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

External link to clip

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

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