Guest blog: The Oulu University Multi-Tasking Research Team (iTask)

I’m delighted to welcome back Antti Kamunen to report again on the exciting activities of the iTask research team, based at Oulu University (Finland). “Multi-tasking” in interaction with other people means synchronising multiple activities between participants, and is, as you can imagine, as complex as it is rewarding to analyse. Antti takes up the story.

In the previous post a few months ago, as the iTask project was just beginning, I introduced the team, the initial research questions and the method. Since then, research has shown that interactional multitasking is a pervasive phenomenon; it is everywhere and nowhere! So there is lots more to report, which I think will be of interest to ROLSI blog readers.

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iTaskers: Antti Kamunen, Sylvaine Tuncer, Pentti Haddington and Anna Vatanen

Interactional multitasking is one possible way in which participants can organise their activities. Here are some examples of occasions where such organisation is crucial:   managing a sensitive conversation while massaging (Nishizaka & Sunaga, 2015), consulting notes on the computer while interacting with the patient (Beck Nielsen, 2016) or asking a child to remain quiet while interacting with another (Cekaite, 2016). (Attentive readers will notice that two of these are ROLSI articles – not that we’re trying to curry favour with the Editor, of course!)

In this blog post, each of us will briefly present our preliminary findings, by describing some of the observed accomplishments of participants doing interactional multitasking; and outline new perspectives for future research and the project itself. We’ve come a long way, but there is much yet to do.

Managing interactions in the workplace: Sylvaine Tuncer reports on her work

In my doctoral dissertation, intrigued by previous research in mundane and institutional interaction (Egbert, 1996; Lerner, 1996; Heath et al., 2002), I began to explore the possible connections between multi-person situations and multiactivity in the workplace. My data recorded in office organisations showed that colleagues sharing their workspace tend to switch from individual work to collaborative, interactional work in a contingent and emergent fashion. I also showed that situations where some colleagues are involved in a focused encounter in the presence of non-participating colleague(s) was as an understudied area of EM/CA research.

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In January-April 2016, I collected new video data for the iTask-project in a biochemistry laboratory. With the help of these data, I’ve built up a collection of sequences where an overhearer attempts to join in an on-going interaction. The analyses show that the participants initially involved can set up a multiactivity episode (there are two other possible trajectories) by suspending their interaction, responding to the overhearer, close this interaction and resume the former one without the overhearer. In other words, setting up a multiactivity episode is one method whereby workers can preserve the number and quality of participants involved in an on-going interaction, and thus work through an interactional and professional problem, step by step and in a collaborative fashion. It contributes to regenerating relative rights and obligations at work, in particular collaborators’ entitlement to participate and have a say in the task or activity which is currently under discussion.

Embodied work in multi-activities: Antti Kamunen on his PhD work

 Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.49.14Looking into the embodied practices regarding multiactivity in social interaction,  I’ve been interested in the role of gestures in the organisation of turn-taking. Having gone through dozens of hours of data – ranging from broadcast live interviews to “ordinary” conversations in domestic and institutional settings – I’ve put together a collection of cases with the use of what are called Open Hand Prones with vertical palm (Kendon, 2004) and their variants. In a majority of the cases, the gesture co-occurs with variants of “suspension turns” (Keisanen, Rauniomaa & Haddington, 2014) – such as “wait” or “hold on” – and with other instructive phrases such as “let me finish.”

A common feature to the co-speech gestures described above was that they were overwhelmingly produced in situations with overlapping talk, and that they appear to have a regulating function in halting a co-participant’s on-going turn, usually leading to the non-gesturing participant to (temporarily) drop out and only continue once the gesturer has finished. In the context of a broadcast live interview this phenomenon appears in situations of competition over speakership, whereas in mundane settings the gesture appears to be used also in situations involving multiactivity.

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My preliminary findings suggest that if the speaker’s simultaneous involvement in another activity (such as preparing tea or eating) leads to a temporary hitch in the progressivity of the on-going conversation, the speaker can produce a blocking gesture – with or without speech – to put the imminent action on hold until they are once again able to continue, or to stop or pre-empt a co-participant from self-selecting during an episode with another on-going activity. Thus, the phenomenon is not necessarily related to achieving multiactivity, but to managing situations in which involvement in multiple activities may cause ‘trouble’ in the organisation and progressivity of turn-taking.

Trains, boats and planes (but actually mostly cars): Pentti Haddington (project director)

I’ve been investigating social action and interaction in mobile settings, in cars in particular (though not the one in the picture, left), for almost ten years. My research led to the observation that drivers and passengers often coordinate their actions between multiple activities (e.g. driving while talking, driving while eating, driving while talking on the phone). It soon became clear that multiactivity is by no means a clearly definable action, but something that emerges from a situation and which is managed in various verbal and embodied means.

I’m currently interested in how multiactivity is evident in the use of objects and how passenger drop-offs are socially organised in cars. I dream of one day being able to answer the following question: How many things can participants in interaction do at the same time?

Selected References

Cekaite, A. (2016). Touch as social control: Haptic organization of attention in adult–child interactions. Journal of Pragmatics, 92, 30-42.

Nielsen, S. B. (2016). How Doctors Manage Consulting Computer Records While Interacting With Patients. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 49(1), 58-74.

Nishizaka, A., & Sunaga, M. (2015). Conversing while massaging: Multidimensional asymmetries of multiple activities in interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 48(2), 200-229.

Guest blog: Bethan Benwell on patients’ small talk while being assessed for surgery

Even the most sober-sided institutional interaction can be infused with ordinary human concerns, expressed in everyday terms. In this very welcome guest blog trailing her and May MacCreaddie‘s article in the new issue of ROLSI, Bethan Benwell casts a humane yet analytic eye over the talk that goes on in a highly charged medical encounter.

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Bethan Benwell, University of Stirling

Anyone who has ever had to go into hospital for elective surgery will know that there is a routine information-gathering process that patients have to undergo a few weeks prior to admission, which is usually called a ‘pre-operative assessment’. The assessment usually takes around 20-30 minutes, involves procedures such as taking blood pressure and ECGs, and getting the patient’s medical history via a series of routine, usually optimised questions (e.g. ‘you don’t have any history of heart problems? Any recreational drugs at all?).

However, as you might expect, interaction during these sessions is not exclusively focused on medical matters, but as with other types of service encounter, sometimes involves a good amount of ‘off-topic’ small talk too. Not only is chat about your holiday in Ibiza and the terrible weather in Scotland an ideal way of building rapport with potentially nervous patients, it also provides a tactful distraction from the embodied contact central to these sessions.

How do patient and staff manage this off-topic material?

Such talk has the potential to disrupt the medical agenda, and if not managed well, could make the encounter an unsatisfactory one for the patient. Indeed these pre-operative assessments were, according  to survey data from one Health Authority, the subject of a particularly high number of complaints by patients. So, as part of a broader healthcare communication project conducted between my University’s departments of Health Sciences and English Studies, Dr May McCreaddie and I looked closely at what was going on. Could the management of small talk be to blame?

An initial noticing about the small talk phases was that the boundaries between ‘on’ and ‘off-topic’ talk occasionally blurred and needed careful negotiation by both participants. Sometimes ‘off-topic’ phases emerge where the patient’s initially medically relevant response expands into a social sequence. So, for example, a patient might respond to a routine question about family history of heart problems with an extended discussion of his father’s recent health problems., While the nurse would be able to engage socially with this topic briefly, she must deploy her skills in returning the talk to the medical business at hand.

When the talk gets personal

Even more marked were instances where social talk began to evolve into personal disclosure and troubles telling which led to difficulties in the negotiation of sequence closure. In one extended sequence during a series of medical tests, a patient’s disclosure of personal material (about his grown up son’s mental health problems) during a social sequence transforms the ‘small talk’ into something more akin to ‘troubles telling’. What is fascinating here is how the nurse displays engagement and sympathy whilst subtly resisting the trajectory of ‘troubles talk’. This is largely achieved by minimal responses that acknowledge an on-going narrative but which do not encourage its expansion and also by recasting a troubles telling or negative news as something positive.

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From Benwell and MacCreaddie (2016)

Other studies (e.g. Beach 2003 on ‘managing optimism’; Holt 1993 on ‘bright side sequences’; Maynard 2003 on ‘good news exits’) have observed a relationship between positive recasting and a movement towards topic closure, and it is likely that our nurse here is deploying ‘optimistic projection’ as a way of managing the social talk that has emerged.

 Pre-operative assessments do cause worry – but probably not because of the nurses’ style

Although these pre-operative assessments did attract more than their share of complaints, it seemed clear from our  analysis that communication during these sessions was not where the problem lay. Indeed the nurses coordinating these sessions were almost without exception hugely skilled in their ability to negotiate the tricky transition from social to medical agenda.


Beach, W. (2003). Managing Optimism. In P. Glenn, C.D. LeBaron & J. Mandelbaum (Eds.), Studies in Language and Social Interaction: In Honor of Robert Hopper. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Holt, E. (1993) ‘The structure of death announcements: Looking on the bright side of death’. Text 13(2), 189–212

Maynard, D. (2003) Bad News, Good News: Conversational Order in Everyday Talk and Clinical Settings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Benwell, B and MacCreaddie, M (2016) Keeping “Small Talk” Small in Health-Care Encounters: Negotiating the Boundaries Between On- and Off-Task Talk. Research on Langage and Social Interaction, 49 (3) in press and online

Guest blog: Weatherall and Keevallik on claims about others’ mental states

Some forms of words are so completely familiar that we never notice the work they do. In this guest blog, Ann Weatherall and Leelo Keevallik make us look afresh at the formulation I [mental appreciation] that you X, where X is some state of mind – so things like I know that you’re angry, or  I thought that you’d like that and so on. Are they as innocent as they seem? Their article is in the latest issue, but to see how they got there, read on….

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Ann Weatherall, Victoria University of Wellington

This paper had a long and sometimes fraught gestation. In this blog we describe how the research began, the difficulties we encountered in defining/refining our target phenomenon and the challenges of establishing the interactional matter it was mobilised to address. The research process has been a roller coaster ride of highs from the thrill of discovery to the lows of (at first!) failing to convince reviewers. It is very satisfying to have the end result finally published.

Of course, the outcome is not only the product of our own substantial work but also from the generous input of many others during data sessions and conference presentations. We really appreciate being part of a scholarly community of like-minded researchers including ROLSI reviewers and of course its editor.

Initial suspicions about a practice


Leelo Keevallik, Linköping University

The work for this paper began happily enough some three years ago.   In the first instance it was motivated by a curiosity about how bringing together our different disciplinary backgrounds in discursive psychology (Ann) and interactional linguistics (Leelo) would work. A complex psychological and grammatical expression that piqued our joint interest was when speakers made some kind of first person cognitive claim about the ‘internal’ processes (e.g., beliefs, desires, feelings, intentions, understandings) of another (e.g. I knew that’s what you want). Ann had a couple of cases in her New Zealand data and Leelo immediately recognised some instances in her Estonian and Swedish recordings. We initially called our target ‘claims to the intersubjective’.

A collection in English, Swedish and Estonian

Building a collection may appear as a relatively straightforward starting point for research. However, when working with claims to the intersubjective we kept re-shaping our collection to the very end. At first, we cast our net really broadly to include all cognitive statements in the first person (e.g., I know, I guess, I thought, I don’t believe) followed by a statement about the mental state of another (e.g., Tom Slone wants, you’re trying, you hate it). Working through all the cases one by one left us feeling utterly bewildered at the huge variety of forms. positions and functions of the target expression. We began to develop more stringent criteria. Early on we decided to exclude cases that referred to a third, non-present party, were in the past tense and/or negatively formulated. Also weeded out were instances of ‘I think’ and ‘you mean’ – lexicalized formats that have been neatly analysed by several other researchers as stance markers and repair initiations.


The first version of our manuscript included cases with a variety of I + COGNITIVE VERB + YOU + PSYCHOLOGICAL FORMULATION, across different institutional and mundane contexts in all three languages. The instances were more or less clearly responsive – an impreciseness the reviewers critiqued.   We were certain we had found a consistent pattern where the expressions were attentive to self-other relations and progressed the speaker’s action agenda. However, the reviewers not only questioned some of our analyses but were also unpersuaded that such diverse and complex linguistic forms could have a unitary effect across interactional environments. It was rejected, albeit with encouraging overtones.

After getting over the disappointment of rejection we turned our attention again back to our collection. For a long time we struggled on how best to narrow down the variability of our cases in order to further strengthen our proposal of their action. We considered reducing the cases down to one language or using only institutional talk since those were our clearest instances. Here’s a typical example from an institutional call-taker:

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I see that this is frustrating you….. (from Weatherall and Keevallik, 2016)

Finally, we decided to refine the focus to claims to ‘understand’ some aspect of the other’s mind. Even then we could be exhilarated one day over having found so many, and desperate the next when we felt they were all still too diverse: from a variety of sequential positions, settings and in several languages. We eventually crafted a brand new paper, albeit one where the general actions of our targets remained the same. This time we got a revise and resubmit with clear suggestions for the changes that needed to be made.

 These things keep cropping up!

What kept us going in the hardest hours were serendipitous treasures – we began noticing “our expression” in a variety of places including colleague’s talk, in newspaper headlines, in communication guides, English textbooks, and we found it useful when negotiating with our kids. Consider the following facebook post, forwarded to us by a colleague

“Dear Customer Services Person, I know you have been trained to say “I hear what you are saying” in order to placate your customer who has an issue and is getting a little antsy – however every time I hear some one say to me “I hear what you are saying” – I am thinking – you are not listening at all – you are merely in the “how to deal with an antsy customer zone”. The problem here is that when someone says to me “I hear what you are saying”….I get IRATE! And then I really do become a problem customer – I can’t help it. I HEAR WHAT YOU ARE SAYING – ARSE!!!”

We could only have wished for more instances like this in our data! As anecdotal evidence, it may have saved our collection. At least it gave us the confidence that we had indeed documented a general practice that held across a variety of settings.

Weatherall, A and Keevallik, L (2016) When claims of understanding are less than affiliative. Research on Language and Scial Interaction, 49 (3), in press.




Guest blog: Alexandra Kent and Kobin Kendrick on Imperatives

How do you get someone to do something? The range is from making a gentle hint through to barking out a peremptory order (and further on out to issuing an undisguised threat). In the latest issue of ROLSI Alexandra Kent and Kobin Kendrick tease out the subtle elements of actions done and undone in a blow-by-blow analysis of directives in interaction. Here Alexandra and Kobin recruit the British royals into an illustration of their study.

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Alexandra Kent, Keele University

During the 2016 Trooping the Colour Parade to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday, the British Royal Family stood on the Buckingham Palace Balcony together to watch an aircraft fly-past by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

We know this isn’t the way that Conversation Analysis reports usually start, but you’ll see what we’re getting at in a moment or two.

The next day British media were abuzz with a story from the Royal balcony. At a certain  moment the camera catches Prince William crouching down next to young Prince George. The Queen touches his arm, rapidly gestures upwards, and appears to say “Stand up William”. Prince William’s immediate response is to rapidly stand upright. The Queen’s imperative has been characterised by various newspapers, websites and on social media as “telling off” (Express, 2016) or “scolding” (Daily Mail, 2016) the Prince.

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Kobin Kendrick MPI / University of York

It was certainly an interactional action of some sort, but what, exactly?

Prince William’s “right royal telling off” (Mirror, 2016) is a timely popular example of the phenomenon we discuss in our upcoming paper in ROLSI, where we examine imperatives that tell someone to do something whilst also simultaneously holding him or her accountable for a transgression.

We contrast these accountability-oriented imperative directives with more prospective ones that tell someone to perform a newly relevant action – one that could not have been relevantly performed prior to the imperative being issued. Whilst turn design features can be used to enhance the orientation to accountability (e.g., address terms, exaggerated prosody, profanity or accounts), the sequential timing of the imperative itself can be sufficient to index the recipient’s accountability for failing to perform the directed action.

Let’s take a closer look at what was going on on that Royal balcony.

The Royal family were on the balcony for the specific purpose of being visible to the gathered public crowds and TV cameras while they watched the RAF fly past. Being attentive and appreciative as the aircraft fly overhead is a pre-established, well-known protocol for the Royals during their regular balcony appearances.

Although the edited nature of broadcast footage makes a detailed analysis of the full imperative sequence tricky, we know that the Queen did not object when William initially crouched down to talk to George. In fact she briefly joins their conversation before the fly past begins. At some point however, it becomes clear that William has remained in a crouched position rather than standing to watch the fly past. It is his failure to relevantly return to an attentive standing posture during the fly past that the Queen addresses. The imperative sequence itself is very quick; William is back on his feet within two seconds of the Queen first tapping him on the arm to get his attention. So what was it about this very brief sequence (besides the potential for a ‘right royal’ pun) that led to the action being characterised in headlines as a ‘right royal telling off’ (Mirror, 2016)?

When someone has failed to do something

Our analysis suggests that when an imperative is used to direct someone to do something that they could (and potentially should) have already done it carries an implicit orientation that they are accountable for failing to have relevantly performed the action. This orientation need not necessarily be marked explicitly through intonation, account solicitations, or other turn design features. If the relevance of the action (in this case visibly attending to the fly past) was established prior to the imperative then it can be heard to orient to the recipient’s inaction as a failure for which they are responsible.

A perfect tool?

The use of an imperative to ‘tell someone off’ enables the admonishment to remain tacit and unvoiced in favour of prioritising the immediate performance of the directed action. This makes it the perfect tool for situations in which the most important thing is to get the action performed (ensuring the second in line to the throne is visibly attentive to the fly past), and a relevant but secondary consideration is letting the recipient know that it was their inaction in the first place that caused the problem, without requiring them to explicitly account for the transgression.

Find out more about accountability-oriented imperative directives in the upcoming issue of ROLSI.

Kent, A., & Kendrick, K. H. (2016). Imperative Directives: Orientations to Accountability. Research on Language and Social Interaction. 49 (3). online now.

Guest blog: Catrin Rhys on strange interview questions

Sometimes a Conversation Analysis study makes you realise that you’d seen an odd bit of talk somewhere, and half-registered it as being strange in some way. So I’m delighted that Catrin Rhys has written a guest blog on her article in the upcoming issue of ROLSI – on the strangeness of interviews in (British) football-land. 


Catrin Rhys, University of Ulster

One of the joys of teaching is that students sometimes, usually unwittingly, deliver up golden nuggets of data. That was how I ended up analysing post-match interviewing in football, despite having absolutely no interest in football.

Recently one my students brought in a transcript of a post-match interview for an assignment, I was intrigued by just how often the interviewer’s “questions” were grammatically declarative and delivered with falling intonation: indeed, one of the interviews didn’t have a single interrogative.

Here are some typical examples of interviewer turns:

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Three non-interrogative questions in post-match interviews

What’s going on?

After poring over thirty interview transcriptions, I can’t really claim to have learnt anything about football, but the interviewing format made more sense. It became clear to me that the central activity of the post-match interview wasn’t “interviewing” in the usual way, but some sort of assessment. The interviewer’s job is mostly to pick some aspect of the match or the football season and get the manager to talk about it by giving a first assessment of it.

Take the first example above: Few penalty appeals in there, a few good ones I would suggest. The interviewer introduces the topic of the penalty appeals and gets the manager to evaluate them by suggesting that they were “good” penalty appeals.

Jose Mourinho responds to "questions"

A well-known football manager responds to “questions”

So what began as my attempt to understand the declarative grammatical formatting of questions in this type of interview turned into an analysis of the interplay between the assessment orientation of the talk and the sequential, institutional and social distribution of epistemic access and epistemic primacy. How does the interviewer juggle showing that he knows enough to pick what gets assessed and get it assessed while still treating the manager as the real expert?

Juggling expertise

On the one hand, the football interviewers draw on features of turn design to produce displays of epistemic access and category-bound expertise. They show their own expertise as a football journalist who has just watched the match. On the other hand, interviewers systematically deploy a range of linguistic resources to downgrade their epistemic authority relative to the interviewee. Going back to the penalty appeals example, the interviewer shows that he knows enough about football to evaluate the appeals, but just as a suggestion; the manager’s evaluation is what counts.

What was particularly interesting in the data were the parallels between single unit turns and multi-unit turns both in terms of the linguistic structures used (particularly topic-comment structures) and the position and function of interrogativity. Interrogativity has both response mobilizing and epistemic functions but in this data the interviewers regularly employ various turn design resources to achieve a non-final position for interrogativity and so prioritise the epistemic function.

What do we get as scholars from watching football?

A lot of football fun, if you like football. I can’t say I’ve become a devotee, but I did learn something:  when the task at hand is focused on evaluation, it’s not what we know but who knows best that counts. Football interviewing turns out to be a great natural laboratory for understanding the role and distribution of interrogativity and its position within the turn. I still don’t understand anything about football, but the post-match interview is a fascinating arena for seeing how asymmetrical distribution of speaking and assessment rights plays out.

Rhys, C. S.  (2016) Grammar and Epistemic Positioning: When Assessment Rules. Research on Language and Social Interaction49(3) xx-xx (out online)

Guest blog: Ethically sound video research in healthcare

Interactional analyses have increasingly, and fruitfully, been applied to the communication of healthcare workers and their patients. But there are ethical risks and dangers, given the sensitivity of the issues involved. Marco Pino and Ruth Parry have kindly offered their reflections on how to handle the difficulties, and to come out with data that are as ethically sound as they are analytically useful. Continue reading