“I just thought… ” is one of those phrases whose meaning we think we know, but there are intriguing subtleties in what people do with it in conversation. In a recent article for the journal, Jason Turowetz delved into some of its main uses. Here he gives the background to the story.
The article on ‘I just thought formulations’ has its origins in a study of speed dating I conducted with a colleague, Matthew Hollander, in 2009, when we were graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It seems a long way back, but that shows how a phenomenon can lodge in your head and inspire a continuing thread of research.
An interest in the incipient stages of relationship formation led us to set up three speed dating events between college students. We made audio- and video-recordings of the dates (126 in total), as well as rough transcripts, and did post-event follow-up interviews with the participants. Initially, our focus was to be on relationship-relevant talk: flirting, mentions of past relationships, expressions of romantic attraction, etc.
But when we looked again at what was going on, we saw that the participants spent very little time on romantic topics as such. Instead, they chatted about things that made sense to them locally: classes, homework, dorm-living, parties, and so forth. Further, when they did talk about dating, it almost always concerned the event in which they were taking part, and they seemed oriented to changing topics as soon as possible. So, we revised our question, which now became: how do these speed daters manage the topic of speed dating when it comes up, and what clues might this provide as to their reluctance to speak more about it?
Our answer (see Turowetz and Hollander 2012, 2013) was that college-age speed daters treat the activity as accountable in two senses. For one thing, meeting people through speed dating is accountable as such, a finding that seems to hold for older daters as well (see Stokoe 2010). But speed dating as a college-student, specifically, is also accountable – that is, it is not a normative way for students to meet prospective partners, who are ordinarily found through friends, in classes, at parties, etc.
So when asked why they “decided to do speed dating,” not a single participant answered “to meet someone.” Instead, they produced category-normative reasons (i.e. having a new experience, for fun, to learn more about research, to earn the ten dollar stipend they got for participating, etc.). That way they could deflect the inference that they were somehow desperate to meet someone and could not do it via more conventional channels.
That’s the environment of our “I-just-thoughts”
It was in these accounts-for-participation, through which students minimized their stake in speed dating and disclaimed investment in the activity, that the ‘I just thought’ phenomenon first came to my attention. Consider the following extract, in which ‘Dave’ is responding to ‘Sally’s’ why-question about his reasons for speed dating:
As Bolden and Robinson (2011) observe, why-questions which solicit accounts imply that the target action is non-normative and challengeable. Dave produces a knowledge-disclaimer + defensive I-mean utterance (Maynard 2016), then prefaces his casual account (‘funny’, ‘interesting’) with an ‘I just thought’ formulation. Like the other I-just-thought formulations in the speed-dating corpus, this one strongly implies that there aren’t any other reasons. So that rules out the more risky disclosure that Dave was interested in ‘meeting someone to date’. Moreover, Dave’s I-just-thought disclaims investment in the activity: he did not think too hard about participating – indeed, his ‘I dunno’ indicates that his reasons are not immediately accessible, but require some effort to retrieve – thereby contributing to the casual stance he is enacting.
I-just-thoughts are everywhere
Having observed that all the I-just-thought tokens in the speed-dating corpus operated this way, the question arose as to whether they also did so in ordinary conversation. This prompted a search through five widely used CA collections – NB, Rahman, Holt, Heritage, and SBL – that yielded an additional 19 instances of the phenomenon. Further analysis confirmed that I-just-thoughts do much the same thing in ordinary conversation as in speed dating, allowing the speaker to disclaim investment in a target accountable action while retaining some ownership of it. Moreover, it became apparent that while they are often produced on behalf of the speaker, they can also be produced on the interlocutor’s behalf: for example, by minimizing the speaker’s investment in a current activity, I-just-thought can deny that the other party is imposing (i.e. interfering with the activity by, say, phoning or making a request).
There’s plenty more to say about I-just-thought, and how people use that seemingly innocent phrase. I am continuing to collect examples from ordinary and institutional settings, with a view to further refining my understanding of how – and where – they operate.
Bolden, G. and J. Robinson. (2011). Soliciting accounts with why‐interrogatives in conversation. Journal of Communication 61(1): 94-119.
Hollander, M.M. and J. Turowetz. (2013). ‘So, why did you decide to do this?’ Soliciting and formulating motives for speed dating. Discourse & Society 24(6): 701-724.
Maynard, D.W. (2016). Defending solidarity: Self-repair on behalf of other-attentiveness. In Robinson (Ed.). Accountability in social interaction (Pp. 73-107). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stokoe, E. (2010). “Have you been married, or…?”: Eliciting and accounting for relationship histories in speed-dating interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction 43(3): 260-282.
Turowetz, J., & M.M. Hollander. (2012). Assessing the experience of speed dating. Discourse Studies 14(5): 635-658.