TV presenters in a political interview have the privilege of asking the questions, but what do you do when your interviewee refuses to answer outright and brushes up against the Cooperative Principle? This is what Kay Burley, Sky News presenter, was confronted with when she interviewed General Jack Keane, a retired 4-star US general on Monday.
The Cooperative Principle:
Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.
Who wrote this in 1975? (Answer at end)
Burley (B) was asking Keane (K) about the latest controversy engulfing President Donald Trump after his phone call to a US war widow. When Keane said that he would not ‘challenge anything that a soldier’s wife has to say’ Burley immediately asked why the President didn’t say that:
01 K: I’m certainly not going to challenge (.)anything (.) 02 that a soldier’s er wife has to say 03 under these circumstances 04 and the grief that she is doing with 05 I respect who she is 06 and I and I suffer (.) for her loss 07 (.) 08 B: why didn’t the president say that I wonder
At this point, the interviewee refuses to answer directly the question. A refusal in a conversation is normally a dispreferred response and takes more face work. The overlapping discourse (indicated by the ‘[‘ symbol) indicates how the two interlocutors start to negotiate for the floor: who gets to frame the question and who gets to dictate the answer. Burley is trying to force an answer; Keane is trying to change the topic:
09 K: oh come on 10 can we stop this conversation 11 [and get on with 12 B: [no 13 K: [something else please 14 B: [no no sir we can’t (.) no no 15 we want to know exactly what you think about this sir 16 why [would the president not have said 17 K: [I already gave you my answer
As voices are raised, a flat out refusal from the General is given ‘I’m done with the conversation’:
18 ((voices raised)) 19 K: I’m [done with the conversation 20 B: [why would the president not have said 21 K: I’m [done with the conversation (.) make up your mind 22 B: [what you said 23 so you are going to walk out 24 if we continue to talk about this conversation 25 is that what you’re saying 26 K: I think I’ve answered your [questions alright 27 B: [no you haven’t 28 I’m asking you a s- a follow up question 29 I’m asking you 30 you said you would never say that 31 you would never challenge a war widow 32 I’m saying to you 33 that your president (.) did 34 is that acceptable
As Burley continues, Keane says that he has given his answer. Burley pushes for him to repeat it. The pauses in the conversation between turns are magnified by the fact that there is a delay on the line. However, a large 4.5 second pause between turns in line 42 and 1.5 seconds in line 44 indicate that the interviewee is refusing to cooperate in the conversation. The cooperative principle states that participants are expected to to make contributions as and when required. The pauses at line 42 and 45 and the lack of response indicate the conversation is starting to break down.
35 K: I’ve given you my answer 36 B: no you didn’t 37 that’s why I’m asking you the question sir 38 K: I’m giving you my answer 39 B: what is your answer 40 K: I just gave it to you before 41 B: remind me please 42 (4.5) 43 B: remind me please if you would sir 44 (1.5)
Burley realises that the conversation is reaching the end and decides to restate the position:
45 B: do you appreciate (.) 46 how (.) offensive this must be (.) to war widows 47 not just er of the one that we have been (.) talking about 48 but more generally 49 when someone (.) in your position 50 feels that it’s (.) inappropriate 51 to answer these sort of questions
General Keane however restates his position on refusing to answer and Burley eventually moves on
52 K: I’ve given you an explanation 53 of my feelings on this subject 54 and I’ve also told you 55 I think (.) this subject (.) is one that 56 the more we spend time on it 57 the more difficult it is for all the parities concerned 58 that was one of the things 59 I thought General Kelly did so eloquently 60 in providing us (.) with the missive 61 is there anything (.) that is left sacred in this country 62 that we have to be involved 63 in the middle of a situation like this 64 with a grieving family 65 that is what (.) I resent 66 I’ve answered your questions 67 and I’m not answering anymore on this subject 68 B: OK, would you like to talk about North Korea instead? 69 K: It is up to you. 70 B: It is not because you won’t answer my questions. ...
The quote from the top of the page was of course made by Paul Grice as he framed his well-known ‘Cooperative Principle’. Long pauses in a face-to-face conversation (admittedly over an Atlantic cable) go against the presupposed cooperation.
Grice, P. (1975) Logic and Conversation. In Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3, Speech Acts, ed. by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan. New York: Academic Press, 41–58