Psychology :: New research probes the context for conflict in conversation

A simple request, when placed in a certain context, has the potential to create conflict. This is epitomized in the phrase — “does he take sugar?” — an approach society has learned to avoid when speaking about a disabled person. New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council seeks to better understand the ways in which people strive to avoid disagreement in everyday conversation.

The results reveal our ability to choose the right, rather than the wrong form of words to avoid potentially troublesome situations. Carried out between six different European countries, the research could provide valuable guidance for improving the use of language in potentially troublesome circumstances. With increasing migrant flows across Europe, this could have an important impact on language learning in general and on improved inter-cultural relations in particular.

Professor Paul Drew of the University of York puts his findings down to what he describes as a “social cohesion principle” underlying simple conversation.

“To date, the mechanisms through which social solidarity is promoted linguistically in interaction are little understood. By focusing on speech activities likely to be associated with conflict between participants, we have come up with surprising results which show systematic, and previously undocumented, connections between the construction of a sentence and the context in which the interaction takes place”

The research focused on conversations which arise from making offers, requests and complaints – those speech activities particularly likely to cause difficulty. These include out-of-hours calls to the doctor, emergency calls to the police and other face-to-face service requests, as well as ordinary social conversations. In a novel approach to this analysis, researchers centred their investigation on the context in which conversations were generated rather than on the questions and answers.

The results show that speakers tend to use the correct or appropriate form to suit the particular circumstances and often correct themselves if they happen to select an ‘incorrect;’ form. Forms such as imperatives (‘Pass the sugar’)……could you/would you and I wonder if you…..variously encode the degree of ease or difficulty which the recipient of a request might have in agreeing to it.

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