The Transactional Model of Talk


I. What's Going On?

II. Identifying Oriented to Features
III. Structural Components
IV. Transactional Code
V. Conversational Tactics
VI. Register Modality
VII. Applications


This chapter is an account of efforts to develop an empirical paradigm for the study of talk. We are not particularly interested to make an exclusionary claim here; that is, we wish to merely argue that the proposed approach outlined here is empirically useful and theoretically serious without claiming that it is the only feasible approach or, even, that it is better than another one. Our solution to the problem of the systematic analysis of conversations can be properly characterized as an ethnomethodological approach (cf, Garfinkel, 1968; Garfinkel and Sacks, l969) and draws upon the prior work of Goffman (1971), Sacks (1970), and Sacks and Shegloff (1969).

One sort of first question that obsessively captivates us when orienting ourselves to talk or conversation is, "What's going on?", and the sorts of first answers that we tend to think of include such things as: A and B are greeting each other; A invites B for lunch; B denies A's request for more information; A insulted B and B demanded an apology; A beat around the bush for a long time before he came around to the topic he really wanted to talk about; and so on. What we wish to do, now, is to provide a rationale - a paradigm - for the systematic expansion of answers of this sort to questions like "What's going on?" in talk.

To begin with, we would like to establish the reasonableness of a basic exclusionary principle to which we are committed in this endeavour, namely, that any elaboration of the answer to "What's going on in conversation" must exclude anything which cannot be demonstrated to be a feature to which participants are oriented. For instance, we have noticed in our study of conversational episodes (encounters) that participants who come into regular, daily contacts with each other show a great deal of selectivity about wh2t sorts of things they orient to or notice such that their conversational behavior is thereby affected. Thus, to draw upon the experience of one of us (LAJ), for illustrative purposes, we note the following sorts of facts: whenever I talk with the departmental/office secretary, it is never the case that she gives me any indications that she has taken notice of any change in my physical appearance, dress, or demeanor. Now, it would seem to us unreasonable to suppose that she never once noticed any change in my appearance, a supposition whose falseness was conclusively demonstrated upon one occasion when I asked her whether she ever noticed the fact that on some days I walked barefoot, which she was able to corroborate. Yet never did she ever mention that fact to me or to anyone else (as she reported), nor did she ever act towards me in any way that would indicate that she had noticed the difference, yet obviously she had. On the other hand, she did take account of other facts about me and her behavior was accordingly affected: she never greeted, unless I greeted her first; she always made one carbon copy of my letters unlcss I specifically had asked for more or none; when J did not reply to a request she made, she would repeat it; and on one occasion, when I tripped over a box in her office, she apologized profusely for leaving it there; and so on. We can mention in contrast the fact that my wife always comments in one way or another upon (i.e. takes notice of) my bare feet outside the home, but she does not seem to notice what I have on at home, whether shoes, shirt, or anything. And sometimes, when I come home from the office, she acts as if she did not notice whether I greeted her or not, though when I return to town after a trip she always insists on elaborate greeting exchanges.

These particularized examples are of obvious general importance, a claim which can readily be established merely by pointing these sorts of facts out to conversationalists. Let us try to state the case in general terms. A conversation is made up of a series of observable interpersonal exchanges, one general characteristic of these being that each move in the exchange takes account of a set of environmental features and ignores some others that could be perceived, but one behaves as is they are not to be noticed or relevant. The features in a conversation that participants notice, and behave publicly to indicate that they have noticed, are what we would call in ethnomethodological terms, oriented to conversational features. The analytic components of our transactional approach to the study of talk are always defined in terms of oriented to features that can demonstrably be shown as those which participants are oriented to, and only those. The problem of identifying the oriented to features in conversation can thus be seen as a central task in the development of a systematic account of talk, i.e. the nature and structure of conversational events.


We shall now describe some routine paradigmatic solutions that we follow in our task of identifying oriented to features in conversation and in elaborating upon their character and structure.

Step l: Select a particular conversation for thorough and detailed inspection. In theory, it should not matter, in the long run, where you start, though we suspect that, in practice, certain particular problems may be of greater or lesser relevance to the analyst at any particular time in the endeavor and, as the task proceeds cumulatively, viz. as the character and structure of particular oriented to features are discovered and recorded,-certain specialized directions for analysis would indicate themselves as of more compelling immediate interest than others. To demonstrate what we mean by "thorough and detailed inspection", let us take up a discussion of the following particular conversation: 1. A: Hi. 2. B: What's up? 3. A: I'm tape recording you. 4. B: Are you kidding me? 5. A. Nope. 6. B: What am I supposed to say? 7. A: Whatever you want. 8. B: Well, what a nice bunch of groceries you've got. 9. A: How 'bout that. 10. B: That's very nice. 11. A: Amusing, eh? 12. B: Uh, huh. 13. A: I got most of my gear together except I gotta get something out of... 14. C: Randy, you're On time. What's wrong with you? 15. B: No, I'm not. I'm fifteen minutes late. 16. A: You're fifteen minutes late, you know. Did you know that. 17. D: Hi, Randy. 18. B: Hi. (19. A: Would you hold that?) etc. etc.

To mention a few relevant background features of this conversation we can indicate that B is A's boyfriend and has come to pick her up; A opens the door and can be seen to carry a portable tape recorder; C is A's mother, and D is A's father.

Note that we have numbered sequentially the various alternating talking turns, as they occur in the conversational sequence. What is going on in this conversation? We note the following intuitive, first order, observations: (a): Talking turn (1) is readily recognizable as a greeting opener; (b): (2) can be seen to be a comment about a noticeable environmental event, i.e. the obvious presence of the tape recorder that A is carrying; (c): Talking turns (3) to (12) represent an exchange of moves on the part of the two participants, as they are walking from the front door to the kitchen. 0f possible interest in the fact that B's utterance in (8) is said with an exaggerated intonation pattern, as one might read the line in Little Red Riding Hood: "Oh, Grandma, what big eyes you have"', and we further note the fact, that there were two shopping bags full of groceries to be seen on the kitchen table. (d): In (13) A can be seen to switch topics, turning the attention of participants to a new element, her approaching readiness to leave. Her utterance can be seen to have been interrupted by her mother in (14), it being an utterance addressed to B in lieu of a formal greeting. (15) and (16) are exchanges seen to be occasioned by C's intervention in (14). (17) and (18) constitute a routine greeting exchange, and (19) is a direct request addressed to B by A, as the latter hands him the tape recorder.

Step 2: Examine the basis of the particular features noted in the intuitive analysis presented in Step 1. By this we mean to attempt to identify general features of conversation, as they may be evidenced in this particular conversational exchange under inspection. This is because we see our current task as an attempt to describe the general, underlying structure of conversation, and specifically not the attempt of giving an adequate and full description of what happened in this particular conversation. In this, we follow the general tradition of social sciences, and most in point here, methodologically that of current generative transformational linguistics and anthropological ethnolinguistics. (For a detailed discussion of this issue, the reader is referred to Chapter 1.)

If we look, then, at the observations made above in Step 1, we can attempt to generalize their basic theoretical implications, in the form of hypotheses about the structure of conversation. The following, is a step by step consideration that parallels the first order observations given above. (A): We noted that talking turns (1) is "readily recognizable" as a greeting opener. What is the basis of this ready recognition? We may suspect, being familiar with ethnographic and linguistic analyses, that the same underlying mechanism is responsible for both the fact, displayed here, that we, as analysts, have readily recognized (1) as a greeting, as well as the easily verifiable fact that (1) was readily recognized as a greeting by participant B. We may hypothesize, then, that there is a class of conversational events to which participants are oriented in such a way as to "recognize" (re-cognize, take as, see as, read as, define as, etc.) particular utterances as being members thereof. We shall refer to this hypothesis as Hypothesis 1 or H 1.

Now, to consider the present case under study, A's utterances in (1), "Hi", is potentially to be seen or recognized as a particular instance of a greeting opener. Thus, though B may be said to have actually heard "Hi", it is not the particular phonological shape of this utterance wherein lies the structural significance of this conversational event. A's utterance could have had a number of particular other phonological shapes (e.g. "Hello", "Chris!", etc.) and still it could be recognized as a greeting opener. The structural significance of talking turn (1) is one specific outcome of Hypothesis 1: when participants suddenly find themselves in physical face-to-face proximity, the first talking, turn (utterance) that occurs will be recognized as a greeting opener. We shall call this Corollary 1.

More needs to be said now with regard to how all this comes about, viz. How or in what sense do participants "know" that the first talking turn in a conversational episode is a greeting opener. Off hand we can say that this is a conversational "convention" learned during socialization. Greeting is a ritual interpersonal ceremony to be transacted before anything else when acquainted persons meet each other. This much is certainly obvious, but we wish to focus, once again, on the general basic theoretical significance of this (observation: at any particular moment in a conversation, participants are jointly oriented to a common set of features as defined by prior agreement. It well become clear, as we go on, that "prior agreement" refers to the speech community's conversational practices as publicly known, i.e. the transactional code book of conversational etiquette. Let us rephrase this and refer to it as Hypothesis 2: when participants engage each other in conversation the events that matter and to which all are oriented to notice and to take behavioral account of, are specified by the particular transactional code in force, that is publicly known and practiced in the speech community within which they claim membership.

To retrace our thread thus far: inspection of talking turn (1) led us to the two basic hypotheses and a corollary about the structure of conversation: 111: 0ver~, verbalized utterances are seen by participants as particularized surface variations of a class of such utterances, all of which have the same underlying transactional significance. Corollary 1 the first talking turn in a conversational episode is seen by participants as a greeting opener. H2: the particular significance to be attached to a move in a talking turn is jointly recognized by participants in accordance with the transactional code they claim to share and abide by. Now we move on to the second intuitive observation mentioned in Step 1.

(b): we mentioned, as a first order intuitive observation, that talking turn (2), "What's up?", was a "comment about a noticeable environmental event," i.e. the unexpected presence of the tape recorder. The general basic theoretical significance of this observation needs to be made explicit once more: it is possible for conversational events to be related to noticeable environmental events, and the nature of the implied relation, we may suspect, is defined by the structural significance of the utterance, i.e. its locus in the conversation. We may ask, then, how does it come about that participants are able to make an utterance in a talking turn in such a way that the utterance will be seen by all as a comment on some environmental event? In the case we are now considering for analysis, it turns out (as later reported in A's comments) that, while B was uttering "What's up?", he simultaneously made a physical orienting response that could easily be observed by A: body rigid, face turned towards the microphone, eyes fixated, eyebrows raised. In other words, B was "staring pointedly" at the unexpected presence of the recorder. Now, a number of hypotheses suggest themselves concerning the relationship between the verbal utterance and the gestural accomodations: the gestures constitute a "context" for the utterance, giving it the meaning it has; the gestures are of independent significance and the utterance derives its meaning sufficiently from its semantic content; a combination of these two; or something else. Whatever hypotheses are adopted, empirical evidence will sooner or later force changes in its initial formulation (cf. Step 3 and 4, below). To continue with our discussion, here, we will favour the following hypothesis: any Publicly noticeable change in the environment is a routine candidate for being made the topic of an utterance in a talking turn. We shall refer to this as Hypothesis 3. This hypotheses specifically excludes from "routine topic status" any change in the environment that either isn't publicly noticeable or is publicly expected and needs no commenting upon. Thus, excluded from routine topic status are such events as the following non-natural utterances one can think up for B to have made in (2): "Your house is on fire" -- no public evidence being available, or, "You are wearing a dress." -- it being usual, perfectly ordinary, for her to be wearing a dress on a date. The rule embodied in H3 is so strong that should someone attempt an utterance in which he routinely comments on an environmental event that either isn't publicly noticeable or is routinely expected, he will be seen as talking unseriously, joking, clowning, or whatever, and it is knowledge of this rule that then allows participants to engage in non-serious talk, for its own sake, as something that one can do in conversation.

A corollary to H3 is the following: there is a class of utterances, known as general purpose inquiries, that when uttered in a talking turn, will be seen as serving to set-up the immediately next alternating talking turn such that it will contain a move that will constitute a justificatory comment on a readily noticeable environmental event. This is corollary (3I) that follows from H3 and establishes the notion of setting-up moves, as evidenced by such further observations as adjacency-pairs in talking turns: request/reply, invitation/confirmation-denial, insult/apology, remedy/appreciation, and so on. A more inclusive version of this corollary can be stated as Corollary (3ii): if a talking turn is made up of an utterance of the class belonging to a general purpose inquiry, it will be seen to serve as a set-up for the utterance in the immediately next alternating talking turn such that it, in turn, will be seen as a directed response, a supportive move, a reply, a remedy. This more general formulation has the merit of showing up the common structural significance of a very large class of a conversational event that relates to the sequential aspects of alternating talking turns (greeting and leave taking ceremonies, "polite" exchanges, and a substantial proportion of conversations in public places - cf. Goffman, 1971). These matters will be taken up more fully in the next chapter. (C): Our preliminary observations in Step 1 about talking turns (3) to (12) noted that they are a set of turns exchanged while participants were walking from the front door to the kitchen, as well that talking turn (8) was uttered in an unmistakeable dramatic intonation. We can add an additional first order intuitive observation by classifying this exchange as semi-serious. Now to expand the generality o£ this observation we're going to hypothesize that the participants in this particular exchange as well viewed it as semi-serious, but in addition, -- and here is where our hypothesis becomes general enough in the spirit of Step 2 -- we're going to assume that they viewed this exchange as but a particular instance of a class of exchanges that belongs to the category of joking, horsing around, playtalking, not-being-serious-but-just-having-fun, and the like. We restate this position as Hypothesis 4: there is a class of conversational events in the form of an

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