Guramit Singh, the spokesman for the English Defence League, was interviewed by Roberto Perrone a few days ago on BBC radio. For readers who are interested in listening to it, I’ve embedded the video of the interview at the bottom of this post to avoid the “Blogger bug”.
In addition to his obvious hostility towards his guest, I was struck by Mr. Perrone’s repeated interruptions. Every time Mr. Singh worked up a bit of momentum in making his point, he was brutally cut off by his host.
Nick, who blogs at The Frozen North, noticed the same thing. He sent this analysis of the subliminal (but formal) rules of conversation which were broken repeatedly by the interviewer:
For a long time, English dictionaries and grammars used written language to show what ‘proper’ English should be like. The spoken word was either seen as inferior, or it was neglected altogether. This has changed over the last twenty years or so. To the layperson, everyday speech can appear disorderly and incomplete, but many linguists now view conversational English as ‘language at full stretch’ (Carter 2004: 26) and argue that everyday speech is governed by linguistic rules that allow people to interact meaningfully with one another in real time (Maybin 2001: 10). The layperson may not be consciously aware of these rules, but all native speakers use them whenever they engage in conversation (Pridham, 2006: 243).
Turn-taking rules have been studied in depth, and they are well understood. The work of Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson has strongly influenced this area of conversational analysis (Maybin 2001: 10, Pridham 2006: 684). Turn transition is accomplished at ‘turn-transition relevance places’. It has been shown that during everyday conversation, a speaker will naturally project a completion point as they speak. The speaker is entitled to the time it takes to reach that point, at which time another participant may enter, or re-enter, the conversation (Psathas 1995: 37).
Pridham asserts that people often communicate using a spoken narrative (2006: 632). Schenkein has shown that the phenomenon of ‘telling stories’ emerges naturally from turn-by-turn talk, and that spoken narratives are understood by English speakers to be a coherent conversational unit (1978 cited by Psathas 1995: 21-22).
A speaker may use such a narrative, or they may use shorter utterances in order to make meaning during conversation, but within the British sociocultural context, a speaker retains the right to speak until they indicate to a listener that their story has been completed. Interrupting other speakers is not considered to be good conversational behaviour (Pridham 2006: 260).
In the course of the BBC radio interview in question, Mr. Perrone interrupted Mr. Singh several times, at approximately 1.14, 1.43, 2.02, 2.15, 5.35 and 6.48. Of course, any linguistic rules which have been found to apply to everyday conversation may not apply in exactly the same way during a radio interview, since the context in which language is being produced is slightly different. Nevertheless, it is generally understood within British culture that if one invites someone else to speak, it is considered impolite to interrupt them before they have finished speaking (i.e. before they have reached a transition relevance place). This applies to a semi-formal context such as a BBC radio interview as well as everyday speech.
No one can have knowledge of Mr. Perrone’s subjective state of mind. It is therefore impossible to know why Mr. Perrone chose to interrupt a guest six times during a seven and a half minute radio segment. However, since the BBC releases copious raw data to us in the form of radio and TV interviews, it should be possible to analyse the behaviour of BBC employees such as Mr. Perrone towards anyone representing the English Defence League, and to compare that with the behaviour exhibited by the same employees towards people from other groups.
- Carter, R. (2004) ‘Grammar and Spoken English’. in Applying English Grammar: Functional and Corpus Approaches. ed. by Coffin, C., Hewings, A., and O’Halloran, K. London: Arnold, 25-39
- Maybin, J. And Mercer, N. (2001) Using English: from conversation to canon. London, Routledge
- Pridham, F. (2006) The Language of Conversation. Taylor & Francis e-library
- Psathas, G. (1995) Conversation Analysis: The Study of Talk-in-Interaction. Thousand Oaks: Sage
Listen for yourself and see what you think. Here’s the BBC interview with Guramit Singh: