Guest Blog: Alexa Hepburn on the UN laughing at – or with? – Trump

Occasionally something in the news strikes a resonant chord with those with  Conversation Analysis- tuned ears – and the laughter that treated President Trump at the UN on 25th September 2018 was just such an occasion. I’m delighted that Alexa Hepburn has been willing to bring her expertise to bear on a geopolitically sensitive question: was Trump laughed at? Or was the audience laughing with?

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Alexa Hepburn, Rutgers

There’s a reason that the English language has 50 words for laughter (well, a lot anyway). We can snigger, titter, chortle or chuckle, and giggle, cackle, guffaw and roar. But why? What’s it all for? Enter the conversation analyst!

Careful transcription reveals not simply what type of laughter we’re dealing with, but also facilitates analysis of the actions that it manages and responds to.

The following is a transcript of the 30 seconds in which Donald Trump dealt with audience members’ laughter during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on the 25th of September 2018. Trump arrived late – he was only leaving Trump Tower when the speech should have started, the schedule was changed to accommodate his lateness.  This might not have endeared his audience to him. We join Trump around 40 seconds in.

[You can see the the video on YouTube by clicking here]

TRUMP UN 25.9.18 0.43-1.09

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Trump begins his speech with strong claims about his administration’s achievements on lines 1-3. According to Anita Pomerantz, explicit self-praise is a dispreferred action, though perhaps less avoided in this context where listing one’s country’s achievements might be relevant. However, on line 4 some members of the audience treat Trump’s utterance as laughable – a highly disaffiliative response.

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How does Trump deal with the laughter?

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Half-smile at line 6

In response, Trump cuts off where he was headed on line 5 to gaze at the culprit/s and reiterate his point with a half-smile (line 6). This clearly treats the laughter as undermining the truth of his initial claim – as laughing at. Over the next few seconds, the audience laughter grows louder (line 8). What’s interesting is how Trump deals with this. This time, rather than reiterating his point further, or ignoring it and soldiering on, he issues a sharply exhaled laughter particle on line 9. By laughing right here, Trump is able to recast himself as breaking out of his speech to laugh along with, rather than continue and be laughed at. Further laughter from the audience ensues (line 10).

Using his own laughter to defuse the insult

He continues the break from giving his speech to explicitly attend to the laughter as unexpected – as a dispreferred response, not something he wanted to elicit (line 11). But note that he does this while smiling then laughing himself. In our studies of post completion and interpolated laughter, Chloe Shaw, Jonathan Potter and I often saw it as a way of modulating some problem or insufficiency with the action one has just done, while nevertheless doing it. Without the smiling and laughter line 11 would sound more hurt and reproachful. The loudest audience laughter comes at this point on 13 with some applause – here it is at least partly hearable as appreciation of Trump’s candid and jokily delivered confession. The open-handed gesture indicates Trump’s ‘nothing to hide’ posture.

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So was Trump laughed at or was he laughing with?

Trump later told reporters: “Oh it was great. Well, that was meant to get some laughter, so it was great.” I think we can say, looking at his reiteration on line 6, that this is a misleading post hoc reconstruction of what happened here. He also said afterwards at a press conference: “We had fun…So, the fake news said: ‘people laughed at President Trump,’ …They didn’t laugh at me. People had a good time with me. We were doing it together.”

This is to some extent true towards the latter half of this sequence. While Trump at first is clearly laughed at and attempts to reiterate his initial claim on line 6, it’s not clear that later on in the sequence everyone laughed at Trump. His treatment of the laughter from line 9 onwards would have been disarming for some, and it is telling that the loudest laughter and some applause can be heard following his jokey sequence closing turn on line 11. So the answer is: yes, Trump was laughed at, but his media skills enabled him to modulate what could have been a moment of public ridicule, and provide some support for his claim that he and the audience were laughing along together.

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Read more about transcription and analysis in Alexa Hepburn and Galina Bolden’s textbook Transcribing for Social Research


Guest blog: Charlotte Albury on teaching CA to clinicians

Conversation analysis is increasingly being rolled out as a method for practitioners to use in their work, or at least as a corrective to the idea that all qualitative research is simply a matter of interviewing people. If it has the effect of sensitising them to the ebb and flow of talk in their everyday practices , that’s a bonus. I’m delighted that Oxford early-career researcher Charlotte Albury has written us a blog about her experiences in putting CA in front of a group of medical practitioners.

Charlotte Albury

Charlotte Albury, Nuffield Department of Primary Care

Recently I was invited to teach Conversation Analysis at the University of Antwerp. Their qualitative research methods summer school trains clinicians, quantitative researchers, and research students in qualitative research design; analysis; and appraisal, with a focus on clinical settings.

This year, three lectures were dedicated to conversation analysis. The aim was to provide the group with an overview of CA, how it can be used in clinical settings, and discuss the types of research questions that CA can best answer.

Test out some new teaching ideas

This was a good opportunity to test some new activities, which I had designed to be relevant for the range of learners and experience in the class. Here I’ve described three activities that I found worked particularly well for introducing CA to a mixed experience learning group.

  • Find a partner

I gave each student a piece of paper with one turn at talk on it. In the corner of these it said either 1stpp  or 2ndpp. I encouraged everyone to search the group to find the person they thought was their pair: for example, “How are you?” found “Fine thanks” and “See you later” found “Bye”. When everyone had found their partner, I asked them to work in small groups for about fifteen minutes and tell me what they discovered about talk from this exercise. They decided that:

  • Talk comes in pairs
  • Some responses are more relevant than others
  • Where things are in sequence is important

I started a session with this exercise and it was great to refer back to, as I expanded on each of these concepts throughout the day.

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  • Introducing transcription

I put up a slide that said “I didn’t call him stupid”, then asked someone to read it out (didn’t call him stupid). After this I asked if anyone could interpret this differently, and another learner read is emphasising a different word (I didn’t call him stupid). I repeated this until we’d drawn out 5or 6 different meanings, which initiated a discussion about what we might be missing when working with a verbatim transcription. I asked how we can make the meaning clearer, students suggested underling the emphasised word, or sound, and indicating where the pauses were, as this could change the meaning. I enjoyed this exercise as students identified for themselves the value of capturing how talk was delivered, and it introduced our subsequent activities and discussions about Jeffersonian transcription.

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How would Gail Jefferson have transcribed that?

  • 1-minute transcription challenge

Most learners had come to learn skills in interviewing and thematic analysis and were not planning on using CA in their research projects. However, CA literature has much to offer their research, and their literature reviews. Previous discussions with similar groups identified ‘unusual transcripts’ as a barrier to incorporating CA literature, so I was keen for learners to be familiar enough with transcription conventions to go looking for literature, and to confidently be able to read and interpret these studies. Doing transcription is a brilliant way to learn what it all means, but asking learners who are new to qualitative research to transcribe a large amount of data can be quite overwhelming, so I decided to try a “1 min transcription challenge”. Two lines of talk, a transcription key, audio on a loop and 1 minute to see what they can do. This was really successful, and the learners were more confident as we went on to read and discuss CA studies.Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 08.51.22

Looking back

I designed all activities to be as learner-led as possible so they could discover for themselves the key principles underlying CA. Learners said they found these sessions a “fantastic first introduction to the world of conversation analysis”, and one particular clinician said “it’s made me see conversation in a whole new light”.

Most learners reported that they would take many of the concepts we uncovered with them into clinical practice, and were keen to learn if CA research has explored their clinical speciality “Are there studies on end of life care?” “How about unexplained medical symptoms, or giving bad news?” “What about smoking cessation advice?”.  In our last session we had a dynamic discussion about clinical CA studies and I could see the learners had realised the exciting possibilities of conversation analytic research.

For more on CA teaching, see the “CA Teaching” page, and the pages in the CA Teach drop-down menu


Two more accounts of ICCA2018 in Loughborough

I’m delighted to feature two more perspectives on what the big ICCA meeting in July 2018 at Loughborough was like. First, Jemima Dooley recounts her experience as a presenter, then Fabio Ferraz de Almeida reports on his very successful panel showcasing established and early-career work on police and judicial practices.

A presenter’s view of ICCA 2018


Dr. Jemima Dooley, Bristol

One of the benefits of presenting interactional data is that it is inherently fascinating. My research is in medical settings and presenting my work to clinicians is almost easy – people love the opportunity to have a bird’s eye view of how they and their colleagues perform their daily tasks. When presenting at a clinical conference I can rely on the data to be the star of the show. Continue reading

Two reports on ICCA2018 in Loughborough

The International Conference on Conversation Analysis started in 2002 in Copenhagen, and, following a four-year cycle (shadowing the football World Cup) has been to Helsinki, Mannheim and Los Angeles. This year it came to Loughborough, and was a terrific success, showcasing some 500 presentations and attended by over 600 people from across the globe.

I’m delighted to feature reports of the event, from different perspectives. Below,  Jack Joyce, Linda Walz and Jake Piper give the stewards’ view; and then Jessica Young, reports on her conference tweeting.

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Jack Joyce

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Linda Walz

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Jake Piper

  1. The Stewards’ Tale

For a few of the volunteers, ICCA-18 preparation started on the Saturday before the conference with packing around 600 conference bags. This meant, for most, that ICCA was a long, hot and exhausting week; but, if you ask any volunteer (and see the list below*) whether or not they enjoyed it, then the answer would be a resounding ‘yes’. Continue reading

Guest Blog: A survey of CA craft skills

How do you handle your data? One big file? Hundreds of randomly-lableled files, in odd folders? Or a carefully curated, updated and catalogued easy-retrieval system? Sarah J White set out to find the answer from her fellow Twitter users….

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Sarah J White, Macquarie University

A few weeks ago I started thinking about processes and tools in conversation analysis. This year I have embarked on my biggest CA project since my PhD, so I thought it was time for a refresh to ensure I am keeping up. There are many, many resources available on how to do CA (I even have a methods chapter coming out soon), but that actual processes used to document the analysis seem less well defined. Continue reading

Guest blog: When graduate students get together: EM/CA Doctoral Network, May 2018

Graduate students doing EM/CA work in places where there aren’t many others of like mind, can sometimes feel a little isolated. That’s where an association like the EM/CA doctoral network comes into its own. Paula Greenlees reports on the most recent event, held in the elegant rooms of Edinburgh University.


Paula Greenlees, Edinburgh University

On a beautiful spring morning, a group of researchers from across the country and beyond gathered in Edinburgh, the city where Erving Goffman published his first book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. Continue reading

Guest blog: a new journal on social interaction

It’s an exciting event when a new journal appears on the scene that immediately sounds appealing. I’m delighted that Brian Due and Kristian Mortensen will tell us about the background to the new Social Interaction. Video-Based Studies of Human Sociality, and explain how its online publication makes it exceptionally apt for publishing video and audio data.

Brian Due

Brian Lystgaard Due

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Kristian Mortensen

Digital technology has over recent decades had a strong influence on the ways EMCA researchers go about doing their job. Over the years, video and audio data moved from magnetic tape to digital capture; transcriptions were no longer written on typewriters but produced as text files on a desktop; text files could link directly to video files so any segment could be immediately accessed; collections were no longer stored as pieces of papers in folders, but could be organized electronically across different corpora. Continue reading