asymmetry (communication)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Researcher Janet Bean notes that conversational asymmetry "can signal a relationship where one speaker is dominant over the other, for example, when one speaker monopolizes talking time or controls topic selection" (in Feminist Empirical Research, 1999). (Kevin Dodge/Getty Images)

Definition

In conversation analysis, asymmetry is an imbalance in the relationship between speaker and hearer(s) as a result of social and institutional factors. Also called conversational asymmetry and language asymmetry.

In Conversation Analysis (2008), Hutchby and Wooffitt point out that "one of the features of arguments in ordinary conversation is that there may be struggles over who sets their opinion on the line first and who gets to go second.

. . . [T]hose in second position . . . are able to choose if and when they will set out their own argument, as opposed to simply attacking the other's."

See Examples and Observations, below. Also see:

Examples and Observation:

  • "'Comrades . . .' he said, using the official title.

    "'We aren't your comrades,' interrupted Comrade Cherepin. 'You are a defendant here!'

    "'And who is asking the questions here?' Petro shot back. 'I thought Sydir was the judge.'

    "Someone burst into laughter. Sydir, the judge, who all this time was sitting as straight as a ramrod in his chair, now gazed at the members of the court, and found them looking at him and then at each other.

    "But this atmosphere of confusion did not last long. Comrade Cherepin jumped to his feet.

    "'I am asking the questions here!' he shouted with arrogance. 'And what I am asking must be answered, for I am the representative of the Party.'"
    (Miron Dolot, Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust. W.W. Norton, 1985)
     
  • Asymmetry and Power: Doctors and Patients
    "[E]mpirical analysis has repeatedly revealed fundamental ways in which institutional forms of discourse indeed exhibit systematic asymmetries that mark them out from ordinary conversation. To take an example, in medical encounters, which have been the subject of a vast amount of research documenting asymmetries in institutional interaction (Maynard, 1991), one way of tracing the power relationship between doctors and their patients is by counting the number of questions that are asked by each participant, looking at the type of questions asked by doctors and patients, and/or counting the number of times a doctor interrupts a patient and vice versa. Large-scale asymmetries emerge from such exercises from which it may be concluded that doctors exert control over the concerns expressed within the consultation, and patients defer to the authority of the doctor by refraining from battling for such control themselves."
    (Ian Hutchby, Confrontation Talk: Arguments, Asymmetries, and Power on Talk Radio. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996)
     
  • Concealed Asymmetries at Work
    If a performance is to be effective it will be likely that the extent and character of the cooperation that makes this possible will be concealed and kept secret.
    ([Erving] Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1959: 104)
    "The suggestion made in Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, above is reiterated in Goffman's 1983 paper, in which he again reminds us that service relations are a matter of tacit cooperation between asymmetries that must remain unmarked. In spite of the collaboration of the new workplace activities, there remains an essential tension or asymmetry between worker and customer/client or between workers in different positions and contexts of work. The social work that the participants must do requires them to cooperate in concealing the existence of this asymmetry for the purpose of preserved order. When differentials are recognized, repair work has to be part of the encounter. Goffman suggests that to preserve the interaction order persons need to act as if the principle of symmetry was in place."
    (Jenny Cook-Gumperz, "Cooperation, Collaboration and Pleasure in Work: Issues for Intercultural Communication at Work." Culture in Communication: Analyses of Intercultural Situations, ed. by Aldo Di Luzio, Susanne Günthner, and Franca Orletti. John Benjamins, 2001)
     
  • Sources of Asymmetry in Communication
    "Status provides a mechanism for giving values to the variables of appropriateness and effectiveness, and relativizing these across different types of social relation and cultural setting. Both enchrony and status are sources of asymmetry in communication. From enchrony, there is asymmetry in preference relations and in the associated one-way notion of response. From status, there is an unequalness of social relations, readily seen in relationships like father-son, shopkeeper-customer or speaker-hearer. There now remains a third source of asymmetry in communication . . .—the distributed nature of responsibility and commitment concerning knowledge and information in communication."
    (N.J. Enfield, "Sources of Asymmetry in Human Interaction: Enchrony, Status, Knowledge and Agency." The Morality of Knowledge in Conversation, ed. by Tanya Stivers, Lorenza Mondada, and Jakob Steensig. Cambridge University Press, 2011)
     
  • The Lighter of Asymmetry
    - "Let me tell you something. It's every coach's dream to experience the highest level of idiocy that his team can muster, and gentlemen, collectively us coaches, we are living a dream."
    (Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor, addressing his high school football team in "Swerve." Friday Night Lights, 2011)

    - "Okay, shut up! I'll do the talking. You just stand there and try to look like you're doing something besides just standing there."
    (Jeff Dunham as Peanut in Jeff Dunham: Minding the Monsters, 2012)