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1. La séduction du discours, On Seductive Discourse

An interpersonal pragmatic perspective on seductive discourse



Ce chapitre explore les aspects interpersonnels du discours de la séduction (DS) dans une perspective pragmatique. Il démontre que le DS – entendu comme ce qui permet de faire en sorte que les interlocuteurs fassent, croient et ressentent ce que l’on veut qu’ils fassent, croient ou ressentent – n’est pas qu’affaire de contenu propositionnel ou de fioritures linguistiques. Il dépend pour ses effets, comme toutes les formes de langage et tous les discours, du contexte.
Cet article démontre par ailleurs que le DS ainsi défini fait partie intégrante des interactions quotidiennes et est au cœur des relations humaines. Le fait que ces désirs reposent sur des attentes souvent semi-conscientes ou inconscientes ne doit pas faire oublier que le souci d’une bonne « présentation de soi » est omniprésent. C’est une des raisons pour lesquelles, bien que le DS opère souvent nécessairement masqué, il n’est pas pour autant en soi manipulateur. Une autre raison est que nous n’avons simplement pas le temps de faire une présentation complète et explicite de nous-mêmes. Les exigences de l’interaction nous poussent à agir sur des impressions.
L’un des outils majeurs de la pragmatique particulièrement à même d’explorer ces réalités interactionnelles est le concept de « face ». Après un rappel théorique de concepts pragmatiques-clés et plus généralement de la perspective interpersonnelle adoptée ici, trois exemples issus de contextes et corpus différents seront ensuite analysés, un extrait de comédie télévisuelle, une analyse d’une communication académique (au sens générique), et un incident particulier survenu lors d’un match de rugby.

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1French literary scholarship’s notion of séduction does not translate easily into English. This is because in modern English the cognate lexeme refers primarily to erotic relations. That is to say, both its nominal form (“seduction”) and, when predicated of an animate actor and goal, also its verbal form (e.g. “She seduced him”) nearly always denote romantic and/or sexual conquest. Only when the process is predicated of an inanimate actor (e.g. “He was seduced by the glamour of it all”) or appears in adjectival form (e.g. “I find that argument a very seductive one”) does the semantic field widen to encompass more general cognitive and/or emotional effect.

  • 1 I would like to thank the editor for encouraging me to write this paper, for much stimulating discu (...)

2It is for these reasons that the editor of this issue has wisely avoided referring to “the discourse of seduction” and opted instead for “seductive discourse”.1 Even in adjectival form, however, an exclusively romantic/sexual focus can be intended (as in, for example, Mortensen’s 2010 contribution to an edited volume on youth talk which is entitled “seductive conversations”). It would seem, then, that the use in modern English of the form “seductive” to denote a whole range of types of emotional and/or cognitive influence on ego is essentially a case of metaphorical extension.

3Given these difficulties with the notion of seductive discourse, it might be thought that some other English term for séduction would work better. However, all of the possible alternatives that the editor and I have been able to come up with suffer from various disadvantages. And in fact the “seductive” in “seductive discourse” has certain advantages. Following Baudrillard’s (1980: 198, trans. Sorlin) assertion that “seduction is what seduces and that’s all there is to it”, we can define “seductive discourse” (hereafter SD) as whatever linguistic behaviour induces people to do, believe or feel what its producer wants them to do, believe or feel. But that word “seductive” reminds us that, while the aim of many instances of SD may be to influence its target’s beliefs or (asexual) actions rather than his/her feelings, the process by which the aim is pursued always involves a large component of affect.

4The term “seductive discourse” has an additional, particular advantage for my purpose here. So far, linguistic scholarship on this suasive, affecting aspect of discourse has been mainly cognitive-stylistic, focusing on the effects of texts on their targets (readers) – and it hardly ever goes under the rubric of SD. But this term has the advantage of reminding us that it’s a person who does the seducing and a person or people getting seduced. This perspective invites me to consider the SD which takes place in face-to-face interaction. In doing so, I wish to address one of the central questions posed by the editor: whether SD is something special or normal in everyday conversation. Is it a marginal, exceptional aspect of the way we relate to each other or an inherent part of it?

5My answer is very definitely the latter. SD, I hope to show, is an intrinsic part of everyday interaction and at the centre of relationships because, even when not making overtly suasive moves, we always have desires about what our interlocutors should believe about us. Although this concern for self-presentation is ever-present, it is often barely conscious, which is one reason why SD is often necessarily implicit and even covert – but not thereby inherently deceptive. The other reason is that we simply don’t have the time to present ourselves fully and explicitly – and would be considered very odd if we tried to do so.

6In order to provide a sharper focus, I ignore in this paper the attempts to influence participants which are an intrinsic aspect of talk addressing an existing conflict or opposition between them. Much good work has been done, often under the banner of “persuasion”, whether this be personal conflict (e.g. Garcia-Gómez 2009) or political debate and argument (e.g. Simon-Vandenbergen 2008, Bull & Simon-Vandenbergen 2014, Cabrejas-Peñuelas & Díez-Prados 2014, Cabrejas Peñuelas 2015) on how participants might be induced to change their opinions or stances. But in this paper I confine myself to “local” attempts at SD; that is, situations in which participants in an encounter do not bring to it any mutual sense of being in a pre-existing state of opposition to their interlocutors. The point about the quotidian nature of SD can, I hope, be emphasised thereby. In addition, I wish to question the view that SD entails the “conquest” of a passive seducee; rather, I suggest that the latter are often active, even willing, participants in their own seduction.

7In arguing this viewpoint, I also demonstrate that SD is more than a matter of its propositional content and also more than a matter of the linguistic finery in which this content is dressed. All language forms and all speech acts depend for their effects on context, and in the case of SD (since it assumes a particular, identifiable receiver to be seduced and, in most cases, a particular, identifiable producer to do the seducing), especially the interpersonal aspects of context. The three examples cases examined below illustrate this vital role of context. But in the next section I first outline briefly the interpersonal pragmatic perspective which I am taking.

The interpersonal pragmatic perspective

8Interpersonal pragmatics is not a particularly long-established or well-staked-out field of study. However, it has by now had enough recognition to constitute its own volume in a series of handbooks in pragmatics (Locher & Graham 2010) and to be the subject of a special issue of the Journal of Pragmatics (Haugh et al. 2013). As the editors of the latter work note, it has its roots in Leech’s (1983) conceptualisation of “interpersonal rhetoric” and in Brown & Levinson’s ([1978] 1987) notion of “politeness” but is understood to encompass the many subsequent departures from and developments of Brown & Levinson’s rather restricted notion. It is also understood to have essentially the same substantive focus as that of the discipline of “interpersonal communication” in North America, which has been defined by its focus on “the process of creating social relationships between at least two people by acting in concert with one another” (Fisher & Adams 18). In an attempt to bring these different strands and traditions together, Haugh et al. (1) see interpersonal pragmatics as simply “a pragmatics perspective on interpersonal aspects of communication and interaction”. As such, its purpose is to understand how “social actors use language to shape and form relationships in situ” (Locher & Graham 1).

9It will be noticed that in the above quotes there is only one mention of “language” in the whole lot. As O’Driscoll (2013) has noted, the interpersonal pragmatic perspective involves a less central role for language than is traditional in pragmatic study. Instead, the focus is on “communication ... interaction ... relationships”, with language as just one way in which the “actors” achieve these things. Although this paper, because it is about “discourse”, does focus largely (but not exclusively) on linguistic behaviour, this aspect of the interpersonal pragmatic perspective underlines the importance which it attaches to the consideration of the situation in which discourse is produced.

10Given this focus, it will come as no surprise to the reader that the kind of data with which an interpersonal pragmatic perspective engages involves communication between people who have identified themselves to each other as participants (thereby excluding mass media communication such as publishing or broadcasting). Within this range, attention is focused on those parts of the communication which impact on interpersonal relations. The prototypical data are therefore communication between very small groups of people whose personal relationships are salient to it – what Arundale (2013) calls “micro-social contexts” and “relational contexts” respectively.


Every person lives in a world of social encounters […]. In each of these contacts, he tends to act out what is sometimes called a line – that is, a pattern of verbal and non-verbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself. Regardless of whether a person intends to take a line, he will find that he has done so in effect. (Goffman 5, my italics)

12The added italics are intended to draw attention to the fact that there is a sense in which all contexts are relational. It is by now axiomatic of interpersonal pragmatics that whenever people are in some form of contact with each other, no matter how distant their relationship, no matter how uninterested they are in each other and no matter how impersonal the recognised purpose of the interaction, they cannot help projecting a view of (1) the situation (what sort of thing they believe is going on), (2) themselves, (3) others present and (4), as a result of 2 and 3, their relations with each other. Consequently, all communication has interpersonal aspects. Indeed, studies have demonstrated (e.g. Grainger 2013, O’Driscoll 2013) that even encounters which are canonically entirely transactional have interpersonal elements to them. From this perspective, SD is always immanent because even if we feel we don’t care how others react to our behaviour, we are inevitably having some kind of effect on them. Most of the time, of course, we have at least some concern for others’ attitude to us and for this reason SD is actually commonplace.

13The notion of face is a powerful tool in the study of these interactional realities. As originally introduced, it is defined by Goffman as “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact” (Goffman 5). As such, it refers to a contingent, interactionally-bounded, presented self, those aspects of a person’s identity which have the potential to become salient at moments during interaction. Crucially, by being determined by a person’s line (see above), face brings to the fore the unavoidability of self-presentation. A person’s face at any particular moment is the result of other interactants’ assumptions about his/her line, many of which are in effect beyond that person’s control. That is, when in company, people find themselves making claims about themselves that they don’t necessarily wish to make.

14For example, although it is well-known that many people over a certain age have false teeth, most interactants act on the assumption that, unless there is conspicuous evidence to the contrary, the person they are talking to has his/her own teeth. They do so even if they suspect this might not be the case because they assume that this (possession of own teeth) is the line which the person wishes to take. Accordingly, the person finds him/herself making a claim about his/her teeth – so that if his/her set of false teeth were suddenly to shoot out of his/her mouth, the faces of all interactants, not only that of the person who suffers this accident, would be damaged because this incident discredits the line which they had all been taking up to that point.

15The crucial observation for my purposes here is that such incidents of face damage, though they can be minimised by corrective action, are usually unavoidable. This is because in nearly all situations it would be received as extremely odd for a person to make a statement to the gathering at the outset of the encounter about the origins of their teeth. Notice that such an explicit claim would be socially unacceptable whichever claim was made (“These are my own teeth” or “These are false teeth”). Simply by appearing before others, we unavoidably make claims about ourselves. But to articulate all of these comes across as entirely weird.

16The above account of face emphasises effects. In this sense, it chimes well with Baudrillard’s definition of séduction (see above). However, yet another felicitous aspect of the term “seductive discourse” is that it also calls to mind intentions. And in this context, Brown & Levinson’s (1987) approach to interaction must also be considered. Their definition of face is “the public self-image that every member [of a society] wants to claim for himself” (Brown & Levinson 61). This is a severely reduced definition, lacking the situational contingency contained in Goffman’s definition and also omitting the dependence on others. Instead, it emphasises a person’s intentions and wishes. In this respect, their approach might seem ideally suited to the notion of SD. What they call “politeness” is precisely the use of an affective means to achieve an instrumental end. The acts that need to be performed to achieve the end can threaten face, which could reduce the chances of achieving the aim, so the act is performed in a way which mitigates the threat.

17In Brown & Levinson’s account, almost all acts have the potential to threaten face. Understandably, this approach swiftly provoked a great deal of protest that it paints a rather depressing, even paranoid view of human relations as constantly fraught with danger (e.g. Schmidt 104; Fraser 235, Nwoye 311, Werkhofer, 180) and, as a counterweight to their concept of face-threatening acts, notions such as face-boosting acts (Bayraktoğlu 1991), face-flattering acts (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1997, 2005) and face-enhancing acts (e.g. Sifianou 2001) have been advanced.

18However, it cannot be denied that even the most glaringly face-enhancing act carries face dangers. Take compliments as an example. These are overtly face-enhancing acts intended to be noticed as such. Nevertheless, there are face-threats attendant on delivering a compliment. The target of the compliment might receive it as personally invasive, thus damaging his/her “negative face” (Brown & Levinson 61-2), or might regard the assessment contained in it as actually undesirable, thus damaging his/her “positive face” (Brown & Levinson 61-2), or might experience it negatively because of who is making it. Moreover, there are subsequent face-threats involved in us responding to a compliment. If we accept it too blandly, we risk presenting ourselves as self-satisfied to an unseemly degree – and damaging the complimenter’s face by implying his/her opinion is not important to us; if we reject it flatly, we present ourselves as not having the mentioned positive attribute – and damaging the complimenter’s face by implying their perceptions or tastes are wrong. It is for these reasons that typically, we respond to compliments in neither of the above ways: if we accept it, we do so with pleased surprise, showing that the complimenter’s opinion matters to us; if we reject it, we do so reluctantly and with gratitude.

19In cases of SD, the compliment is used not for its own sake but in the service of some ulterior desired effect – to cause its target to do, feel or think something (as illustrated by example 1 below). The fact that it is “ulterior” does not necessarily mean nefarious; the desired effect may be already overt, with the compliment transparently issued in its service. Nevertheless, a face-threat is involved. Any desired outcome that has the potential to display the target as someone who can be – and has been – influenced contains a risk to that person’s negative face. Accordingly, SD, whenever it is conscious, involves treading carefully. As I show through the following three case studies, however, it is often only partially, even minimally, conscious.

Example 1: from the TV comedy Frasier

20My first example is taken from a scripted dialogue for a TV sitcom2. This perhaps explains why in many respects it offers a classic, almost stereotype, example of SD, in which its target is induced into doing something which he has previously asserted he will not do. It is also classic in that it relies heavily on one of the stereotypical SD tactics – flattery. Even here, though, I intend to show that flattery does not entail trickery.

21The scene takes place in the titular character’s broadcasting studio just after he has finished his regular radio programme of psychiatrically informed personal advice. Into the studio comes a man who identifies himself as John Giroux, a lawyer working for a Mr Safford. This latter name is already known to Frasier; he has recently learnt that his brother, also a psychiatrist, intends to give expert evidence in an upcoming court case that Safford is no longer of sound mind and therefore must have control of his financial affairs taken away from him. (This matters because Safford is very rich). The following dialogue then occurs:

Frasier: Oh, Mr. Giroux, I'm afraid there's been some mistake. It's my brother who's connected with the case.

Giroux: Oh, we're quite aware of that, but Mr. Safford feels he's the victim of a grave injustice. He's an ardent fan of your show and feels you're the only man who can help him.

Frasier: Well, that's very flattering, but given my brother's connection with the case, it wouldn't be very prudent for me to get involved.

22The SD aim of the lawyer thus becomes clear in this excerpt. It is to persuade Frasier to give his expert opinion that Safford is actually of sound mind after all (and thus in opposition to the testimony to be given by his own brother). Note that Giroux does not utter an explicit directive speech act to this effect, but it is inferred, in the co-text of Frasier’s reference to “the case”, that the “grave injustice” to which Giroux refers is the claim that Safford is mentally incapable and that he is seeking Frasier’s help to refute it. This indirectness, however, does not mean that the intention is in any sense to trick Frasier into helping him. Frasier’s response to the indirect request shows that he has made the same inference. Not only does he refuse the request, and give a reason for this refusal (his brother’s involvement), in the first of several metapragmatic comments, he also demonstrates recognition of Giroux’s tactic of flattery.

23The dialogue then proceeds as follows:

(1) Giroux: Won't you at least talk to my client? Judge him by his words and his actions, not by how old he is?

(2) Frasier: You sound like my father – a man who believes that burial is a form of age discrimination.

(3) Giroux: If you stop by this evening, I'm convinced you'll find Mr. Safford is completely competent. Even if you won't testify on his behalf, perhaps you could at least get your brother to reconsider his testimony.

(4) Frasier: It's highly unlikely that I would disagree with my brother's opinion.

24It starts (see 1) with the only direct request uttered in the whole encounter. As part of his SD attempt, Giroux has scaled down his request, and signalled this with “at least”, thus implying that a refusal at this point would be unreasonable. He also slips in an implied warning; the exhortation to not judge Safford on the basis of his age allows the interpretation that if Frasier refuses, he will attribute to Frasier a negative assessment as the holder of a facile approach to personal assessment. Frasier, however (see 2), ignores the request entirely (he neither assents nor refuses), but indirectly addresses the implied warning, swatting it away by likening it to a manifestly absurd proposition, thus implying that the warning itself is facile. The whimsicality of (2), however, in addition to the absence of a direct refusal, encourages Giroux to continue in his attempt (see 3), this time by not only repeating his scaled-down request (“stop by this evening”) but also by making an additional scaled-down request (persuade his brother to back down). As can be seen in (4), this time Frasier refuses fairly directly.

25At this point, Giroux adopts a very indirect approach and the dialogue proceeds as follows:

(5) Giroux: I really admired your advice to that last caller – you know, about not judging someone until you've heard his side of the story?

(6) Frasier: [smiles] You're a good lawyer, Mr. Giroux.

(7) Giroux: Mr. Safford only seeks out the very best.

(8) Frasier: I'll see you at seven?

(9) Giroux: The address is on the back of my card.

  • 3 For the notion of conversational maxims and implicatures, see Grice (1975).

26The reference to a feature of Frasier’s recently concluded radio programme in (5) is on the face of it entirely irrelevant to the discourse so far. However, the lack of any pause in the conversation before (5) is uttered, or any marker of a change of topic, allows us to interpret it as a flout of the maxim of relation, generating the implicature that this fulsome complimenting is somehow connected to the existing topic.3 The connection works by the content of the compliment (the advice which he admires). It is blatant flattery with an overt purpose. Frasier’s reply in (6) addresses neither the compliment nor the inference that can be drawn from its propositional content (that according to his own pronouncements, Frasier should talk to his client before making a decision). Instead, it makes a metapragmatic comment on Giroux’s discourse which contains a returned compliment and whose content shows recognition that his remark was in a cause. (This is what lawyers do – use discourse to persuade.)

27In the context of the encounter as a whole, (6) can be interpreted as indicating that, while he has refused so far, he is now open to seduction. And Giroux’s response in (7) is the clincher which drives the seduction home. At one level, in that it is a direct response to (6), it is a continuation of the “off-topic” direction initiated by this comment. The response both recognises Frasier’s compliment, accepts it and, most interestingly, implies agreement with the assessment contained in it (that he is a good lawyer). Out of context, such stark acceptance – and, indeed, reinforcement (“good” “best”) – of a compliment would be universally evaluated as appallingly self-satisfied arrogance (see section 2 above). In context, it becomes excusable because, by mentioning his client again, Giroux implicates that he is still “on the case” and not really “off-topic” at all, that his remark is relevant to his cause. This implicature is strengthened by the fact that the proposition itself – that Safford seeks out high quality and is, moreover, highly discriminating (“only”) in this search – is part of the argument that he has his wits about him. In addition, and in this respect his acceptance of a compliment becomes more than merely excusable and becomes a trump card, his agreement can be interpreted as simultaneously a further returned compliment. (Since I am here to hire you on Safford’s behalf and Safford only hires the best, it follows that you are “the best” too). Notice also that by implying they are fellow members of an elite group (“the best”), some positive facework (see O’Driscoll 2007) has been achieved. They have a special and desirable bond, and a sense of togetherness predisposes people to help each other – which, by referring to practical arrangements for a meeting (see 8), Frasier indicates, again indirectly, he will do.

28For the purposes of this paper, we need to note that the indirectness of the various speech acts performed in this encounter is a major part of the characters’ enjoyment of it. Giroux never actually asks Frasier to throw his expert weight behind his client and Frasier never actually says yes or no to this request. But the trajectory of the conversation allows us to infer that he means “no” at first but “yes” by the end of it, and even at this point Giroux does not explicitly recognise this acceptance (see 9). It is not only, or even mainly, the flattery itself which succeeds, but also the bravura demonstration of its polished delivery, and Giroux’s consequent implied compliment that Frasier will appreciate this adeptness. It would not, therefore, be accurate to describe Frasier as a passive object of trickery, as having been hoodwinked in any way. He is a willing participant in his own seduction. He and Giroux together have constructed the SD.

Example 2: The conference presentation

29This example will be familiar to all readers of this paper. Consider someone giving a talk at an academic conference (or, indeed, many other kinds of podium event in an academic or educational setting). On this kind of occasion, it is assumed that the purpose of the activity is the transfer of knowledge and the exchange of ideas. This canonical purpose is, of course, radically impersonal. The sanctioned aim of the speaker’s discourse is to inform and, perhaps, persuade. From this viewpoint, who it is that is giving the talk is irrelevant; personalities are not supposed to matter. But we should remember here Hymes’s (1974) distinction, as part of his SPEAKING / PARLANT mnemonic for the analysis of communicative events, between “outcomes” (the assumed purpose of the activity) and “goals” (the purposes of individuals taking part in the activity). We have to recognise that as well as these aims of the event, the speaker has his/her own aims. And these, I claim, are to seduce the audience. First of all, there is the SD aim which follows from the sanctioned aim. This is that the audience will understand the propositional content of the talk and agree with its arguments. This is an SD aim pertaining to the beliefs of the audience.

30But in reality, in addition to this hoped-for acceptance of the talk’s propositional content, the typical speaker has other SD aims too. S/he especially wishes that the audience give at least some minimal signs of engagement with the proceedings, some indication that listening to the talk is a generally agreeable experience; that however negative their impressions, however boring they find the content in reality, they keep these impressions to themselves. His/her face is in their hands.

31In addition to this desire for apparent engagement with the talk (an SD aim of doing), the speaker also wishes that they find the talk actually engaging, that they experience it as something worth attending (an SD aim of feeling). A further aim (this time of both feeling and believing) which is partly dependent on success with the aim of acceptance of the propositional content, partly dependent on success with the aim of getting people genuinely engaged and partly independent of both, is that the audience forms or sustains a generally positive impression of him/her, that s/he is assessed as worthy of some respect, both as a persona and as a scholar.

32For most of us conference speakers, if we are honest with ourselves, these SD aims have the following order of importance:

(1) appearance of engagement,

(2) positive personal assessment

(3) actual engagement, and

(4 – and last) acceptance of propositional content.

33These priorities, in a setting where it is the (impersonal) ideas which are supposed to be the only real concern, may at first sight seem banal, even shocking or scurrilous. But they are not. In making them I am neither condoning egotism nor glorying in triviality. I elaborate below.

34First of all, the claim that genuine audience engagement (and its contribution to positive personal assessment) is more important to the speaker than audience agreement should be fairly easy for a scholar to accept. Most of us would prefer our outputs be challenged rather than ignored. I remember an occasion at the start of a large international conference when I was a relatively new researcher whose work and credentials were unknown to most participants. As I walked in to the reception area of the conference, with participants milling about and chatting, a scholar of some considerable eminence in the field accosted me and intoned loudly: “Ah, Jim! I’ve read that paper of yours. You’re wrong” – upon which, I felt an immediate and strong sense of face enhancement, not merely because a well-known figure had demonstrated to many overhearers a personal acquaintance with me but the more so because that well-known figure had demonstrated to them that he was taking my work seriously. The face-enhancing effect would have been much less, perhaps non-existent, if, instead of telling me I was wrong, he had told me my paper was ‘interesting’ (often polite code for not-worth-engaging-with) or ‘good’ (which, by its enactment of judgement, would have indexed my junior status).

35As for the reality of the SD aims 1-3 above, this can be shown by imagining them absent. First, imagine that the subject matter of the presentation is incongruous with that of the conference. Imagine a conference in any area of linguistics or a related social science where the speaker gets up and gives a closely reasoned argument, supported with valid and reliable evidence, that human activity is the chief cause of global warming. The audience may well find the content interesting (after all, global warming concerns us all) and would probably find it easy enough to accept the arguments given. That is, the discourse itself would have “persuaded” them. But they would nevertheless feel cheated and not a little outraged. That is because the arguments would not relate to them in their capacity as experts in linguistics or related social sciences – the capacity in which they thought they were there. (Why is this relevant to me? Why are you telling me this now?) Our personal notions of who we are, and why we are where we are, are an integral aspect of the discourse. We expect conference speakers to take these matters into account in their choice of content; the quality or validity of their argument is secondary.

  • 4 The term “bystander”, as well as the terms “overhearer”, “ratified participant” and “collusion” whi (...)

36Likewise, imagine if the speaker were to spend the whole time of his/her presentation simply reading aloud, just mouthing from this script without ever looking up from it or otherwise indicating any concern as to whether s/he was communicating with the audience, as if addressing only him/herself, managing to be audible and intelligible to them only by accident, thereby reducing them to the role of bystanders.4 The listeners would experience this presentation negatively and in most cases (but see below) would assess both it and the presenter negatively as well, no matter how relevant they found the subject matter or how convincing the propositional substance of the arguments. (In fact, they would probably not end up convinced because, as a result of its manner of delivery, they would have found the discourse difficult to follow).

  • 5 Note that schoolteachers sometimes do this, presumably because, it being understood that school is (...)
  • 6 The fond memories that the older among us have of the boxer Muhammed Ali repeatedly claiming “I am (...)

37The point here, then, is that when listening to a conference presentation we require the conference presenter to have concerns about “putting on a good show” (SD aim 2 above), about providing an engaging experience (SD aim 3) and about the reactions s/he elicits from the audience during it (SD aim 1). We require him/her, in other words, to have face concerns. These concerns, though, are largely covert, and necessarily so. We do not expect or want explicit assertions from the presenter that his/her talk is absolutely fascinating (SD aim 3) and countenance only occasional reference to our understanding and hoped-for agreement with his/her ideas (SD aim 4). Nor would we accept explicit directives that we visibly pay attention (SD aim 1).5 And we would certainly evaluate negatively any assertions, arguments or requests that we should form a positive impression of the speaker. Any such utterances would be counterproductive and received as spectacularly crass, ensuring that we formed precisely the opposite impression. Boasting is frowned upon in all cultures and almost all situations.6

38Given the negative evaluations that such overtness would elicit, we have to see now that covert does not mean surreptitious or clandestine or that the targets of the speaker’s SD aims are being hoodwinked. The speaker does not intend to trick us; we expect him/her to have these aims. It is with this awareness, then, that we can see that SD is not abnormal but rather an everyday aspect of interaction.

39We can see this even more clearly if we consider that there can be features of SD in this situation which are indeed deceptive. A very eminent conference presenter can sometimes get away with giving off the impression that s/he has no interest in the audience’s reception of his/her discourse, that it is not his/her job to contact the audience but rather the latter’s job to hang on his/her every word as best they can.

40This insouciant disengagement from the audience is in fact one index of eminence, which is why we can sometimes be tempted to include such features in our own presentations. The reading-to-oneself script delivery described above is one such feature. But there are others. For instance, we can insert into our discourse presuppositions or concepts that we know – but pretend we don’t – the audience will find startling or unfathomable; we can deliver some pronouncements while directing our gaze out of the window; we can slip in apparent off-the-cuff, sotto-voce asides whose meaning only the alert or cognoscenti among the audience will be able to catch (thus encouraging a semi-covert kind of collusion). These latter two means, by displaying apparent thinking aloud, as if talking mainly to ourselves, have the additional value of signalling that we are genuinely intellectually engaged with our subject matter. However, it is at the expense of engagement with our interlocutors. All these means have the effect of projecting the audience as mere overhearers rather than the ratified participants which, canonically, they are. If they work, they work to impress with the person but at the expense of successful persuasion regarding the propositional content. These means, then, are instances of trickery. They serve the agenda to seduce, this time deceptively. They are, quite literally, confidence tricks – the audience has increased confidence in the speaker as an intellectual even when, and sometimes because, they don’t fully follow the argument and thus have reduced confidence in their own intellectual capacities. Their existence illustrates that SD can be deceptive. But the observations above indicate that it is not inherently so.

Example 3: What’s my name?

41My last example is a trivial one which occurs in the apparently unlikely context of a rugby match, thus further illustrating the ubiquity of SD and its intimate connection with face. Like the previous example, the SD aim is overt but the means by which it is successful is indirect. Indeed, in this case, the latter is of particular interest because at first sight it appears counter-productive.

42The scene is the Ireland v France world cup match played on 11 October 2015. At one point during a pause in play, one of the Irish players could be seen on one knee, the British TV commentator explaining that “Chris Henry’s taken a bit of a bash to the head”. This occurrence was worth mentioning because head injuries are taken very seriously in modern rugby. If a referee suspects there is even the faintest possibility that a player might be suffering from concussion, s/he is obliged to order that player off the field immediately for a proper medical examination. And sure enough, the screen then showed the referee in this match, whose name was Nigel Owens (this is relevant), approach the Irish player (Chris Henry) to see if he needed to be sent off.

  • 7 The encounter is reconstructed partly from what can be seen and heard by the TV viewer (because rug (...)

43At this point, the SD task of Henry in the upcoming encounter with Owens is therefore clear – to convince the latter that he is not concussed and can therefore remain on the field. This is how the encounter unfolded:7

Nigel Owens: Had a bang on the head, have you?

Chris Henry: No, I’m alright

Nigel Owens: Do you need to go off for a test?

Chris Henry: [indicates ‘no’ as he gets up to standing position]

Nigel Owens: OK?

Chris Henry: [confirms]

Nigel Owens: Are you sure?

Chris Henry: [confirms, drinks from water bottle]

Nigel Owens: What’s my name?

Chris Henry: [smiling] François

44Chris Henry was successful in his attempt to convince the referee he was OK. He is not sent off and immediately after this encounter, the two of them can be seen trotting back to resume the action, with Henry patting Nigel Owens on the back. As can be seen in the final exchange, Chris Henry gives a spectacularly incorrect answer to a very simple question, which must therefore be interpretable as an indication of concussion. And yet this response appears to be enough by itself to satisfy the referee. The question here, then, is how the SD was successful. In pragmatic terms, it was obviously intended as a blatant flout of the maxim of quality. It was received that way too, successfully generating the implicature that for Henry to respond so promptly and smilingly with a statement they both know to be untrue indicates that he is in full working possession of his faculties. But how exactly did this success work?

45Part of the answer is the precise content of the incorrect answer. A name so obviously French can be interpreted as an insinuation by the player that the referee is being biased in favour of the French team. To indulge in such apt insinuation is one way to indicate full working possession of one’s faculties, especially when it is accompanied by a smile in order to show that it is intended to be taken as a joke.

  • 8 For a fuller analysis of the role of face in this encounter, see O’Driscoll (forthcoming).

46We can go further. In the context of the encounter so far, it is likely that this incorrect answer is more successful in convincing the referee than a correct one (e.g. “Nigel Owens”, “Mr Owens”) would have been. Up to the point of the last exchange, the referee has been conducting his enquiry directly, by asking for the player’s own assessment of his condition (Do you need ...? OK? Sure?). But his last question is radically different. By asking a question to which he already knows the answer (his own name), he positions Henry as one whose assessment cannot be trusted and himself as quizmaster. Moreover, it is a ridiculously easy question which tests one of the most basic of human competences (being able to recall the name of a situationally very important person with whom one is interacting). It is a severe threat to Henry’s face to have his judgement and basic mental competence called into question this way. And for him to answer simply with the correct name would be to acquiesce in this humiliation, an acceptance that his judgement and mental competence cannot be trusted. His incorrect answer, on the other hand, implies that the question was not necessary in the first place and thus extricates him from the face-damaging position in which the question has placed him.8 This face-saving effect is itself an aspect of the successful SD here. Face as presented by Goffman (1967) and argued by Haugh (2009) is not merely an aspect of interaction but actually constitutive of it (i.e. it is what makes smooth interaction possible). Therefore, there is a general default expectation that we all behave with proper concern for our own faces, so that not behaving with this concern could be interpreted as an indicator of incapacity (albeit perhaps temporary). Henry’s response, by instantiating such concern, is in itself a demonstration that he is not concussed.


47This paper has examined some of the pragmatic aspects of SD. It has argued and exemplified how SD – understood as getting people to do, believe or feel what you want them to do, believe or feel – is, given that we always have desires about what our interlocutors should believe and feel about us, an inherent part of everyday interaction and at the centre of relationships. The fact that, as in example 2 above, these desires often take the form of background, half-conscious or unconscious expectations (which might therefore be described as “unintentional”) should not blind us to the fact that this concern for self-presentation is ever-present. At this level, although SD is often necessarily covert, and opportunities exist for it to be achieved through deception, it is not thereby inherently deceptive. It is plainly impractical, and if attempted annoying and embarrassing, for us to be overt about all these desires, to lay them all before our interlocutors.

48When the SD aim is focused, as in the other two examples discussed above, it is still often misleading to speak of trickery. Indeed, the perception of trickery may lead to failure. This is the point of the 1993 Hollywood film Groundhog Day, whose hero repeatedly fails to seduce the heroine (this time, in the narrower, romantic sense), not because he fails to hide his desire to do so but because he fails to hide from her his belief that he has to trick her in order to do so. We may speak of the targets of SD being manipulated – but they themselves take a conscious, active part in the manipulation.

49Lastly, this paper has emphasised the importance of context. Even when the choice of words is crucial, as in example 1 above, it is the context in which they are uttered which is key. Seductive discourse involves more than just discourse.

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1 I would like to thank the editor for encouraging me to write this paper, for much stimulating discussion concerning this topic and, subsequently, so much patience!

2 Accessed 20 December 2016.

3 For the notion of conversational maxims and implicatures, see Grice (1975).

4 The term “bystander”, as well as the terms “overhearer”, “ratified participant” and “collusion” which appear below in this section, are taken from Goffman’s ([1979] 1981) framework for analysing participants’ roles in interaction.

5 Note that schoolteachers sometimes do this, presumably because, it being understood that school is a kind of rehearsal for the “real life” outside the classroom, they are training their charges in correct behaviour at podium events.

6 The fond memories that the older among us have of the boxer Muhammed Ali repeatedly claiming “I am the greatest” is not because we were persuaded by the propositional content of this assertion. The positive impression comes from the context in which a person whose actions had demonstrated he was indeed the greatest at his job manifestly refused to behave with the humility considered proper for a black man in 1960s America. Indeed, by behaving in a manner the precise opposite of humble, he drew attention to the racial discrimination inherent in these behavioural expectations.

7 The encounter is reconstructed partly from what can be seen and heard by the TV viewer (because rugby referees at top-flight matches wear microphones) and partly from the commentator’s summary of the encounter soon after it happened. The recording of the transmission was checked on ITV player,, Accessed 25 October 2015. The relevant sequence occurs at 1:35.50 to 1:36.30.

8 For a fuller analysis of the role of face in this encounter, see O’Driscoll (forthcoming).

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Jim O’DRISCOLL, « An interpersonal pragmatic perspective on seductive discourse », E-rea [En ligne], 15.1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2017, consulté le 20 février 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Huddersfield
Jim O’Driscoll BA (Cambridge 1974), MA (Essex 1986), PhD (Ghent 1999) has held posts in six different countries in Europe and the Middle East. His research interests are informed by experience of different languages and environments and straddle several aspects of language-in-situated-use, from both sociolinguistic and pragmatic viewpoints. His articles have appeared in Multilingua, Journal of Pragmatics, Functions of Language, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Journal of Politeness Research, Intercultural Pragmatics and Pragmatics and Society. In 2009, the second edition of Britain (OUP), his book on British culture for learners of English, was published. He is currently at the University of Huddersfield, where he is a member of the Language in Conflict project team.

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