Tuesday, November 03, 2015

I wonder if we can talk about requests...

Last night I went to a talk, and today I’m blogging about it. The University of York Linguistics Society hosted a talk by Professor Paul Drew from Loughborough University, and since he’s a bit of a big deal in Conversation Analysis, I thought I’d go along. Some of the talk’s content might be of some use to A-Level English Language analyses, so here (in some shape or form) are my generalisations.

The theme of the evening was ‘requests’ (so, aiming to get someone else to do something for us, like asking for a lift), specifically in conversation. Towards the beginning of his talk, Paul quoted Levinson: “language delivers action, not meaning”. It was a little mysterious at first, but it was fascinating to witness this quote unravel throughout the course of the evening. Obviously, language does carry meaning, but it was implied that its primary purpose is to act in some way.

Drew has done a lot of research on telephone call interaction, and therefore we are talking about these requests in the context of telephone conversations. He compared two types of context where we might be making phone calls: informal contexts (e.g. among friends) vs. more formal institutional contexts (key examples of these he gave were out-of-hours calls to doctors and calls to the police).

Broadly speaking, Drew claimed that we tend to begin our requests in an informal context with a modal form (like ‘Could you…’/‘Can you…’), whereas we often tend to go for ‘I wonder if…’ in the institutional context. This comparison can be explained with a continuum of request forms he then went on to talk about…

Continuum of request forms

High entitlement/Low contingency High contingency/Low entitlement

Imperatives I need you to.. Modals (Could../Can..) I wonder if…

As we can see from the above continuum, we can talk about request contexts in terms of degrees of entitlement and contingency. Contingency, in this setting, is about the requester’s knowledge or awareness of the difficulties that might be involved if the ‘requestee’ were to carry out the action.

If we start at one end of the scale (the left side), in high entitlement and low contingency contexts, we can appropriately find imperatives. The simple example Drew gave was in a lecturer-student context. It might be fine to say ‘Pass me that pen’. In that kind of scenario, there is a power relationship where there may be a high level of entitlement. The low contingency might come from the fact that there’s a pen lying on the desk which isn’t being used, and so it isn’t seen as much of a sacrifice to the student to carry out the requested action. Basically, the requester is in a more powerful position, and the request isn’t seen to be a big deal.

On the other side of the spectrum (the right side), we have high contingency and low entitlement. Here, the out-of-hours doctor calls can demonstrate this kind of context. The example Drew provided us with was a man calling with back pain and requesting a doctor to come and visit him with ‘I wonder if you’d come out’. In this kind of scenario, the requester is not necessarily familiar with what’s involved and so quite a conservative (high contingency) form of request has been used, along with the low entitlement, because the doctor, in this case, is seen to be the more knowledgeable party.

Having briefly explored this continuum, we can return to the broad claim Drew made early on, which generalised over the request forms we might make with friends versus those we might make in an institutional context. We’ve just seen an example of an informal setting where ‘I wonder if…’ was used. When we are requesting among friends or family, often we have a better idea of what is involved for that person if the action was carried out, and the power distance is likely to diminish. This means that we can see many situations among friends, where ‘Could you…’/‘Can you..’ might be appropriate, because they are a little further up the scale.

Drew explored a number of telephone calls where these sorts of situations were evaluated and the request form was analysed in relation to it. Of course exceptions were pointed out and more discussion followed, but I think this is a great framework to start us off when we’re looking at requests.

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