Negotiation at the heart of interaction. The case of Sasha and the car

25 04 2010

Here is a conversation between myself and my son, Sasha, from some 15 years ago. I’ve often used it for teaching purposes, most especially to demonstrate the effects of pragmatics, negotiation and face-saving elements of interaction.


I (R) am upstairs in my study, Sasha (S) is downstairs, heading towards the front door, about to leave the house, so it is not face-to-face but within earshot.


R’s car is often used by S but not without prior permission and arrangements having been negotiated.  Usually he has it back by 3 which allows R to go pick up her daughter  from school.

L1        S:  OK I’m off. See you at 3.

L2        R:  Are you taking the car?

L3        S:  Can I?

L4        R:  Are you?

L5        S:  Do you want me to?

It is significant that R raises the topic of the car (L2) after S has effectively closed the conversation and is on the point of leaving.

R responds not by saying something like “see you” but by asking a question. The question however targets a range of speech acts: it could be a simple inquiry about the means of transport; or it could be a warning that he has not obtained permission (c.f. `you’re not taking the car, are you?’); or it could be an offer (c.f. `do you want to take the car?’).

On this particular occasion R had thought S was using public transport. When, however, he said `see you at 3′, R was alerted to the possibility that he might have intended to use the car. Thus when S said `see you at 3′, R wanted to confirm that the car wasn’t being used because on this day she needed it before 3 as well.

The question actually meant `I hope you’re not intending to use the car because you can’t’. R used an indirect form so as not to appear too `heavy’ – i.e. to protect his face (against attack)  and her own face (against making false accusation) in case he had had no intention of using the car. She does not want to come down heavy on him if it is undeserved. Hence the pragmatic ambivalence  of her question which will allow her retreat-ability in the event that it turns out he has been falsely accused.

In fact, S had had no intention of using the car knowing that it had been needed, and knowing that he has to establish prior permission. However, in hearing R’s question `are you taking the car?’ he realises that it might actually, unexpectedly, be on offer. Ever the pragmatist when it comes to car use, he chooses to interpret it as an offer. His bald-on-record `can I?’ (L3) is designed to confirm the offer and score points by reinforcing how he plays by the rules in always asking for permission.

However, the question is not without its own risks: it challenges R by answering her question with a question.  R, however, has now realised that S had not intended to use the car but is now angling to get it. Busy and a bit irritated (caused in part by his not answering her directly),  she is unwilling to begin now to renegotiate the use of the car.

At the risk of further escalating tension by not responding to S’s question and returning to insist on an answer to her own question (an insistence that may be construed as face threat), she sticks to her guns, demanding a straight answer (yes or no) to the original question inquiring about his intention to use the car.

Meanwhile, S is still positioning himself to maximum advantage for the chance to get the car. To keep the hope alive, he cannot answer `yes’ or `no’. If he responds with `yes’ and it turns out he had not sought permission, then he’ll be in trouble, which itself may impact on future car use.

If he answers `no’, then it means he was planning to go without it and this will undermine the current urgency of need and the eleventh-hour possibility of getting the car. He therefore is trapped – forced into a corner where only a yes/no will suffice but either will condemn him.

One of the few options left now is to side-step the issue of what he has done and what he should do. He does this by effecting a radical shift in agency and process. In his response (L5) he switches agency to R and introduces the new process `want’. In so doing he has shifted responsibility to R as agent and re-defined the entire exchange as one in which permission to use the car depends not on his asking for permission or the car’s availability but on R’s desire for him to use it.

It’s risky. The continued delay in his answering her question augments the tension. To off-set this, he probably realises on some level that the act of highlighting R’s wants also serves as an act of deference to R’s power in an essentially asymmetrical relationship: it allows S to position himself as lowly and dependent.

He must also realise that anointing R in this way – i.e. by reminding R of her power – may accrue him some benefit: best case scenario is that, cued to her power, R may subsequently choose to exercise it through magnanimity.

And what would be more appropriate in this context and on this occasion than granting him use of the car?

Children and Questions

18 03 2010

At the risk of uber-disclosure,  did you know that one type of Libra feminine panty liner not only keeps you dry-and-protected, but also keeps you entertained?

How so? Well, as you instal your liner, by peeling back the paper strip that covers the sticky surface,  you notice that the flip side of said paper strip is covered in bits, or bytes, of random information.

And I mean random. They’re each called “Odd Spot” (no prizes for unpicking the irony), and they’re each numbered, and the numbers aren’t sequential (that would defeat the randomness). Anyway, Odd Spot # 139 reads: “On average, a four-year-old child asks 437 questions a day”.

Well, let’s not get too excited by that. Averages have long lost their shiny patina having been pressed into dubious service for all kinds of lies. All you need is two kids, one a rabid question-asker, the other a silent type, and the so-called averages get ridiculously skewed.

Two kids like that, side by side, may seem to beggar belief. But I swear, on my honour, spit over my left shoulder, that I speak from personal experience. My brother was an intrepid question-asker; I myself rarely spoke, and when I did, it was never to ask questions.

My brother’s specialty was the why-question. He probably went through the others before he got onto “why”. After all, “what” (what are you doing?), “where” (where’s my cricket bat?), “how” (how do you get the top off this thing?), “when” (when’s dinner gonna be ready?), “who” ( who’s getting the big half?) as well as questions without interrogatives (are we there yet?) can take up a large part of the day.

But when you get to the why-question, the parent (or the person doing the answering) may well release a voiceless groan.  You see, they know that it’s a different kettle of fish to the others, the non-whys, which can mostly be dispensed with a few short syllables: they’re information-seeking in the most physical and immediate sense. Able to be quickly satisfied, and once they are, then they disappear into the dust, the very essence of ephemeral.

If the answers to such questions have an extinguishing effect, the why-question by contrast does the opposite – it open things up.  As they’re not always easily answered, the answers mostly lend themselves to more why-questions.

Kids know this. From an early age they know that the why-question can be relied on to furnish the means by which the child usurps the power in the discourse. There’s no easy answer, for the non-specialist parent, to: Why is the sky blue? Why does it rain? Why do you only have a lap when you’re sitting down? Other times you can be bombarded by two why-questions in fast succession, where as much as the speed, there is the very juxtaposition that is itself vexatious.  Why is a dog’s nose wet? might be followed quickly by “why is life unfair?”. You’ve hardly got your head around the physiology of canine respiration, when you’re hit in the face with unbridled existentialism.

Why-questions have another difficulty too. The English “why” actually subsumes meanings that in other languages may often be relegated their own word. For instance, sometimes “why” means what is the cause of/ what is the reason for/what makes this happen/how did it come about? Or even what makes you (how come you) say that?  Why is the sky blue? is one of these. It might be phrased: What causes the sky to be blue? Or what is the process that makes the sky blue? It’s a retrospective question in that it seeks an explanation for what precedes the phenomenon.

But there’s another why, one that is prospective, forward-looking. Why are you planting that, asked  the child as the mother dug a hole in the earth for the basil plant. So that we can have it with our dinners. This “why” has more to do with purpose or planned outcome or result or what flows from what.

To the child using questions to understand the world around them, the  explanations of origins and those of purpose are equally important.

According to family legend, my brother was heavily into his why-phase around the age of four. One day, our father resolved to answer each and every why-question thoughtfully, in an experiment to see how long the boy could sustain the barrage.  It went on all day, and well into the evening, exhausting the father long before the child, whose last question, even when he was tucked up in bed, and on the cusp of sleep, was: Why am I asking why?