Friday, 26 October 2012

Candidate understandings in conversation

                        A: I just bumped into whatsisname….the guy in the                                 next office…in [the canteen]
                        B:                     [you mean] John?
                        A: yes, that’s right

In the above imaginary conversation, the listener (B) has interrupted the speaker (A) to help out with a name that the speaker cannot readily supply. In this instance, the interruption to the flow of the speaker’s talk can be seen as helpful (or ‘affiliative’); in other words, the listener’s interruption is momentary and is heard as trying to check or clarify an aspect of what the speaker means to say. Among linguists, these interruptions are referred to as candidate understandings.

Researcher Charles Antaki has been taking a closer look at a collection of candidate understandings and suggests that they may not always be designed to be so co-operative. He argues that they can sometimes signal dissatisfaction with the speaker’s talk and that they can be a serious hindrance (or be ‘disaffiliative’) to the progress of continuing that talk. Antaki provides the following example from a conversation between Dana and Gordon:

                        G: I managed to get home in time for my music                                      lesson at five…thirty?...h[hhhh
                        D:                                   [Mm hm?=
                        G:=hu – uh dashing back at (.) at a grand sixty miles                             ‘n hour in..Malcolm’s car it nearly shook itself to                                 pieces..hhhh he wz zipping round the roads:- (0.3)
                        D: for your music lesson
                        G: yeah that’s right, .hhhhh
In the first example above, the listener offers some fresh information (the name of the person) to try and meet a need in the speaker’s utterance. However, in the second example, there is no obvious problem with G’s story and D does not offer any missing information. Instead, D’s utterance of ‘for your music lesson’ is merely a repeat of something that G has already said and has the effect of pulling G up short in the telling of his story. Antaki proposes that this kind of candidate understanding points to something objectionable about the speaker’s utterance and requires the speaker to do something about it. In this case, D appears to be objecting to G’s failure to stick to (what D considers to be) the significant point of the story and it has the effect of bringing the story to an abrupt end. The two speakers in the examples also seem to recognize the different functions of the candidate understandings. The speaker in the first example responds immediately with ‘yes, that’s right’ but the speaker in the second example stops the narrative of the journey home, audibly hesitates and then answers ‘yeah that’s right’.

Antaki argues that in the second type of candidate understanding there is an underlying notion that the listener has spotted something that he or she ‘knows better’ than the speaker and is requiring the speaker to do something about it. Clearly, then, in the above example D feels that she has the right to exert her perspective on the story and alter the direction of what is being said. Of course, it seems highly likely that the relationship between the interlocutors, the setting in which the interaction takes place and perhaps the type of interaction will all have a role to play. Furthermore, as the author points out, these ‘unhelpful’ understandings can also be used for ironic effect. Discounting ironic uses, though, Antaki points out that sometimes at least, the practice shows that ‘ telling someone that you know better is equivalent to telling them what to do’.
Antaki, C. (2012). Affiliative and disaffiliative candidate understandings. Discourse Studies 14(5): 531-547.

doi: 10.1177/1461445612454074

This summary was written by Sue Fox


  1. I'm not a linguist or polyglot (just a print journalist), but I do have a passing interest in linguistics and wanted you to know I thoroughly enjoy this blog.

    You have a gift for giving synopses of research that are well-written and accessible to the layman. I imagine there must be a constant risk or temptation to get bogged down in academic minutiae but that never happens.

    I often discuss the major points of entries with my friends or family and they invariably find it interesting as well.

  2. Many thanks Christina - we appreciate your comments!