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?