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Social positionings


The use of social deictics like pronouns, forms of address, or names, is one way speakers align themselves to the cultural context as they understand it. We have seen in Chapter 3 how changes in intonation and pronunciation can also indicate changes in our perception of our role as a participant in an interaction, and in our alignment to others. Goffman called such a positioning footing, i.e. the stance we take up to ourselves and to the others present as expressed in the way we manage the production or reception of utterances. A change in footing is usually marked by a change in register, tone of voice or bodily orientation. For example, it is frequently the case in the United States that a Northerner talking to a Southerner instinctively aligns his/her way of talking on that of the Southerner, as a sign of conversational cooperation; similarly, a native speaker who starts adopting a style of speaking called 'foreigner talk' when talking to a foreigner, shows a convergence that can be interpreted, as we shall see further in Chapter 6, either as cultural solidarity or as the display of cultural power. We can see this same phenomenon occurring in classrooms. A teacher talks differently to her pupils when she addresses them as a class or as individual children:


1. Now listen everybody

2. At ten o'clock we'll have assembly. We'll all go out together and go to the auditorium and sit in the first two rows. Mr. Dock, the principal, is going to speak to us. When he comes in, sit quietly and listen carefully.

3. Don't wiggle your legs. Pay attention to what I'm saying.

(Goffman, Erving. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1981, page 127)


The switch in tone and in the use of pronouns from 'everybody' to 'we' to 'you' and 'I' clearly sets the utterances 1, 2, and 3 apart from one another. Three different footings are involved here: the first statement is a claim on the children's immediate behavior, the second is a review of experiences to come, and the third a side remark to a particular child. The teacher, as a speaker, switches roles from being a principal (in the legalistic sense), i.e. representing the institutional voice of the school, to being an animator or class teacher who animates her students' voices through the (euphemistic) use of 'we', to becoming an author or private adult demanding to be listened to. The switch in register indexes a switch in cultural alignment, from marking the teacher's member-ship in the institutional culture of the school to her identity as an individual speaker, albeit endowed with the authority of an adult. Both switches, in tone and in register, index a distinct change in footing.

Defining one's footing can also be achieved through code-switching. In a famous passage of The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann's German hero, Hans Castorp, gets acquainted with the seductive Russian Asian guest, Clawdia Chauchat, in the high-altitude environment of a Swiss sanatorium. It is in this remote location, far away from any fixed cultural conventions, and with the freedom granted by carnival night, that Hans Castorp dares address Madame Chauchat with du:

- 'Hast du vielleicht einen Bleistift?'

- 'Ich? ... Ja, vielleicht ... Du bist sehr ehrgeizig ... Du bist... sehr eifrig... Voilà!...'

- 'Siehst du wohl, ich wußte doch, daß du einen haben würdest.'

- 'Prenez garde, il est un peu fragile', sagte sie. 'C'est à visser, tu sais.'

- [(German) Do you happen to have a pencil?

- Me? Perhaps I have ... You are so eager ... you are ... very ambitious... (French) There!

- (German) You see, I knew you would have one.

- (French) Take care, it is a little fragile, (German) she said. (French) It is meant to be screwed, you know.]

(Mann, Thomas. Der Zauberberg. Frankfurt: Fischer 1956, page 305)


With this initial switch from the more distant vous-form to the more intimate du/tu-form, and with the unrestrained switch between German and French, the German engineer and the Russian aristocrat find a common cultural ground that Castorp uses to declare his love to her in French. These changes in footing help the young German hero to confront his inability to choose between the Western and the Eastern influences on his German soul and to find his own identity as a German (see Chapter 6).

Not all changes in footing are as dramatic as this one; but they all correspond to a change in the way we perceive events. A change in footing is connected with a change in our frame for events. As we saw in Chapter 3, framing, or the ability to apply a frame of interpretation to an utterance or speech event through a contextualization cue (in this case the switch in social deictic and in code), is our way of linking the speech event to other similar speech events we have experienced, and to anticipate future events. It is by sharing frames of interpretation that people know that they share the same culture.

Here are, as an example, two different frames established at the beginning of two group discussions, one conducted in English by American students, one conducted in Japanese by Japanese students.

In answer to the question 'Why did you decide to study Japanese?' the American students began their discussion as follows:

Jenny: I hate ops

Teacher: Go ahead

(pause 3.5 seconds; sounds of opening and closing a door as teacher leaves the discussion room)

Beth: Okay:

Mike: So, Beth, why did you decide to learn Japanese

Sean: Why.

Beth: Uhm ... I guess I decided to learn Japanese because (Beth continues)

(Watanabe, Suwako. 'Cultural differences in framing: American and Japanese group discussions.' In Tannen, D. Framing in Discourse. Oxford University Press 1993, page 182)


In the 3.5 seconds pause, the alignment of the participants changed from a pre-discussion frame to that of a discussion frame. Beth's 'Okay' signals the onset of that discussion frame, seen as an instructional task to be dealt with as efficiently as possible. By framing the verbal exchange in this manner, the American students are perpetuating a discussion style typical of American academic culture, in which a problem or a question posed at the outset gets tackled without further ado by whoever takes the initiative to start the discussion.

By contrast, when asked to discuss the question 'Why did you decide to study abroad?', the Japanese students began their discussion as follows (English translation):

Teacher: Then, please

Yasuo: Let's see, as you see, uhm, basically we'll follow the


Keiko: that's right. Number one, number

Fumiko: h-h-h-h

two, and number three.

Yasuo: Hm. It's easy to get in.

Keiko: That's right. then ...

well, the top one, each one of us has to talk in turn, I


Fumiko: That is so.

Yasuo: That's right... following

numbers, how are we going to do ...

Ikuo: Ladies first

Fumiko: Please

Yasuo: Oh, that sounds good.

Fumiko: [laugh]

Keiko: [laugh]

Keiko: Then, from, the younger one [laugh]

Fumiko: Please [laugh]

Fumiko: No. No. Big sister. [laugh]

Keiko: What?

Ikuo: It doesn't matter, does it.

Keiko: As you see, [Keiko takes turn]

(ibidem, pages 184-5)


Through this elaborate framing exercise it seems that the Japanese speakers were negotiating not only the procedural aspects of the subsequent discussion, but also a hierarchical order within the group. The question of who speaks first is, in Japanese culture, of paramount importance. No one simply decided to speak first, as in the American groups. In all the Japanese group discussions, a female member started, followed by the other female member, then by the younger male member, and last by the oldest male member. Without establishing first the participants' social positions, the speakers would not have known which language style and vocabulary to choose. And one result of failing to use an appropriate linguistic form is loss of face. By framing the task with an elaborate discussion on procedural matters, the Japanese participants enacted and perpetuated a Japanese culture that is particularly sensitive to the mutual need to save social face (see the next section). But they also replicated the Japanese culture of talkshows, interviews, and casual forum/ roundtable-type discussions, commonly set up by the media in order to elicit personalized stories. In other words, they enacted both the structure of their society, and the demands of the speech event as their culture perceives its genre to be.


Protecting Face


The ultimate aim of negotiating frames and footings in conversation is to protect one's own and other participants' face at all times. For, the cooperative principle we discussed in the last chapter is less a guide to individual behavior than it is the very condition of continued social interaction, and the enactment of a group's cultural self-understanding.

Members of a cultural group need to feel respected and not impinged upon in their autonomy, pride, and self-sufficiency (negative face). They also need to be reinforced in their view of themselves as polite, considerate, respectful members of their culture (positive face). These two contradictory needs require delicate facework, since it is in the interest of all participants in a verbal exchange that everyone maintain both his/her negative and positive face, so that the exchange can continue. In the example given above for the Japanese group, the one who speaks first is the one who runs the greatest risk of face loss, because he/she has to take the floor without knowing where the others stand. The turn-taking order is thus indirectly arranged so that juniors and inferiors take earlier turns, perhaps because their face is considered less important, while seniors/superiors take later turns.

The negotiation of frames and footings and the facework accomplished in verbal encounters among members of a given social group gives rise to group-specific discourse styles. In particular, as we shall see below, what distinguish people from different cultures are the different ways they use orate and literate discourse styles in various speech genres for various social purposes.


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