Thursday 9 August 2012

Displaying Rejection

No, we can't!

In a previous summary, we looked at how people make requests, but what happens when you reject a request?  How does the person on the receiving end of the rejection deal with your response?

This is what Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen wanted to investigate. For her analysis she looked at a range of interactions, mainly telephone conversations made by a British English family. She explains that rejections are generally made to speech acts such as a request, a proposal or an invitation, where the addressee has two options: they can respond in a positive way by accepting, granting or doing what was asked; or they can respond in a negative way by refusing, declining or rejecting. Focussing particularly on negative responses, Couper-Kuhlen explains that there are a number of ‘affective displays’ which are common to how someone reacts in these situations and which allow them to make a particular attitude or stance visible or audible to others. For example, a display of disappointment may include a sagging of the shoulders, a quiet response and a generally withdrawn air.  In contrast, a display of irritation may take the form of a lraising of the voice,  confrontational gestures and subsequent challenges to the reasons behind the rejection.

The characteristics of these displays can, initially, be channelled through what she terms ‘rejection finalisers’.  These are words and phrases such as okay then, alright, oh well and never mind.  Imagine the difference in interpretation between the following responses (the last line in (1) and (2):
            (1) Disappointment           
A)  Am I allowed to come to the party tonight?
                   B)  Well, not really, it’s actually more of a work thing
                   A)  <subdued> Oh, okay then

            (2) Irritation
C)  There are still some tickets available for that play                      tomorrow, can we go?
                   D)  I’m working late tomorrow
                   C)  <sharply> Oh  (pause) well I didn’t know that

The use of rejection finalisers show how A and C acknowledge the rejection, and it is how they are used with linguistic factors such as different voice qualities (e.g. a breathy voice like a sigh of disappointment) as well as pitch and volume changes, that carry the affective meaning.  However, while responses of disappointment and irritation are marked displays following rejection, Couper-Kuhlen highlighted a further type of reaction – that is, not to acknowledge the rejection and, therefore, not produce a rejection finaliser.  This can happen in contexts such as negotiations, for example:

(3)      A) I know I said I would drop those papers around to you     tomorrow morning, but, unfortunately, I’ve been asked     to work instead. Can I bring them round in the
B) That’s not so good as I have to take the kids to 
    swimming practice
A) Umm, I could just drop them through your letterbox
    then and we can chat about them once you’ve had a 
B) Okay, let’s do that
A) Great

In this example, A doesn’t produce a rejection finaliser or a specific affective display to convey her attitude to B’s initial response. Instead, A thinks and comes up with an alternative suggestion which is taken up by B and the matter is settled.

Comparing these three possible responses (disappointment, irritation and lack of affective display), Couper-Kuhlen concluded that there is an order of preference between them.  Irritation was not as frequent as the other two.  Additionally, when irritation occurred in the same sequence as disappointment, disappointment would come first before any affective display of irritation.  Therefore, while every response to rejection is uniquely linked to the contexts in which they take place, further research into the ordering of affective displays and how they intertwine with linguistic structure can help us understand conversation structure and the relationships between the participants.
Couper-Kuhlen, E. (2012) On affectivity and preference in response to rejection. Text and Talk 32:453-475.

doi: 10.1515/text-2012-0022

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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