother indicates that what she is saying should be taken as true, reliable, and perhaps unquestionable information.

In this example, we see my mother employ both lowered voice pitch and final falling intonation in response to Mary’s comment, thus triggering a natural response of respect from her listeners. However, she also employs several means of signaling agreement with Mary’s comment: she begins her turn with a stressed “yeah” and concludes her turn with a stressed “too” framing her turn with signs of agreement with Mary’s previous statement. In addition, she repeats Mary’s use of the adjective “stupid” to describe the situation which serves to connect her utterance to Mary’s and at the same time evaluates that description as “correct” in her opinion.

Deborah Tannen demonstrates that “specific linguistic strategies have widely divergent potential meanings,” particularly in interpreting metamessages of power and/or solidarity in conversation. Thus, a polysemous interpretation of my mother’s response might be that in agreeing with Mary, she is demonstrating solidarity with her daughter and perhaps even employing her own pre-established power within the group to ratify and “upgrade” Mary’s comment. However, several aspects of the dialogue suggest that my mother’s response is instead a reinforcement of her power disguised as a closeness move.

My mother begins her restatement of Mary’s description with “I think,” demonstrating a highly reliable “mode of knowing” while simultaneously shifting the focus of the utterance from the topic of discussion to her own opinion. Because it was my mother who raised the topic in the first place and because she has employed linguistic cues signaling the “correctness” of her argument, she has already established herself as having a reliable opinion. It is key to note that while her repetition of Mary’s description of the practice as “stupid” is the only explicit indication that she does not agree, the listeners have already been cued in to her opinion and have aligned themselves with her accordingly based on their awareness of her power within the group. Thus, Mary’s comment is instead a signal of her agreement with my mother’s opinion as well as a ratification of her power within the group rather than the other way around.

In conclusion, it is evident from this example then that evaluations of power and solidarity within a group, and specifically between parent and child, are in fact not clear cut, but rather are complicated by the goals of an individual to maintain the culturally pre-established hierarchy-closeness parameters of the relationship. In this example my mother strives to create a sense of solidarity between herself and her daughter by showing agreement, but her role as parental unit and her reputation as being knowledgeable, intelligent and trustworthy outweigh that display of solidarity before she even takes her turn. Rather than accepting Mary’s observation as new information, she signals that this is the opinion at which she has already arrived and reestablishes her own power within the discussion.

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