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«Just Say No? The Use of Conversation Analysis in Developing a Feminist Perspective on Sexual Refusal CELIA KITZINGER and HANNAH FRITH Discourse ...»

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Why is it apparently so difficult for young women to refuse unwanted sex? A wide range of explanations is offered in the literature. The failure to ‘just say no’ is often attributed to internal personality characteristics such as low self-esteem (Stere, 1985), lack of assertiveness (McConnch, 1990) or lack of perseverance (Sandler et al., 1992). According to Murnen et al. (1989) internalization of traditionally feminine gender role stereotypes (‘passivity, submissiveness, nurturance, acquiescence to male needs and helpfulness’) means that ‘women are often trained to be ineffective communicators in a sexual relationship’. Other researchers suggest that young women find it hard to ‘just say no’ because they are concerned about the damage to their reputations if they do not comply with male sexual demands (e.g. fear of being labelled ‘frigid’ or ‘lesbian’; Muehlenhard and Cook, 1988); because they are committed to safeguarding the emotional and sexual well-being of their partners (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993, 1996); or because they are the victims of sexual scripts according to which (for example) ‘going too far’ in some assumed sexual sequence means that a woman then forfeits the right to say ‘no’ (e.g. Goodchilds et al., 1988; Quinn et al., 1991). It is also often suggested that sexuality is a particularly difficult topic for open and clear communication, and that young women who might be fully able to communicate their desires (or lack of them) in other situations, are unable to do so in the sexual situation, with its heavy cultural loading and high level of personal investment. We think all of these explanations may sometimes be useful, and our own data indicate that young women themselves often use explanations like these to account for their own (and other people’s) difficulties in refusing unwanted sex.

However, what these explanations leave out is the simple fact that saying no is difficult in any context. These young women’s reported discomfort with, and inability to say, open, clear and direct ‘no’s is not specific to their age, to the situation, or even to their gender. It is common for people to experience difficulty in refusing invitations or declining offers, at whatever age, and across a wide variety of situations. Advice on how to say no is widely available in Anglo-American culture – even on the Web (‘How to say no with style’ from www.synapsenet/oracle). Assertiveness books routinely include role play exercises in saying no (e.g.

Fensterheim and Baer, 1975; McConnch, 1990) and management books have sections with titles like ‘Knowing How to Say No’ (Burley-Allen, 1983), or lists of techniques for helping people to say no in the work environment (Stubbs, 1986).

Saying no ‘nicely’ has always been a key question of etiquette (e.g. Coudert, 1993; Martin, 1982: 87–9) and therapists and counsellors also often find themselves giving advice on how to say no. Such advice would not be so widely available if most people experienced saying no as unproblematic. The difficulty of ‘saying no’ is so well known that it has generated an endless stream of ‘jokes’ (see Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 298 Discourse & Society 10(3) Crombie, 1994, for examples) which underscore the apparent need people feel to come up with (sometimes implausible) excuses and justifications to explain their refusals (e.g. ‘I’d love to but I’m staying home to work on my cottage cheese sculpture’ or ‘I’m teaching my ferret to yodel’ – both in The Guardian 10 January 1997).

Allegedly ‘humorous’ books offer ‘helpful’ translations of phrases like these, indicating their status as refusals. In The Little Book of Romantic Lies, for example, Bruce Smith and Laura Goeke Burns (1996) include a ‘translation’ of a woman’s statement, ‘Can’t we just talk for a while’: this, they say, translates as ‘I’d rather make love to a trailer hitch’. Of course, what makes these books understandable as ‘funny’ is that readers can be assumed to ‘already know’ that ‘Can’t we just talk for a while’ is a sexual rejection, i.e. that refusals are awkward to perform, and that (polite) rejections are often done inexplicitly.

Refusal skills training is one of a set of ‘verbal hygeine practices’ (Cameron,

1995) which has been directed disproportionately at women, commonly seen as suffering from gendered linguistic problems associated with oppressive expectations about ‘feminine’ or ‘ladylike’ speech. Deborah Cameron quotes a feature on assertiveness training in the US feminist magazine Ms. of March 1975 which began by relating the experiences of women involved in what they described as ‘the first course of its kind in Seattle’:

We are 10 women who find it difficult to say No or to express an opinion at all.

Education, experience and feminism may make us feel equal. But learning how to speak up for ourselves and what we believe in is something else again. That is why we have signed up for a course in verbal self-assertion. (Withers, 1975, quoted in Cameron, 1995: 178) Assertiveness training and other types of refusal skills courses address this widespread difficulty in ‘saying no’ by routinely advising that refusals are best accomplished through plain unvarnished ‘no’s. For example, the authors of the classic handbook, The Assertive Woman (Phelps and Austin, 1987) devote an

entire chapter to ‘Saying “No’’ ’, and claim that:

It is crucial that you give a simple ‘no’ rather than a long-winded statement filled with excuses, justifications, and rationalizations about why you are saying ‘no’. It is enough that you do not want to do this, simply because you do not want to do it.

(Phelps and Austin, 1987: 123–4) Refusal skills training routinely emphasizes the importance of the unvarnished, direct, unhesitating word ‘no’ in communicating refusals. Many books recommend repeated ‘no’s (as in the so-called ‘cracked record’ technique, e.g.

Phelps and Austin, 1987) – and many labour the point that refusals should not normally be accompanied by explanations. Writing for physicians concerned to help teenagers to postpone sexual involvement, Marion Howard (1985a: 82) counsels them to ‘emphasise to young teenagers that they have the right to say “no’’ ’ and ‘to reinforce the idea that they do not have to give a reason or explanation’: they should just ‘say “no” and keep repeating it’ (p. 87).

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In sum, then, refusals skills training of the sort employed in date rape prevention and other similar programmes aimed at young women routinely teach that refusals are best accomplished with clear, direct, straightforward ‘no’s.

Conversation analysis shows that refusals are complex and finely organized interactional accomplishments The field of CA, which emerged from the pioneering work of Harvey Sacks in the 1960s (reprinted as Sacks, 1995), is generally viewed as part of the wider intellectual programme of ethnomethodology – the study of the mundane ways in which ordinary members of a culture produce and recognize intelligible courses of action. CA aims to provide an elaborate and systematic account of the way in which talk, especially talk-in-interaction, is constructed and understood by the speakers. Researchers have studied talk across a wide range of different situations including a suicide prevention helpline, talk in court, news interviews, medical settings, and therapy sessions, as well as ordinary telephone conversations and talk over the dinner table. Classic works in the field (which include studies of talk in all of these listed settings) include the recent publication of Sack’s early lectures (Sacks, 1995); the work on talk in judicial settings by Atkinson and Drew (1979); and the collections of papers in the edited volumes by Atkinson and Heritage (1984), Button and Lee (1987), Boden and Zimmerman (1991) and Drew and Heritage (1992): for a general introduction to CA see Nofsinger (1991), Psathas (1995) and Hutchby and Wooffitt (1998). The aim of CA is to develop an understanding of the underlying structural organization of naturally occurring conversation.

Conversation analysts have built up a considerable body of work about the structure of refusals in ordinary everyday conversation (Atkinson and Heritage, 1984; Davidson, 1984; Drew, 1984; Pomerantz, 1984). This body of work (like all of that in CA) relies upon careful attention to small details of talk, such as short pauses, hesitations, false starts, and self-corrections. One important finding of CA is that speakers (and listeners) are very finely tuned in to these small details such that all of these micro-level features have interactional relevance. For example, ‘mm hm’ and ‘yeah’ are both used as ways in which one person acknowledges what another is saying, but they have been shown to have very different functions (Jefferson, 1984); and very short pauses (of less than a second) between one person finishing speaking and the next person starting to speak have been shown routinely to influence the first person’s perception of what the second person is about to say (Pomerantz, 1984; Levinson, 1983; Heritage, 1984). For conversation analysts, then, ‘even the finest levels of conversational detail, every speech error, pause, overlap or lexical correction, might be there as a “designed” or consequential feature of social action’ (Edwards and Potter, 1992: 6).

Conversation analysts’ general focus on the small details of talk is reflected in work on refusals. In analysing how refusals are done, conversation analysts rely Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 300 Discourse & Society 10(3) on transcripts of tape-recorded interactions (in which people refuse or do not refuse an invitation, offer, proposal etc.). Unlike most qualitative research (which uses a conventional orthographic transcription method, which ‘cleans up’ the data and makes it more readable) conversation analysts have developed elaborate transcription systems designed to preserve and convey some of these intricate details of speech. The most widely used system, the Jeffersonian transcription system (Atkinson and Heritage, 1984; Jefferson, 1984; Psathas and Anderson, 1990), involves the transcription not only of all words (every ‘yeah’, ‘oh’ and ‘mm hm’) and part-words (e.g. ‘the fro-, toad’) audible on a tape, but also includes symbols to indicate features of delivery such as pauses, intonation, volume, elongation and cut-off of sounds, and so on. For most readers new to conversation analysis, this transcription notation is very off-putting and makes data extracts frustratingly hard to read. It is, however, essential to the research; and some of the most robust findings, such as the work on ‘preference organization’ which is presented here, would be impossible without this kind of careful transcription.

We have simplified the transcription as much as possible in quoting the data extracts which follow, and we refer our readers to the transcription key in the Appendix for a full explanation.

Analysis of these transcripts of naturally occurring conversations in which people either accept or refuse invitations (offers, proposals, etc.) shows that acceptances and refusals follow very different patterns: acceptances do, indeed, often involve simply ‘just saying yes’, but refusals very rarely involve ‘just saying no’. Acceptances generally involve (i) simple acceptance; and (ii) no delay (Heritage, 1984: 266–7), as in the following examples. (Note that the ‘[’ symbol indicates overlapping speech.)

–  –  –

These acceptances are typical in being immediate and direct. There is no pause between the request and the acceptance (in fact, the person providing the acceptance often produces speech which overlaps with that of the person making the request) and the acceptance itself is simple and straightforward. (It is possible that sexual acceptances – especially from women – may be somewhat different in form; for example, there is some evidence that sexual agreement is often conveyed nonverbally, and may even be communicated via a token refusal, cf. Muehlenhard and Hollabaugh (1988). We are not aware of any research which has used as data actual naturalistically occurring acceptances – or refusals – of sexual interaction.) Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 301 In contrast with the ‘unvarnished acceptances’ (Heritage, 1984: 266), typical in the non-sexual domain, non-sexual refusals are typically neither immediate nor direct. Here are two examples of refusals, incorporating those features which conversation analysts have identified as typical. (Note that pauses too short to time accurately are indicated as ‘(.)’ and longer pauses are timed in tenths of a second; also, pauses can be filled with audible in- or outbreaths – the ‘hehh’ in Example 4 indicates an outbreath before B starts to speak.) Example 3 Mark: We were wondering if you wanted to come over Saturday, f ’r dinner.

(0.4) Jane: Well (.).hh it’d be great but we promised Carol already.

(Potter and Wetherell, 1987: 86) Example 4 A: Uh if you’d care to come and visit a little while this morning I’ll give you a cup of coffee.

B: hehh Well that’s awfully sweet of you, I don’t think I can make it this morning..hh uhm I’m running an ad in the paper and-and uh I have to stay near the phone.

(Atkinson and Drew, 1979: 58) Conversation analysis shows that refusals are routinely designed to incorporate

at least some of the following features:

(i) delays, e.g. pauses and hesitations, like the four-tenths of a second pause in Example 3, and the filled pause ‘hehh’ in Example 4;

(ii) prefaces (also referred to as ‘hedges’) e.g. use of markers like ‘uh’ or ‘well’ (‘well’ is used in both the preceding extracts);

(iii) palliatives, e.g. appreciations, apologies, token agreements etc. which serve to alleviate the pain caused by the refusal; compliments such as ‘it’d be great’ or ‘that’s awfully sweet of you’ are both examples of palliatives.

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