LE in practice: analysing crosstalk in speakers' accounts

Position pieces on LE frequently identify Gumperz's work as foundational and catalytic to the LE enterprise (for example Rampton et al. 2004: 9-10; Rampton et al. this volume). One theme often noted is that of interactional differences between speakers from different cultures (for example Creese 2008: 231). Gumperz et al use the label 'crosstalk' to describe communicative breakdowns when speakers' 'unconscious linguistic conventions' differ (1979: 5). Gumperz unites such conventions under the label 'contextualisation cues' saying that these cues, when functioning smoothly, enable speakers to signal, and listeners to interpret, what activity they are engaged in, how semantic meaning should be understood and how text relates to context (1982: 57). Gumperz himself examined crosstalk and contextualisation cues in police-lay interaction (2001).

The notion of crosstalk is generally applied to interactions between speakers lacking a common language background. Yet as the lines between languages are problematised (for example Creese and Blackledge 2010: 106), we also recognise the difficulty of identifying commonalities amongst those who believe they speak 'the same language' (Gumperz 1999: 453). In view of police officers' shared ideologies (McElhinney 2003), institutionality (D'hondt 2009) and Communities of Practice (Rock 2005), and linguistic heterogeneity amongst the public, interactions between police and lay people can become sites of crosstalk not unlike some intercultural interactions. Understanding contextualization cues is not solely a matter of culture, in any case, but also situational and societal structures (Gumperz 1992; Sarangi 1994). Indeed, as well as afflicting 'intercultural interactions' Jacquemet notes crosstalk in 'asymmetrical encounters' where 'one side seeks help and provides personal information and the other listens and adjudicates' (2011: 493), like the police-lay encounters discussed here.

The data below are from an ongoing study of complaints against the police. This work initially centred on static written texts; standardised complaint response letters from the police. However, I was able to augment these data through research conversations with complaints staff about their writing practices and interviews with complainants. The police service's categorisations of complaint topics includes a category entitled 'incivility, impoliteness or intolerance' which captures almost a fifth of all complaints according to most recent figures (IPCC 2012: 5). Incidents in this category frequently involve miscommunication. Without directly observing complained-about events, which would be impossible except by chance, we can only examine 'incivility, impoliteness or intolerance', as represented by participants. Participants' accounting indicates their take on such communicative breakdowns. This section exemplifies the productiveness of the notion of contextu- alisation cues when applied to speakers' accounts rather than naturally- occurring talk.

In Excerpt 4, from a research interview, a complainant, Debbie, presents the background to her situation (lines 1-3) and the reasons she made a complaint (lines 4-20).

Excerpt 4: Two police turn up at my door

  • 1 Debbie I phoned up the police and said 'look
  • 2 y'know (.) events have been going on for
  • 3 three years it needs to come to a stop' um
  • 4 and then I had a .h uh- two police turn up at
  • 5 my door um very late at night um
  • 6 (.) I didn't know what um what was going
  • 7 on what the situation was um
  • 8 basically threatened me um that I would be
  • 9 arrested taken to X Police Station I'd have
  • 10 a um y'know (.) a- a- a blot on my sort of
  • 11 y'know ((copy book)) sort of thing um
  • 12 very threatening they didn't introduce
  • 13 themselves um they made me feel really
  • 14 intimidated
  • 15 at the end of the day I'd gone to the police
  • 16 for help um because of what was going on
  • 17 and that is really what I made the complaint
  • 18 about was the fact that I had these two
  • 19 police officers turn up at my door .h
  • 20 unannounced (.) threatening me basically

Debbie explains, in lines 1-3, that she had been seeking police action about her neighbours' behaviour for three years. This timespan might, itself, appear to be grounds for a complaint. She had, earlier in the interview, recounted feeling ignored by police and cornered by technicalities which prevented police action. Yet this, it turns out, was not the basis of her complaint. Having endured, as she saw it, three years of torment from her neighbours which she felt the police had brushed aside, the matter about which she complained, in the end, was one single interaction with officers who visited her house which she describes (lines 4-14) and evaluates (lines 15-20).

A view of contextualisaton cues helps us to examine Debbie's report using Blommaert's 'LE perspective'. An elemental step is to recognise Debbie's account as a version, not necessarily her only version and certainly not a definitive version, but the version selected for this particular occasion. The next step is to recognise the quantity and range of themes raised, the richness of her talk and the way that it shows positioning. The final stage is to consider how this relates to theoretical ideas, in this instance, crosstalk and contextualisation cues.

Debbie describes the officers' arrival in lines 4 and 5. She could have positioned this positively, indicating that their response, given the time of day, suggested that they realised matters had become urgent. However, instead she uses the expressions 'turn up' (line 4) and 'very late at night' (line 5) which collectively represents the attendance as unexpected and the timing as undesirable. She notes that the officers came to her home - which could again have been construed as a sign of personalised, attentive policing - through 'turn up at my door' (lines 4-5), the semantic prosody of which implies intrusion. She also notes that two officers visited. Again, this could have been cast positively as evidence that police were taking things seriously, but she seemingly cites this number to indicate heavy-handedness.

Debbie then moves into describing the 'incivility, impoliteness or intolerance' that she claims occurred (lines 4-14). Contextualisation cues 'may have a number of ... linguistic realisations', as I mentioned in introducing them. One area of potential trouble is the conversational opening, the way that an interaction begins (Gumperz, 1982: 131). Openings have been identified as influential in other policing settings (for example Cromdal et al. 2012). Debbie's account certainly presents the opening as a time when contextualisation was at issue. She suggests that the officers 'didn't introduce themselves' (line 12) and thus opened in a way that failed to make sense of the encounter for Debbie. Indeed she introduces the account itself with the words 'I didn't know what was going on what the situation was' (lines 6-7). Her earlier characterisation of the officers 'turn[ing] up', suggests that pre-opening, advance-notice of their arrival, was omitted, implying an encounter founded on imposition and surprise. Apparently unsure of the purpose of the speech event, Debbie construed pragmatic aspects of the officers' talk negatively. Specifically, her paraphrase of their illocutionary intent (intended meaning (Austin 1962: 101)) was 'threat'. Her repetition on this is striking as she recounts '[they] threatened me' (line 8), '[it was/they were] very threatening' (line 12); '[they were] threatening me' (line 20). She also recounts a specific threat, in lines 8-11, which was both immediate, involving arrest and removal to a police station (lines 8-9), and had longer-term consequences through a 'blot' on Debbie's 'copy book' (lines10-11). These general and specific suggestions of threat had a perlocutionary effect (force or outcome on the hearer (Austin 1962: 101)) which she describes, saying, 'they made me feel really intimidated' (lines 13-14). Debbie's response is not surprising. As Gumperz explains, when a listener misinterprets a cue or its function 'it tends to be seen in attitudinal terms. A speaker is said to be unfriendly, impertinent, rude, uncooperative or to fail to understand' (1982: 132). Debbie's account constructs missed contextualisation cues as creating negative evaluations.

Debbie concludes by encapsulating her position. The transition into summary is marked by the phrase 'at the end of the day' (Antaki 2007: 539). The first element of the summary (lines 15-16) is an assertion of Debbie's position as an innocent person who had 'gone to the police for help'. This positions her treatment as particularly outrageous. The final part of her summary (lines 17-20) revisits the event identifying it unambiguously as 'really what I made the complaint about'. Emphasis on 'really' implies her reasonableness in not complaining about the previous three years of delays (lines 17-18). She casts her account as 'fact' (line 18). In this final summary, Debbie rehearses the elements which made the event so unpalatable: the presence of 'two ... officers' (heavy- handedness) (lines 18-19, echoing line 4); the officers having 'turn[ed] up' (line 19, echoing line 4) 'unannounced' (entailing neither preopening nor opening) (line 20, echoing line 4); the encounter infringing Debbie's territory 'at my door' (line 19 echoing lines 4-5) and that they were 'threatening' (line 20 echoing lines 8-12). The use of present continuous tense in lines 4-5 and 18-20 contributes to the impact of Debbie's account by making it appear temporally local to the present.

Whilst we cannot directly observe this incident, Debbie represents it as one in which contextualisation cues were missed and thus conversational inferences perhaps misfired (cf. Gumperz 2001: 35). Jacquemet casts crosstalk not as resulting from 'different' cultural assumptions, ways of structuring information, and ways of speaking, as Gumperz (1979: 4-5) did, but instead coming from 'unexpected' assumptions (2011: 493). This adjustment fits well with Debbie's positioning of the officers' behaviour not as totally incomprehensible but as open to being read as socially unacceptable. Whether Debbie genuinely did not know 'what was going on' and 'what the situation was' (lines 6-7), or genuinely experienced the negative emotions described, even whether the officers were really threatening, is not our concern. What is analytically interesting is how she reads-off meaning from the situation and recontextualises the officers' talk and actions. The concept of crosstalk illuminates this.

My data access woes in the complaints arena were less striking than those experienced by other researchers (for example van Praet 2001: 216). Yet like van Praet I have sought to turn them to the advantage of the research. She did this by examining the very barriers to research access, coming to see them as reflecting 'values and assumptions' of those studied (2010: 231). I have done so by conceptualising the data I have in LE terms. Returning to Blommaert helps to explain this. He is critical of those who view LE as just a method 'for collecting particular forms of data'; for separating context from talk or for facilitating description. In this section, discussion of one short excerpt indicates the productiveness of keeping LE concepts in play even when not obviously invoked.

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