LINGUIST List 30.1182

Thu Mar 14 2019

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics: Hansen, Reiter (2018)

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Date: 06-Dec-2018
From: Boudjemaa Dendenne <>
Subject: The Pragmatics of Sensitive Activities in Institutional Discourse
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen
EDITOR: Rosina Márquez Reiter
TITLE: The Pragmatics of Sensitive Activities in Institutional Discourse
SERIES TITLE: Benjamins Current Topics 96
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Boudjemaa Dendenne


The ‘Pragmatics of sensitive activities in institutional discourse’ (Benjamins Current Topics, 96) is co-edited by two informed scholars in the field of pragmatics and readers in French and Spanish linguistics, respectively: Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen and Rosina Márquez Reiter. Moreover, they are not new to the business of book editing (e.g. Márquez Reiter & Placencia, 2005; Mosegaard Hansen & Visconti, 2012). This volume was originally published as a special issue of ‘Pragmatics and Society’ (2016, 7:4), under a roughly similar title: ‘(Co-)Constructing interpersonally sensitive activities across institutional settings.’ The book (194 pages) aims to examine relational work and negotiation of interests and identities while performing interpersonally sensitive acts in institutional situations. Eleven authors have amalgamated to investigate different institutional encounters in a number of languages. The authors have investigated conversations in already well-documented settings (Chapters 2, 3, 6, 7) and also in arenas that have hardly ever (if not never) been explored (Chapters 1, 4, 5). In this regard, the volume under review intends to enrich the existing literature and to put to the test some well-established theories and methodologies on data drawn from institutional talk (p. 2).

The ‘Introduction’ (pp. 1-5), by the editors, lays the foundation to the chapters to come. Based on Goffman’s (1967) conceptualization of face, sensitive activities are defined as “activities which regularly, in some case even routinely, imply potential threats to the face needs of one or more interactants” (p. 1). Performance and response to such face-threatening acts (Brown & Levinson, 1987) in institutional environments, among supposedly cooperative participants, may have adverse effects that range from mere irritation to the almost complete failure of the act of communication. After elaborating on the unit of analysis (sensitive activities) and the diversity of the institutional environments targeted by the authors, the editors go on to present the main issues tackled by the volume’s seven articles. Given the varied approaches applied, the editors call for “interdisciplinary dialogue” among scholars working on verbal interaction at the intersection of research perspectives within, but also outside, the field of linguistics. The editors are further encountered later in the body of the book as co-/authors (Chapters 2 and 6, for Rosina Márquez Reiter; Chapter 7, for Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen).

The first chapter, by Rosina Márquez Reiter, Kristina Ganchenko, and Anna Charalambidou, is entitled ‘Requests and counters in Russian traffic police officer-citizen encounters: Face and identity implications’ (pp. 7–33). The authors analyse videotaped interactions taking place between traffic police officers (TPOs) and drivers on traffic stops in Russia. The focus is on the so-called “counter-requests” uttered by drivers in response to the TPOs’ request for identification. Particularly, the authors address the recipient’s (i.e. TPO) face and identity susceptibility to such verbal behaviour (i.e. the counter-request). The authors elaborate on the practice of installing dashboard cameras by Russian motorists, the Russian traffic legislations, and literature on police-citizen encounters. Despite the preponderance of such type of studies on the latter, the authors aim at a less explored aspect, which is the request-counter-request sequence in such institutional, goal-oriented, and asymmetrical interactions. Adopting concepts of ‘activity type,’ ‘face,’ and ‘transportable identities,’ the authors suggest that drivers’ counter-requests tend to redirect the TPO’s talk to an opposite direction, cast doubt on his professionalism, and show reluctance to ratify an identity of a request complier. Therefore, the TPO is obliged to react to the driver’s challenge so as to avoid face loss (e.g. “what what?”/“Why so?”/“Didn’t get it?”, as “an open repair initiator” ). For instance, he appears to pay little attention to the counter-request and to redirect the initial request (e.g. “uh huh please show me your documents?”). And when the TPO anticipates that the driver will be non-cooperative, he will engage in “pre-emptive facework” to avoid any confrontational stance. He may even choose to deliver a compliment to the counter-request-response adjacency pair if the driver is proven guilty of traffic law infringement prior to getting him to stop. In a similar token, the PTO resorts to working out the driver’s ‘transportable identity’ (age and locality: “how old are you?”/ “where are you from?”) as an aid to index the driver’s unjustified discourse role of a counter-request producer. This is manifested in linguistic preferences like T-forms and imperatives that endorse the PTO’s discourse (as a law agent) and situational identity (as liable for requesting the driver’s ID). The authors conclude that face and identity are fundamentally entwined as suggested by the mutual challenging via the request/counter-request dynamics.

The second chapter, by Lars Fant and Annika Denke, is entitled ‘Negotiating with the boss: An inter- and cross-cultural perspective on problematic talk’ (pp. 35–63). The authors examine the socio-cultural traits in three linguacultures (British English, Chilean Spanish, and Swedish) and two non-native speaker groups (Swedish L2 English/Spanish) while negotiating with the boss (asking for two days off over phone). Unlike other papers in the volume, the authors opt for elicited data gathered via an open role-play, which allows the authors, among others, to control the study’s variables, an advantage that the natural input could ill-afford. Relying on “Hofsted et al.’s (2010) framework,” “Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map”, pragmatic transfer, and (in)directness/(im)politeness research, the authors investigate the argumentative devices employed during three phases: preparatory, negotiation, and increment. On the socio-cultural differences among the three native groups, the general tendency shows that the Swedish are close to the English (e.g. avoiding a “cutting to the chase” style of talk as it is perceived as rude) and distant from the Chilean (e.g. perceiving aggravated implicitness as “having something up one’s sleeve” and even lacking sincerity). This narrow socio-cultural gap between the Swedish and the English is what makes the “non-native-to-native alignment” to the target community’s norms more observable in L2 English than in L2 Spanish. Thus, the interactions seem to go more confrontational in Swedish-Spanish than in Swedish-English talk. Nonetheless, variance, vis-à-vis the degrees of directness/explicitness in the three groups, is attested. Besides, theses disparities should not hide points of conversion (e.g. favouring factual over emotional arguments). L2 speakers are able to accommodate to the target norms (e.g. the use of argumentative strategies during the negotiation phase), keeping instances of resorting to L1 to the minimum, despite very few instances of what “could be clearly labelled as transfer.”

The third chapter, by Ariel Vázquez Carranza, is entitled ‘Evading and resisting answering: An analysis of Mexican Spanish news interviews’ (pp. 65–89). This study examines Mexican politicians/public officers’ reactions to questions that cast doubt on their wealth and evoke susceptibility to corrupt behaviour. The author discusses the “folk characterization” of politicians as ‘corrupt’, interactional roles and patterns in news interviews, and the evasive behaviour of politicians. Adapting a conversation analytic perspective, the author observes different news-generating strategies in the interviewers’ (IRs) questions, like calling into question a contradiction/statement and inviting the interviewee (IE) to react, asking for information, and uttering self-standing statements as the, unexpectedly, more confrontational strategy (e.g. “but you spend a lot and you have a lot of money”) . Overall, the IEs manage to elude the IR’s questions and their evasiveness is mainly signalled via “non-type-conforming answers” (“I am someone that, has always a comfortable life …”) or withstanding questions by means of “type-conforming answers” (addressing the question while supplying fewer details possible as a face-saving technique, e.g., “I have always been a businessman in the building sector”). The IEs’ “counter-attacks” aim to cast doubt on the newsworthiness of the story brought by the IR and go on, even further, to attack the journalist in person, as someone who lacks professionalism (e.g. “and why you describe me in that way without having not even one piece of evidence…”). Being fully aware of this, the IR seeks to mark his neutrality via an array of tactics like talking on behalf of the people and, thus, setting a “‘tribune-of-the-people’ stance” (e.g. “people want to know how does Mr Salinas make his living…”).

The fourth chapter, by James Murphy, is entitled ‘Apologies made at the Leveson Inquiry: Triggers and responses’ (pp. 91–113). This paper looks at the apologies performed mainly by UK politicians in a public enquiry on their potential involvement in unethical media conduct, known as the “Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press” The author sheds light on some commonalities and differences between courtroom trials and the inquiries. In the latter, apologies are not expected to appear as part of a rigid adjacency pair; they rather appear as “action chains”. In this way, failure to respond to an apology – given its sequential position – by one participant is “unmarked” behaviour; otherwise marked if it appears in an adjacency pair where the recipient is urged to react. Looking at apologies as an action chain evokes the possibility to insert other elements before the apology – a compliment, in this study. The infractions that warrant an apology are talk offences (e.g. interrupting, talking too quickly), misspeaks (not classified within talk offences), document offences, requests for clarification, and evidence offences as the most grave ones. Apologies are called upon by self-awareness of a potential infraction more often than in response to a prompt; that is, not as part of complaint-apology adjacency pair, as noticed especially in case of erroneous evidence. Overall, politicians’ apologies are meant to compensate for interaction-related rather than real infringements. The author discusses contexts wherein apologies fail to retain their apologetic force, when the apology functions as a repair strategy carrying pragmatic enrichments vis-à-vis the apologiser’s attitude towards the hearer/discourse. For example, the answerer may apologise while asking the questioner to paraphrase a previous question in a more intelligible way. The apology in this context plays the role of a request mitigator – not necessarily indexing the accountability of the apologiser. The author also elaborates on responses to apologies and future research avenues, regarding the ‘pragmaticalisation’ of the act of apology and other interpersonally sensitive tasks in the Inquiry.

The fifth chapter, by Anna Claudia Ticca and Véronique Traverso, is entitled ‘When questioners count on recipients’ lack of knowledge: A recurring ‘question-answer’ format in guided tours’ (pp. 115–133), which is one of the studies where “an orientation to interpersonal sensitivity” is less expected,. From an interactional linguistics’ perspective, the authors seek to disentangle question-answer sequences in guided tours elicited via video-recording in France and Italy, from a non-contrastive orientation. In this type of questions, the questioner appeals to the addressee’s’ ignorance (e.g. about a displayed object) as a preparatory strategy (position 1) to forward his own informative answer (position 3). This peculiarity makes questioning in this setting such “a risky gambit” to the visitors, in the first place, and to the guide who counts on the answerer’s ignorance. Unexpectedly correct answers run counter to the guide’s plans for further elaboration, and as such, render his professional face susceptible to damage. Generally speaking, the talk flows into two distinctive paths. The first path is the possibility that visitors provide no answer (which they index by silence, “I don’t know,” hesitators, or inaudible talk) or a wrong one. In such cases, the guide does not provide a straightforward answer and, instead, he/she attempts to elicit answers from the visitors. Being concerned with the face-loss of the visitor answering wrongly, guides strive to show the reasonableness of the response or just abandon it to deliver feedback. As for the second path, a right answer in position 2 means that the development of the guide’s activity is jeopardized – as hypothesised. However, the data does not support this (despite some very rare cases). To cope with this unexpected development, guides are likely to respond to the potential face-loss with a restating-elaborating strategy. Besides, guides do not always exhibit full control of the situation; they may be challenged by the visitors who can be upset if they feel they are being looked at as ignorant (cf. File & Schnurr, in press, on professional athletes and coaches’ failed humour during TV interviews). The researchers give utmost importance to the relevance of non-verbal behaviour via the inclusion of ten captioned photographs (pp. 21-22; 24-26).

‘When routine calls for information become interpersonally sensitive’ (pp. 135–160) is the title of chapter six, by Sara Orthaber and Rosina Márquez Reiter. It analyses inquiry calls to a Slovenian public transportation company. The authors targeted incompatibility in interactional asymmetries: “participation, epistemic status, and roles”, which are costly to the maintenance of progressive talk and the agent’s time and energy. The agent’s verbal outbreak (or annoyance as revealed by prosodic cues like “hearable in-breaths, increased volume, and speech rate”) in such encounters is highly likely, due to customers’ lack of awareness of the institutionalised procedure, their assertive talk, and the agents’ repetitive heavy workload. To challenge the customer’s claim of “epistemic status”, the agent supplies technical information, in technical terms, as an attempt to appeal to the institutional characteristic and “re-enter the state of talk and re-establish the service frame on an even keel (p. 147).” This tone is enhanced sometimes by formal and distant address terms (e.g. gospa /Madamn) and discourse markers (e.g. well, okay, look). In a similar fashion, the agent urges callers to be precise and concise via resorting to interruption at just the right moment (e.g. “Ok then…”). Thus, claiming an epistemic status seems less tolerated in service call encounters than in other institutional settings (e.g. Fioramonte & Vásquez, 2019, in “multi-party non-geriatric and non-paediatric” medical encounters). On his/her part, the customer may be implicitly critical via questioning the professionalism of the company and delivering negative assessments. Hence, agents do not hesitate to signal their callers’ behaviour as troublesome and refuse to attend to their stance, but they may sometimes choose to align with the caller’s behaviour and offer available alternatives. Callers react to the agent by showing “defensive behaviour” like insisting on the occurrence of misunderstanding. The interplay of the above factors merge to evoke claims of impoliteness. Therefore, arriving at a concession seems hard to achieve, given that every side sticks to his/her way of talking, refusing to give way to his/her counterpart. From the reviewed chapters, attacking the interlocutor’s professional face is a constituent defensive strategy in institutional talk, which deserves specific attention in future research.

Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen’s concluding chapter is entitled ‘Patterns of thanking in the closing section of UK service calls: Marking conversational macro-structure vs managing interpersonal relations’ (pp. 161-189). One might wonder how the act of thanking can be a sensitive endeavour. At “the perhaps more unexpectedly sensitive end of the spectrum (p. 2)”, thanking after some interactional problems have arisen (“mutual thanking”) and thanking carrying apologetic force (when uttered by the agent rather than the caller) are tackled. The author draws the attention to the scarcity of studies on the thanking speech act in pragmatics literature and the need to study thanking formulae in the closing part of telephone calls, per se, with regard to the issues raised in the call. The analysis of 94 calls made to a UK housing association aims to go beyond the conventionalised character of thanking formulae, in British English, as discourse markers for “imminent closing”. Thus, thanking formulae display “a well-motivated adaptation to the particular institutional context in which these calls take place (p. 187)”. Moreover, they are expected from one side if the “calls are institutionally and interactionally unmarked [non-conflictive]”. If thanking formulae are not generated by an a priori assumed face-threatening behaviour, they will then show consciousness of and repair to an unexpectedly deviated situation, on the one hand, or signal a proceeding talk as merely “business-as-usual”, on the other. Regarding this, thanking in this setting appears to follow stratified patterns: callers’ thanking is evidently in correspondence with the “interactional unmarkedness” of the call as a whole. Meanwhile, mutual thanking stretching over two turns (only fairly distinct from “unilateral thanking”) or three/more turns (as embedded in “marked calls”) evokes interactional markedness. The default scenario suggests that callers initiate thanks as they request information or action. Yet, the agent may unpredictably reverse this situation and initiate thanks denoting apologetic force, whenever “role-misalignment” occurs.


The volume is ecumenical when it comes to the approaches adopted, and appeals to a wide readership that goes well beyond the scope of linguistics; as suggested by the editors themselves, the audience ranges from readers interested in interactional discourse analysis, interactional linguistics, and (ethnomethodological) conversation analysis to (im)politeness and pragmatics. Conspicuously, a conversation analytic perspective (Schegloff, 2007) is dominant along with notions of face and politeness (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Goffman, 1967). Another merit is that contributors to the volume analyse naturally occurring conversations (except from Chapter 2). The analysis tends to be qualitative in nature, with the exception of Chapters 2, 4 and, to a lesser degree, Chapter 7. Statistics could have added to the reliability of the already compelling conclusions.

Obviously, the focus on face-threatening acts is what unites the volume’s papers and, hence, makes it plausible that the papers could have been ordered differently. For example, the editors could have organised the papers in two sections: Face-to-face communication (Chapters 1, 3, 4, 5) and Mediated communication (Chapters 2, 6, 7), instead of letting readers wonder what basis the book’s papers (which are not in abecedarian sequence) have been organised on.

The book is a must-read for researchers interested in discourse/conversation analysis and the interfaces between face/(im)politeness and negotiation of identities in verbal interaction, from the sociopragmatic, rather than, the pragmalinguistic standpoint. The book also may well be perceived outside the realm of applied linguistics by those interested in cross-cultural/intercultural communication and sociology; besides, the findings discussed may be very insightful to business and public service managers. The fact that the models of analysis adopted are not explained in detail reveals that the book’s audience are supposed to have adequate background knowledge of various areas of discourse and pragmatics. Those who do not may find it hard to read smoothly.

In comparison with other volumes on pragmatics (e.g. Poggi & Capone, 2017; Trosborg, 2010), the volume under review appears very concise. Of course, there is no harm in that as long as the work, to a greater extent, achieves the pre-set aims, which are “to deepen existing knowledge and to test the validity of assumptions and methodologies developed within the study of verbal interaction on new kinds of materials (p. 2)” as regards “how, and possibly why, activities can be (co-)constructed as interpersonally sensitive in interaction (p. 3)”. Still, the volume could have been enriched by the inclusion of some more under-represented settings, phenomena, or languages. Interestingly, recently published studies like File and Schnurr (in press) and, to a lesser degree, Fioramonte and Vásquez (2019) could have fitted perfectly well into the reviewed volume.

Many ‘minor’ inconsistencies are observed in the volume under review. First, Chapter 1 includes ‘Bibliography’ that ‘awkwardly’ stretches over more than six pages while the other chapters contain a ‘concise’ list of ‘References’. Second, the labelling of the concluding section exhibits disparity among the papers: ‘Conclusion’ (Chapters 2, 4, 5, 7), ‘Concluding remarks’ (Chapters 1, 6), and ‘Conclusions’ (Chapter 3). In a similar vein, Chapter 5 lacks the ‘Introduction’ heading. Third, the transcription conventions used in the papers are not unified (e.g. marking rising/falling intonation, laughter), which makes dealing with the transcribed texts, somehow, a burden for those who will read the book in its entirety, though the authors adopted mainly Jefferson (2004) (Chapters 1, 3, 4) (also ICOR Group’s guidelines, Chapter 6). It is noted also that some papers include the transcription conventions in the Appendix (Chapters 3, 5, 6, 7) while others do not. In Chapter 2, the authors guide the reader to the appendix for Table 3 (p. 46), while the table is, actually, in page 50. The editors should have spent more effort in reshaping the content previously published as a journal’s special issue into a book’s format in order to ensure a smoother reading. Or, at least, they should have drawn the reader’s attention to these inconsistencies in the volume’s introduction. For example, consistent transcription conventions should have been inserted at the very beginning of the book. Nevertheless, the book is excellently edited as it is kept error-free, except from very few instances that do not affect reading. In page 39, ‘from’ could be used in lieu of ‘for’ in this sentence: “Drawing on data gathered for English and Hebrew, she argues…” A keyboard slip is noticed in page 53 (EN-NSS instead of EN-NNS) and in page 164 in the footnote (‘behaviouur’ in lieu of ‘behaviour’).

Chapters 2, 4, 7 are particularly very insightful to EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers/learners as they make available data on three speech acts as performed in native-English to peruse for classroom explicit pragmatic instruction or in textbooks. They also contribute to counterbalance findings in interlanguage pragmatics research in an EFL context, which are predominantly gained via the Discourse Completion Task/Test (Labben, 2016).

The above highlighted shortcomings, though very few, are never meant to deprive the book of its value as a must-read source on the pragmatics of delicate institutional talk for researchers and academics in the field.


Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

File, Kieran, A. & Stephanie Schnurr. in press. That match was “a bit like losing your virginity”. Failed humour, face and identity construction in TV interviews with professional athletes and coaches. Journal of Pragmatics.

Fioramonte, Amy & Camilla Vásquez. 2019. Multi-party talk in the medical encounter: Socio-pragmatic functions of family members’ contributions in the treatment advice phase. Journal of Pragmatics 139. 132-145.

Goffman, Erving. 1967. On face work. In Interactional ritual, 5-45. Chicago: Aldine.

Labben, Afef. 2016. Reconsidering the development of the discourse completion test in interlanguage pragmatics. Pragmatics. Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association (26)1. 69-91.

Márquez Reiter, Rosina & Maria E. Placencia (eds.). 2005. Current trends in the pragmatics of Spanish. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Mosegaard Hansen, Maj-Britt & Jacqueline Visconti (eds.). 2012. Current trends in diachronic semantics and pragmatics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Poggi, Francesca & Alessandro Capone (eds.). 2017. Pragmatics and law: Practical and theoretical perspectives. Cham: Switzerland Springer International Publishing

Schegloff, Emanuel A. 2007. Sequence organization in interaction: A primer in conversation analysis (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trosborg, Anna. (ed.). 2010. Pragmatics across languages and cultures. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.


Boudjemaa Dendenne received his PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Constantine 1 (Algeria). He is a lecturer in linguistics and translation at École Normale Supérieure (ENS-Sétif, Algeria). His research interests include cross-cultural and interlanguage pragmatics, teaching pragmatics in instructed EFL context, application of pragmatic theories on Algerian Colloquial Arabic, translation, and Natural Semantic Metalanguage. Boudjemaa has published in journals like Revue Sciences Humaines, Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, and Revue Académique des Études Humaines et Sociales. He also participated in a number of national and international conferences organised by many Algerian universities.

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