Conversation, Dialogue, and Discourse Research Paper

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Conversation, dialogue, discourse. Each of these terms names a form of communication in everyday life, yet each directs our attention in different ways. Conversation, ordinarily understood as informal, free-flowing talk, is what we do with friends, family, and coworkers when we have meals together, do joint tasks, or talk on the phone. Conversation is a descriptive term; it captures one kind of talking that is an alternative to others, such as interviewing, being in a meeting, or giving a speech.

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Dialogue is both a descriptive term and an evaluative one. As a descriptive term, dialogue is a synonym for conversation. This descriptive meaning traces its roots to the scholarship of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian scholar who wrote in the first half of the 20th century. Every utterance, the basic and fundamental unit of talk, is dialogic: responding to what was said before and at the same time offering something new. By Bakhtin’s definition, conversation is inherently dialogic. In communication studies, the more common meanings for dialogue are the evaluative ones that have been developed by Martin Buber, Carl Rogers, and others.As an evaluative term, dialogue is not just any stretch of conversation; it is a stretch in which people exhibit an openness to hear others, often on personal or difficult topics (Anderson, Baxter, & Cissna, 2004). Dialogues are communicative achievements, something only a small percentage of conversations deserve to be labeled as.

Discourse, the last term, is also descriptive. In contrast to conversation, it is much broader, including speeches, interrogations, and meetings, as well as conversation. Simply put, discourse is any type of talk. Drawing on discourse as the central term, this research paper addresses three issues. The paper’s first section describes several of the key units of discourse and their usual social functions. Then, the paper overviews how discourse is made “study-able” and analyzed. The final sections focus on an especially significant function of talk—to build and maintain identities. After the process of “identity-work” is explained generally, the paper examines two studies of law enforcement discourse to illustrate the subtleties with which discourse accomplishes identity-work.

Key Units of Discourse

Just as a “pizza” can be divided into slices or squares of different sizes or become a single big unit—a “calzone”— the unitizing possibilities for discourse are many and affected by an analyzer’s purposes. Linguistics, a field also interested in discourse, and especially its written forms, treats discourse as an umbrella term to reference spoken or written units of language that are larger than a sentence.

Language has semantic units (words such as smile and word endings such as past-tense markers, as in “smiled”), phonemic units (the sounds that go with meaningful distinctions: r and 1 distinguish the word rave from lave), and syntactic rules (about how words may be ordered to make meaningful sentences). In linguistics, discourse refers to units that are bigger than sentences (e.g., paragraphs, stories) or the social and practical functions to which a stretch of language is put.

In the field of communication, the central interest is in spoken discourse and the purposes to which it is put. For this reason, unitizing begins with the utterance, which is the smallest unit of speech (e.g., “Hi,” “Sure, no problem”). A basic and important kind of utterance is the speech act. In the mid-20th century, the issue about speech to which scholars gave the most attention concerned how well a stretch of speech represented a state of affairs in the world. Speech that was not a true, accurate representation of what existed was asserted to be meaningless. The language philosopher John Austin (1962) regarded this view as missing what was crucial about speech in social life. Speech does not simply represent the world, he argued. It performs social actions.When people speak, their utterances compliment, warn, advise, promise, command, or perform any number of other actions.

John Searle (1969), a student of Austin’s, went on to distinguish among five categories of speech acts. Speech acts may be (1) directives—acts that suggest, guide, or direct a person to do something; (2) representatives—acts that assert what is taken to be true in the world; (3) commissives—acts that commit a speaker to a future course of action; (4) expressives—acts that make a speaker’s feelings visible; and (5) declaratives—speech that has the power to transform people from one state to another, as happens when a minister pronounces two people to be married. Not everyone agrees with Searle’s typology of speech acts, but his typology begins to make visible the varied purposes to which speech is actually put.

One type of speech act that has been extensively studied is the “account.” As Scott and Lyman (1968) defined it, an account is “a statement made by a social actor to explain unanticipated or untoward behavior” (p. 47). People offer accounts when they are late for a meeting, speak in a thoughtless fashion to a friend, or eat more than they think they should. They also offer accounts for highly consequential matters, such as when they violate a law (e.g., explaining to a police officer why they were speeding) or transgress a significant relational norm (e.g., sexual infidelity). Although people can offer accounts out of the blue, they more typically occur within a conversational sequence in which they are a response to an act of reproaching. Reproaches, as is the case with accounts, occur in different flavors. Just as accounts may justify why individuals did what they did or point to circumstances that made their action not entirely under their control, reproaches may range in tone from direct and hostile (“What the hell do you think you are doing?”) to indirect and subtle, which could be seen in sarcastic compliments or a speaker muttering a comment under his or her breath that is hearable (“Hmmm, I wonder what’s going on here”).

Directives and apologies are two other speech acts that have received considerable attention (Blum-Kulka, House, & Kasper, 1989). Both of these acts are socially sensitive to perform and have relational repercussions. To direct another invariably raises the issue of who has the right to tell whom to do what. Similarly, speakers who apologize often want to accept that they did a wrong but minimize the wrong’s scope or elicit a counterapology.

A second unit of discourse is what Tracy (2002) referred to as naming practices. Naming practices include both the words and the phrases used to address particular others and the terms that are used to reference, label, and categorize people. Forms of address include first and last names, nicknames, titles (e.g., “Ms.,” “Professor”) and general terms of endearment (e.g., “babe”). Choosing among possible forms of address conveys what the speaker takes to be the formality or closeness of a relationship. To address a person using his or her title and last name (e.g., “Dr. Jones”) constructs a relationship as a distant one; in contrast, calling that person by a nickname, especially if it is an exclusive one known only by a select few, constructs two people as close. Speakers also combine forms to build relationships that mix respectful distance with friendliness, as seen in the rather common practice of children calling adults by their title and first name (e.g., “Dr. Joe,” “Miss Jane”).

Not only do speakers directly address others by a selected name, they also refer to others in relational terms (e.g. “My friend will be joining us” vs. “An acquaintance from work will be joining us) and by categories (group memberships, such as “Shriner” or “Catholic”; job categories, such as “librarian” or “office manager”; and race and ethnicity, such as “African American” or “black,” “Hispanic” or “Latino/a”). Debates about how to refer to people have become the focus of controversies in the larger society. One such debate that led to significant change in speaking and writing in the communication and other social science fields has been over the use of gender-neutral terms. On one side of the argument are people advocating that mixed-sex groups be referred to as “he and she” rather than the generic “he” and that forms such as “postal worker” or “police officer” should be preferred over “mailman” and “policeman” because the former terms are more inclusive of women. On the other side of the argument are people who regard these changes as unimportant, a matter of being “politically correct” (Aufderheide, 1992). In communication studies, there is consensus that, at least in its weak form, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis captures a truth about meaning making. Edwin Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf argued that the semantic and grammatical distinctions available in a particular language, whether the language be English, Hopi, or Portuguese, shape how people make sense and understand possibilities for action. Names matter. Although names do not determine what a person may think, they channel thought, making some interpretations and associations more (or less) likely.

Two more complicated units of discourse deserve mention. The first, direct/indirect conversational style, includes a large set of talk features, often going together, that speakers use to convey meanings either straightforwardly or through hints and subtle cues (Tracy, 2002). A relatively direct conversational style is one in which words convey a speaker’s intended meaning straightforwardly; an indirect style requires a listener to arrive at a speaker’s likely meaning by considering what was said in light of the topic and how it is viewed in society, the speech situation, and the relationship between conversational partners. Being direct involves saying what one thinks without softeners, bluntly and noneuphemistically. Being indirect involves using more words to convey a message; it is accomplished by hinting at what one might want, fishing for information, softening opinions, or avoiding certain expressions entirely.

A central way in which speakers vary their level of directness is through the use of politeness tokens (Brown & Levinson, 1987). Politeness is not just about saying “please” and “thank you”; it refers to language practices that soften potential threats to others. If a communicator wanted to borrow fifty dollars from a friend, the request could be made directly without regard for the other’s desires (“Hey, can I borrow fifty dollars?”). The request could also be made less directly by attending to the other’s need for social acceptance and approval, what Brown and Levinson call people’s “positive face wants,” using devices such as compliments and friendly forms of address (e.g., “Hey buddy, be a pal and loan me fifty dollars.”). An even more indirect move, the negative-politeness strategy, would give attention to the partner’s desire to be free from imposition and obligation (e.g., “I hate to be a burden by asking you this, but do you think you could loan me fifty dollars?”). Negative-politeness forms include verbal markers that mitigate the intensity of the speaker’s request (e.g., “I was wondering,” “Would it be at all possible”). The most indirect form, barring not making the request at all, would be for a speaker to hint at needing money in the hope that the other will offer it (“Oh gosh, looks like I’m going to be fifty dollars short for my rent”). In an extensive study of requests, Craig, Tracy, and Spisak (1986) found that people do not typically use only a single form but mix politeness strategies in skillful ways.

The directness style a communicator uses will have interpersonal consequences. The use of a relatively direct style can cue that a speaker is sincere and outspoken, a person who prefers to “get down to business.”At the same time, the usage of a direct style may be interpreted as showing aggressiveness and insensitivity to others. Conversely, an indirect strategy could cue tactfulness and “people skills,” but it also could seem indecisive, shifty, or untrustworthy. There are no simple positive/negative assessments that go with being indirect or direct. Most speakers use a mix of both styles, which vary with the kind of situation in which they find themselves. To complicate matters further, national and ethnic communities have sharply different notions about the most reasonable conversational style in particular situations.

Stance indicators is a second complex bundle of talk features to which people regularly attend in conversation.A speaker’s stance—his or her in-the-moment attitude toward the topic of talk, the other, or the situation—is conveyed through linguistic, vocal, and gestural cues. In everyday life, people make judgments about whether their partner is an expert or novice on the subject, friendly or hostile toward them, and involved or bored with the situation. These “stances” are cued by sets of indicators. In Tannen’s (2005) examination of conversations among friends, she found that when speakers talk loudly and fast, make large hand gestures, pause only briefly, and vary their pitch extensively, they will be assumed to be involved and interested in the topic.

A second example of a stance indicator has to do with belief and skepticism. When speakers respond to what another has said, they implicitly convey whether they believe or are skeptical of what their conversational partner said (Pomerantz, 1989/1990). When people believe a person, they will report it to others straightforwardly (e.g., “Arnie can’t come to the party tonight because he hurt his back”). The stance indicators that cue skepticism include adding phrases such as “According to Arnie . . . ,” “Arnie claims that . . . ,” and “Arnie’s story is that. . . .” Thus, when speakers report what a person said, they not only provide a sense of the message’s content, but they also reveal their stance to what the other has said.

These four discourse units—speech acts, naming practices, direct/indirect conversational style, and stance indicators—are but a small set of possible discourse units; there are many more. For instance, speech acts often occur in pairs (e.g., greeting-greeting, question-answer), creating demands for how the first part of a pair should be responded to or generating inferences about the respondent if that expected second part is not forthcoming. Not returning a greeting does happen, but when a return greeting is absent, marked inferences will be made (e.g., the spoken-to party is completely distracted, or the greeter is being snubbed by the spoken-to other). Units of discourse may also be quite large and include smaller interaction practices. An example is a story; stories usually include strings of speech acts and multiple reports of what various people in the story’s social world have said—a discourse device referred to as “reported speech” (e.g., “Mary said, ‘No, don’t go.’And I said . . .”) (Buttny, 2004). Jointly,thesediscourseunitsandothersoccurinsceneswithin social life and perform a variety of interpersonal functions. Before examining more closely the identity-work functions of talk, let us consider how discourse is studied to arrive at the claims that research forwards.

How Discourse Is Studied

The analysis of discourse began in earnest as audio- and video-recording technologies became commonplace and as the idea that ordinary exchanges between people in family and work life deserved as much systematic attention as had previously only been given to “big” events such as a politician’s speech took root. It has been the work of the sociologist Harvey Sacks (1992) in the late 1960s, which strongly influenced a large range of distinct discourse analysis traditions. Working in a crisis call center in Los Angeles, he began taping, transcribing, and studying these telephone calls, as well as doing the same with phone calls between family members and friends. In disagreement with Noam Chomsky, an influential linguist of the time who thought that language was too messy to study in actual occasions of talk, Sacks argued for the value of looking closely at the social world and at conversational exchanges in particular. “From close looking at the world,” Sacks stated, “you can find things that we couldn’t by imagination assert were there: One wouldn’t know that they were typical, one might not know that they even happened” (p. 420).

Over time, conventions developed in communication as to the best way to represent features of spoken discourse in written form. The transcription system that is most often employed today is the one developed by Gail Jefferson, commonly referred to as the CA (conversation analysis) transcription system. Symbols in the CA system capture (a) the actual pronunciation and contractions of words (e.g., “y’know,” “got ’em goin’”), repetitions, and word cutoffs; (b) intonation patterns of utterances and word stress; and (c) utterance timing, including pauses and where one person’s speech overlaps another’s. Table 1 includes the most common meanings of the symbols used in transcripts.

Conversation, Dialogue, and Discourse Research Paper

An obvious question to pose is why bother with so much detail; is it useful for understanding discourse better? Communication scholars who analyze discourse, although they have disagreements with each other about the appropriate level of transcript detail, would all agree that a careful record of what has been said is an important first step to building interesting claims about communication.

An example of a CA transcript and how it led to an insightful understanding of communication is seen in Excerpt 1. This excerpt comes from a study by Staske (2002). Staske was interested in how romantic partners’ talk reflected and further solidified closeness in their relationships—something talk in intimate relationships was assumed to do, but how this was accomplished through talk was not well understood. Her study recorded romantic partners having conversations with each other, created transcripts of the exchanges, and then repeatedly looked at the transcripts while listening to the exchanges. Following this intense immersion with the discourse materials, she was able to name and describe a conversational practice that relational partners regularly used. It is a practice for doing intimacy. The practice, which Staske labeled “claims of intimate partner knowledge,” or CIPKs for short, tended to occur when partners were discussing relational problems.

Excerpt 1

  1. M: Why does what affect us?
  2. F: Our differences in our personalities. Do you
  3. think this affects us? Do think it’s
  4. [something that just [bothers us all the time
  5. M: [Because               [you: a
  6. F: Listen to you. I knew you would say that. That
  7. you’d say it was all my fault
  8. M: No:: I’m not saying it’s your fault
  9. F: Aren’t you admitting
  10. M: I’m just saying you blew a lot of things way
  11. outta proportion

Line 6 is an example of a CIPK. The vocal emphasis specifically on “knew” cues the speaker’s certainty about predicting what her partner would likely say at that moment. This is interesting because M’s utterance in Line 5 is broken and unfinished; nonetheless, F claims that she knows what M would say even though he barely said anything at all. In Line 8, M denies F’s CIPK, although his final comment (lines 10 and 11) frames F as not being completely off base. Stating that she “blows things way outta proportion” does imply blame. His utterance, then, partially confirms her CIPK. Claims that a speaker knows what the other will say is one discourse practice through which people enact themselves as close. This is true even if, as happens in Excerpt 1, the partner disputes the specific content of the claim.

The analysis of discourse is an inductive research enterprise. As Sacks formulated it so aptly, communication scholars doing discourse analysis are committed to discovering interesting features of social life by studying talk closely. One particularly interesting issue in social life that analysis of discourse has been used to further is the study of identity enactment.

Discourse and Identity-Work

When people talk, they present a version of self to others. The sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) used a dramaturgical metaphor to understand this presentation process. People in ordinary exchanges are “actors” and, as in the theater, they are expected to know their lines, have the right costume, and make their actions appropriate and believable to the role they are playing. Other communicators in a social situation, “the audience,” are expected to respond appropriately to the actor’s performance, applauding, laughing, and crying at appropriate moments. Because not all performances go smoothly, actors and audiences have practices they employ to respond to errors and glitches. Communicators in the actor role use “defensive practices,” such as when they have to “wing it” or “fake it.” Similarly, “protective practices,” such as listening or showing interest, are used by communicators in audience member roles to ratify that the actor has done a reasonable job.

Although the dramaturgical metaphor ably captures a part of what people experience as they meet, greet, and talk with others, it also introduces elements that are problematic. People do not change who they understand themselves to be (i.e., their identities) as quickly and easily as the theater metaphor implies; for that reason, we use the term identity-work to describe the work talk accomplishes during the presentation of self. A second advantage of identity-work as the key frame for understanding what discourse does is that it draws attention to another aspect of the discourse-identity process besides self-presentation. At the same time that a person’s talk is presenting a self, it is also altercasting.

Altercasting refers to the process through which talk casts the conversational partner in a particular role (Tracy, 2007). Imagine a student stopping by a professor’s office to get help in understanding a theory (“the systems perspective”) that was presented during a lecture and requesting help in one of two ways:

Request A: Excuse me Dr. Trintash, I was wondering if you could go over the systems perspective with me again. I wasn’t feeling well in class the other day and didn’t listen as closely as I should have.

Request B: Hi Jean, how’s it goin? I was getting lost in class when you were talking about the systems perspective. Could you explain it to me one more time?

The person-referencing practices used in RequestA, title and last name, imply a nonclose relationship in which the teacher has a higher status. In contrast Request B, by virtue of the first-name form of address, casts the teacher as an informal, friendly other. Request A also uses a more tentative, negative-politeness strategy (“I was wondering if . . . ”) that treats the request for help as a favor rather than a matter-of-fact right to which the student is entitled. Part of the sense that B is treating the request as a right is cued by the account that the speaker gives for why she did not understand. Describing the reason for needing clarification as “I was getting lost” subtly justifies the student’s having trouble and makes relevant the possibility that the teacher did not give a clear explanation. In contrast, the student in Request A accounts for her request by saying that she “didn’t feel well” and she “didn’t listen closely,” suggesting that her inability to understand was a result of her own state rather than the teacher’s failure. In essence, Requests A and B altercast the teacher in markedly different ways. At the same time, the requests present the speaker differently. Request A portrays the student as a deferential person who sees self as responsible for mastering class material; Request B presents the speaker as a friendly, informal sort of student who sees self as entitled to receiving clear explanations of course ideas.

Another way to explain identity-work is with Goffman’s (1955) notion of face.Around the same time when Goffman was developing his dramaturgical view of social life, he introduced the idea of “face.” “Face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes” (Goffman, 1967, p. 5). Face is the identity that a person desires in a particular social situation; it is not something over which a speaker has total control. Rather, face is granted by the people with whom a person interacts. The face that a speaker desires will always be situation specific. In work situations, people often want to be seen as “responsible,” “competent,” or “loyal.” In friendships, people may want to be seen as experts on a topic, “fun,” “funny,” or “trustworthy.” People also do work to avoid being seen in negative ways—for example as boring, incompetent, or autocratic. It is discourse practices that maintain face, ward off possible threats, or save face after it is lost. Face is an umbrella term that references a large set of desired personal identities.

It is important to note that identities have many layers, some of which become more relevant than others in a particular situation. One layer of identity pertains to the broad social and cultural groups people belong to (such as race, nationality, age, gender, or religion). Another is the personality-style characteristics people possess (such as being friendly, rude, generous, or opinionated). A third kind of identity relates to the institutional roles that people hold at work and in families, and the last relates to the interactional style with which people act in workplace and intimate relationships (e.g., laidback vs. uptight teacher, close vs. distant friend). Stemming from the fact that people are usually considered to uphold multiple identities, they often work to give attention to more than one goal at a time. In making a request, for instance, the requestor can be seen as having the goals of (a) convincing the other person to comply with the request, (b) preserving the conversational partner’s face, and (c) preserving the self’s own face.

What makes communication difficult is that interactional goals may be incompatible with each other.Attending to one identity goal can endanger another one. For instance, a common practice in most academic departments is for graduate students and faculty to meet and discuss the research projects that a student or faculty member is working on (Tracy, 1997). In this kind of discussion group, which includes institutional members of different ranks (i.e., beginning and advanced graduate students, junior and senior faculty), presenting ideas and asking questions is likely to challenge multiple identities of the participants. Discussants, for instance, often desire to be seen as intellectually competent—accomplished through asking tough questions, and at the same time they desire to be judged supportive and tactful—accomplished through posing easily answerable questions. Participants typically recognize the importance of distinguishing among fellow members’expertise levels (i.e., a graduate student and a faculty member are not equally expert), but at the same time they believe that for the discussion to go well, it is important to minimize status differences and develop a climate of equality.

To summarize, identity-work is the simultaneous presentation of self and altercasting of others and is accomplished through discourse practices. As identity is multilayered and interaction goals can be in tension with each other, identitywork is a complicated and uncertain process.

Two Extended Examples of Identity-Work

The first example of identity-work to be examined occurred in a call a citizen made to the police/9-1-1. People call 9-11 for a variety of reasons, many of which are at odds with ordinary notions of “emergency.” When people have troubles they want help solving and there is no obvious other person or agency to intervene, they will turn to the police. One kind of situation in which this happens is when a person has problems with someone with whom there is a connection. If we seek to describe the likely face/identity wants that a person with this type of trouble would have, three are probable. First, we can expect that callers would like to get their trouble resolved, whether it is getting a piece of property back or getting another to stop engaging in harassing actions. Second, we would expect that callers would want to be perceived by the police agents with whom they talk as reasonable, or at least not unreasonable given the trouble they are experiencing. Third, in some cases, albeit not necessarily all, callers may want to accomplish the first two goals without strongly implying that the person with whom they have the trouble is so blameworthy that he or she should be arrested. Of note, these likely self-presentation and altercasting goals are in tension with each other.

Tracy and Anderson (1999) examined a small set of police calls in which citizens had these kinds of “connection-to-people-they-knew” troubles. One call involved a woman whose car had been taken. Consider how the caller initially describes her trouble.

Excerpt 2

1 CT1:     Citywest Police?

2 C:         Um, yeah, I need to file a complaint about my

3              car being taken?

4 CT1:     (.) It was stolen?

5 C:         Well .hhhhh a friend borrowed it and h- he

6              never brought it back.

7 CT1:     How long’s he had it?

8 C:         Uh:m close to forty-eight hours.

By looking closely at these calls, Tracy and Anderson identified the discourse practices citizens use to manage conflicting identity goals. A first practice was for citizen callers to formulate a problem as agent-less. The caller does this in lines 2 and 3, where she identifies no agent who “took” the car. This agent-less formulation can be seen as attentive to not accusing a particular other and getting that person in trouble with the police. At the same time, it causes difficulty because it leads the call taker to infer that the caller has no knowledge of who took the car (line 4), thereby making relevant a police bulletin seeking to apprehend and arrest whoever was driving her car.As the caller knows the person who took her car, this agent-less formulation causes confusion.

As noted previously, naming practices reflect closeness and distance. A second strategy callers use to preserve their identity as reasonable people is to label an intimate sexual partner a “friend” and trade on the ambiguity of the term. “Friend,” for instance, can be used as a polite term to refer to an acquaintance, or it can reference an ability to talk easily and openly with an intimate (My dad is one of my best friends). Most often, though, it is used as a contrast term with intimate (“just a friend”). To refer to someone as a friend will typically be heard as distinguishing them from a sexual partner. Following a lengthy exchange, the first call taker refers the caller to auto fraud, and the following exchange occurs. Note how in lines 7 to 8 in Excerpt 3, the second call taker probes the meaning behind the caller’s description of the car taker as a “friend.”

Excerpt 3

1 C:         Uhm yeah I don’t know what to do. A friend of

2              mine uhmm was using my car while I was in the

3              hospital? And he’s been gone now for, well, it’s

  • been, gosh, about 36 hours.And I haven’t been able
  • to get in touch with him. He doesn’t have a local
  • phone number, and I don’t know what to do.
  • CT2: Okay a friend of yours, meaning an acquaintance
  • friend? Or a friend, a boyfriend?

9 C:          He’s staying with me.

10 CT2:    Pardon? A boyfriend?

11 C:         Yeah

With the call taker’s probing, the “friend” label looks like a downgrade from the close type of relationship the caller ends up admitting. What this exchange makes visible is the delicacy in police calls, and presumably other kinds of institutional encounters, in selecting forms of reference. Each form sets in motion different inferences about the caller and the kind of relationship he or she will be taken as having with the called-about person.

A second complex example of identity-work, also from a law enforcement context, illustrates how an FBI negotiator in a crisis situation failed to establish his superiority and his right to tell a law breaker what he should do (Excerpt 4; Agne & Tracy, 2001). Inequality is not necessarily preestablished, as it often is in parent/young-child relationships or in job interviews where the parent or the interviewer (respectively) is regarded as higher ranking before talk even begins. Talk often upholds the expected relational picture, but sometimes it reframes what would be situationally expected, turning nonequals into equals or making the superior the subordinate. Such a reframing is illustrated in the hostage negotiations that took place in 1993 between FBI agents and David Koresh, the leader of a religious group called the Branch Davidians, who were living in a compound outside Waco, Texas. The crisis situation started when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest David Koresh on charges of abusing the children of his followers and illegally stockpiling weapons. The attempted arrest led to gunfire and killing of several people on both sides; it was followed by a 51-day standoff between the FBI and the Davidians, in which FBI agents and Koresh and several other key Davidians spoke regularly on the telephone.

During the telephone negotiations, both sides worked to assume authority over the other. The FBI saw themselves as the enforcers of the law, expecting all citizens to abide by their directives regardless of a citizen’s religious affiliation. Koresh, in contrast, believed that he was the Lamb of God prophesized in the Book of Revelation to open the Seven Seals and usher in the Apocalypse and Judgment Day. As a result, Koresh saw himself as justified to resist “the government.” In the following exchange, the FBI negotiator (Sage) and Koresh construct an asymmetrical relationship. Using discourse practices, most likely out of conscious awareness, Sage altercasts Koresh as more knowledgeable (and hence superior). At the same time, Koresh constructs himself as an expert teacher and altercasts Sage as a novice student. Consider the discourse practices in a short exchange that contributed to these identities.

Excerpt 4

  • Sage: I’m not claiming to be anywhere near as well
  • versed in word and quotation as you are and I
  • respect that capability. But I find in that book
  • (.) that that book says the only person (.) the

5             only person (.) the only entity that can open

6             those Seven Seals is the Lamb of God.

  • Koresh: Exactly
  • (six lines omitted)
  • Sage: It’sgarbageit’safalsehopeand[youknowthat.
  • Koresh: [No it’s not,
  • on the contrary. These people remain here

12           because I have thoroughly opened to them

  • the Seven Seals see if you had [understood.
  • Sage: [Well then you
  • have a message that’s extremely valuable
  • that you need to share with the rest of
  • this world. The only way you can do that
  • David is if we can get this matter resolved
  • when when you come out you will be provided
  • with that opportunity and I’ll be in the front of
  • 21 the line to listen to it

22          Koresh: That’s where you remain ignorant it’s not your

23          fault I do not hold you contemptible for that

  • but you remain ignorant to understand what is
  • actually being applied at this very time (.) see
  • (.) when it says in twenty two when I come
  • my reward is me it very clearly identifies that
  • when Christ comes the identifying mark will 29 be the knowledge of those Seven Seals.

There are several discourse practices that invoke a teacher identity for Koresh, therein establishing his expertise, and frame Sage as not so knowledgeable. First, the confirmation, “Exactly” in line 7 acknowledges some part of Sage’s statements (lines 1–6), whether it be that Sage is not “near as well versed,” that only the Lamb of God can open the Seven Seals, or both. “Exactly” is used much as a teacher does when validating a student’s response as correct; in fact, the remark has the flavor of a teacher giving a gold star for superlative work. Sage’s “garbage” comment in line 9 diffuses Koresh’s positive assessment, and in lines 10 to 13 Koresh straightforwardly disagrees with Sage (“No it’s not, on the contrary”) and explains why he is wrong (“I have thoroughly opened to them the Seven Seals”).

Koresh also sounds like a teacher in lines 22 to 29. By emphasizing Sage’s lack of understanding (“but you remain ignorant to understand . . .”) followed by a lesson on where in the Bible the identity of the one to open the Seven Seals is revealed, he underscores Sage’s limited knowledge. Saying, “in twenty-two” instead of “in Revelation, chapter twenty two,” establishes Koresh as an expert who uses the biblical text so often that shorthand jargon is called for. In addition, when in line 27, the phrase “very clearly” is stressed, Koresh conveys his view that the lesson he is conveying is an easy one to comprehend. Notice, too, the very short but noticeable pauses between words (signaled by (.)). These micropauses before and after “see” cue that a speaker is about to say something that he has said many times before.

At the same time that Koresh is presenting himself as a teacher and altercasting Sage as a novice, Sage’s talk is confirming rather than resisting this relational identity. His disclaimer in lines 1 and 2 (“I’m not claiming to be anywhere near as well versed in word and quotation as you are”) positions himself as a novice; in addition, Sage saying that he “respects that capability” positions Koresh as the recognized expert. The FBI agent’s talk in this call was adhering to one kind of advice that negotiators are trained to consider in crisis negotiations: It gave attention to Koresh’s face wants to be seen as competent. In not adequately thinking through their complex interactional goals, however, the FBI did not give adequate attention to discursively building their rank as legitimately higher, with its attendant right to have their directives obeyed.

Negotiating equality and inequality is difficult not just because people struggle to attain one or the other in a given relationship but because the two are related in such a way that the pursuit of one necessarily involves the other. Tannen (1986) describes this as the paradox of power and solidarity in relationships. The desire to establish rapport or equal footing in a relationship is accomplished through discourse moves that if done only by one person (e.g., using first names, patting another on the shoulder) will enact an unequal relationship.At the same time, refraining from doing friendly gestures to avoid the possibility of being seen as claiming a higher status identity could be taken as simple unfriendliness.

This research paper has described several of the basic units of discourse and the identity-work process, examined how discourse practices do identity-work, and considered how communication researchers interested in discourse arrive at claims about social life. In 2007, a new journal, Discourse and Communication, was launched. Its mission is to promote research that furthers connections between what Gee (1999) called Big-D and little-d discourse, that is, larger social and institutional issues and the specifics of talk and texts. The felt need for this new journal points to one rapidly growing discourse research arena: studies that investigate how talk is designed and structured to achieve or avoid certain ends in business contexts, media institutions, health care organizations, governance bodies, volunteer groups, and social-movement organizations. The audio and video recorders in these new institutional areas are rolling. It is now up to future scholars to transcribe, study carefully, and create insights into these previously unexamined stretches of conversational life.


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