Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros88The Use of If/ Then Constructions...


Cet article expose un dispositif interactionnel utilisé par les preneurs d’appels d’une ligne d’information sur la santé mentale alors qu’ils accomplissent la mission organisationnelle de prodiguer de l’information et de responsabiliser des clients. Suite à l’exposé de problèmes ou de demandes de conseil de la part des appelants, les preneurs d’appels recourent parfois à des formulations de type conditionnel si–alors afin de leur suggérer une conduite particulière (par exemple, « si vous souhaitez obtenir ces traitements, alors je crois que vous devez consulter votre médecin généraliste »). Les appelants peuvent conséquemment s’aligner (ou non) avec la conduite proposée, auquel cas ils sont ainsi considérés comme ayant pris eux-mêmes une décision concernant leurs actions à venir. Le recours à la construction si–alors permet aux preneurs d’appels d’accomplir leurs mandats organisationnels consistant à fournir de l’information et responsabiliser, tout en gérant une restriction organisationnelle qui leur est imposée sur la livraison de conseils. Les constructions si– alors peuvent être conçues comme un dispositif interactionnel par lequel cette organisation spécifique se construit à travers le discours.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1This paper uses the method of conversation analysis to examine a specific method for achieving organisational goals in interaction, and utilises a corpus of 166 calls to MIND Infoline ; a UK based helpline that aims to provide information on mental health issues, and related services available in England and Wales. Call-takers are employees of the line and receive detailed training to enable them to provide callers with clear information on mental illness, and also on how to access mental health services in the UK, so they can direct callers to appropriate, local sources of help and support. MIND Infoline is one of a number of services running from a helpline center in a large UK city, which operates MIND Infoline as a service for the MIND charity (i.e. the Infoline service has been outsourced by MIND to this helpline center). At the time of recording there were five members of staff who would take calls and answer emails while a full time supervisor assisted and monitored them. All six members of staff sat in an oval arrangement with a low partition between them, and could see each other at all times. The line supervisor would regularly ‘listen in’ to a number of calls each day for quality assurance and staff feedback purposes, and would also do so if they felt that the call taker might have been experiencing a challenging call and was in need of assistance.

2During training, call takers are told that they must not offer advice to callers, i.e. they must not discuss potential courses of action for callers as something callers should or ought to do in any situation. The following text comes from the “code of practice” given to call takers during training : “Information should be offered to enable enquirers to reach a decision for themselves. Information workers do not offer advice or make decisions on behalf of an enquirer. The information workers should take the lead from the enquirer and may explain the likely outcomes of different courses of action in a way that empowers the enquirer”1.

3Thus, the provision of advice is a restricted activity in this particular environment, and this is related to the organisational aim of providing information to callers so that they may be empowered to make their own decisions. Call takers are in the position of discussing potential courses of actions that callers may take to remedy their problems, but must do so in a way which is not hearable as offering advice to callers and which allows callers to make their own informed decision on how to proceed. This paper aims to examine one particular interactional practice which achieves the organisational goals of ‘information provision’ and ‘caller empowerment’, and which simultaneously allows the call takers to discuss future courses of action while managing a restriction on ‘advising’. As such, this interactional practice will be discussed as constructing or constituting in discourse the “institutional fingerprint” (Drew & Heritage, 1992:26) of MIND Infoline.

4Sometimes the call takers (henceforth MWs for MIND Infoline Workers) will openly topicalise advice as a problematic issue for the line, as in the following extract. All transcripts were produced using the transcription conventions for conversation analysis (e.g. Jefferson, 2004).

Extract 1A – JM-48578 Post-Natal Depression

Extract 1A – JM-48578 Post-Natal Depression

5In response to the caller’s request for the MW’s recommendation (lines 12 - 13), the MW does not directly refuse to provide one, but rather claims an inability to advise or recommend. The MW speaks from an institutional position (“we can’t..”) and invokes the nature of this service as the reason for this (“as an information service”). As the call takers work in close proximity to each other, and have their calls ‘listened in’ to occasionally by the line manager, any occurrences of advising would potentially be noticed. This restriction creates a specific dilemma for the MWs; callers to the line often ask for advice, or offer descriptions of troubles, which they treat as tellings for MWs to then advise upon, and the MWs must respond to these descriptions of trouble by proffering information to callers on courses of action relevant to their particular issues. For example, a caller who reports difficulty in claiming benefits due to mental-health related unemployment would be in some way directed towards an agency that will advocate on their behalf. The avoidance of hearably issuing advice to callers is a live concern for the MWs as they provide information on how to proceed, and ‘signpost’ callers to the sources of help that are most relevant to their specific problems. Indeed, the MWs themselves raised this as an issue worth examining during the initial meetings regarding the research project. Caller uptake of a course of action is a core aim of the individual calls, as once a potential course of action has been proffered by the MWs and the caller has in some way aligned with it, the MWs can then engage in the delivery of contact details of relevant sources of help, and then bring the call to closing (see Moore, 2008 for a further discussion of this practice).

The Conversation Analytic Approach to Organisational/ Workplace Interactions

6Conversation analytic work focuses on the sequential order of talk in interaction, and places much emphasis on talk as the site of social action rather than as a mere medium for descriptions of the world. Although the interactions examined in the current paper are treated as organizational in nature, it is not due to the fact that they transpired on a mental health helpline. In this approach, organizational (commonly labelled ‘institutional’ in the CA literature) talk is something that is produced as, and oriented to, as organisational by the participants, and as such goes beyond the physical setting of an interaction. In one of the earliest conversation analysis (CA) papers, Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974) argued that institutional forms of interaction are different to ordinary conversation as institutional talk is more restricted. Participants treat the types and amounts of turns at talk that they take as restricted or predetermined by the context, and as such produce and orient to the talk as institutional in nature (see Heritage & Clayman, 2010, for a recent discussion of this issue). Courtroom interactions provide a classic example of such restrictions, where the A-B-A-B question and answer pattern of talk between participants clearly orients to a restricted, predetermined form of talk.

7Drew and Heritage (1992) expanded upon the phenomena that may constitute an interaction as institutional in nature, and offered three main aspects which might identify talk as institutional, workplace, or organisational. These are that : i) the speakers are oriented to particular goals or activities related to the institution in question ; ii) the speakers may be oriented to specific constraints placed on the type and / or amounts of activity they can engage in in the interaction ; iii) and that the speakers may be oriented to particular frameworks relevant to the institution in question e.g. that something such as humour may be treated as inappropriate in institutional interactions. Drew and Heritage argued that when analysing institutional talk, we must examine the ways that “participants’ conduct and its organisation embody orientations which are specifically institutional or which are, at the least, responsive to constraints which are institutional in character” (p.20). Here, they also developed the concept of the “institutional fingerprint”; the recurrent or patterned interactional elements which can be seen to constitute a particular institution (p.26). Arminen (2005) argued that conversation analytic work can identify the ‘fingerprint’ of each institutional practice, and demonstrate how particular institutional goals, restrictions, etc. are achieved in talk, and how they can be seen as constituting that particular institution.

8The overarching issue of context has been repeatedly addressed in the CA literature on institutional interactions, and these discussions display the (rarely discussed) epistemological position of most CA writers as broadly social constructionist in nature. Context (such as the context in which an interaction takes place) is treated as an element of social structure, and includes uses such as physical context such as an office or classroom, and abstract notions such as the context of a democracy, or a relationship. Schegloff (1991) argued that, for the analyst, a core requirement is to demonstrate that a social structure (whatever it may be) is something which participants are oriented to, for this will demonstrate how the social structure itself is produced in interaction. Similarly, Bilmes (1992) argued that in conversation analytic work, context is a product of the interactional phenomena studied (i.e. that the context is created and made live in interaction), and the analyst must demonstrate how a context may be seen to be present in interactional phenomena rather than just implying that interactional phenomena are the result of some context. Indeed, Schegloff’s (1991) notion of “procedural consequentiality” (p.49) is the concept that, in analysis, if any context is deemed to be impacting upon an interaction, the analysis must show how this impact is evident in the on-going elements of the interaction. Conversely, it is not sufficient for the analyst to merely claim that a context such as a physical setting, the relationship between speakers, or indeed an institutional restriction is somehow a causal factor in determining the content or patterns of the interaction. The analyst must be able to discuss the procedural “connection between the context so formulated and what actually happens in the talk” (p. 53) in the participants’ interactional conduct. Thus, in the current paper, restriction is not simply treated as a pre-existing structure which determines the content of the talk, but as something which speakers are seen to orient to in their talk, and as something which is produced or constructed in an interaction through the use of particular interactional activities.

Empowerment, information, and advice in organisational interactions

9Various interactional practices for delivering information and avoiding advising are discussed in the conversation analytic literature e.g. see Silverman (1997) on designing advice to be hearable as information delivery, and Butler, Potter, Danby, Emission, & Hepburn (2010) on the use of interrogatives to proffer a course of action in an environment where advising is prohibited. The definition of advice offered by Heritage & Sefi (1992) has been used repeatedly as a starting point for such studies, and it describes advice as occurrences where one speaker “describes, recommends, or otherwise forwards a preferred course of action” for the other (p.368). Working with this definition, much of the activities engaged in by the MWs in the MIND Infoline calls could be glossed as advice, as they proffer specific sources of help or support to callers which should remedy their particular problems.

10Silverman (1997) found that courses of action were often delivered to clients in pre-test HIV counseling sessions in a form that he calls “advice as information” (p.154). This involved the counselors proffering courses of action that were relevant to client issues and problems in ways that made them hearable as the delivery of information rather than as advice (advice is often deemed as incompatible with the goals of counseling). This was achieved through elements of turns such as “The recommendation is for people to…” (p.172) and “…our recommendation is...” (p.174) which made the advice hearable as information generally provided to clients in a particular situation, and as information on the clinic’s advisory practices, rather than as direct advice. Silverman claimed also that the use of the institutional or passive voice helps this by avoiding turns which sound like personal recommendations from the counselors, and that the proffering of action in this way stabilises the interaction by avoiding the potential rejection of unwanted advice giving. An if / then format is used in a number of Silverman’s examples of this sequence, where the counselors proffer courses of action to clients in a manner hearable as information (e.g. “... if a woman really wants a chi:ld (.) then we advise her becoming pregnant sooner (.) rather than leaving it.” (p.169). Silverman called these sequences in the interactions an “advice-as-information sequence” which is a method for “concealing advice” (p.154).

11The potential rejection of the information or advice offered in organisational settings is a recurring theme in the literature. Vehviläinen (2001) discussed unwarranted and irrelevant advice as examples of a number of “dilemmas in advice giving” (p.372), and found that to avoid the unwarranted and irrelevant giving of advice in an educational counseling setting, the perspective of the client was often elicited and then used as part of a stepwise format to launch relevant advice. In discussing the literature on advice, Vehviläinen claimed that advice giving is potentially problematic in both ordinary conversation and organizational interactions, because of how it positions the participants asymmetrically by implying that the advisor has greater knowledge of an issue than the recipient. This is particularly so when the advice is an area where the recipient may have some competence; see for example the work by Heritage and Sefi (1992) on how health visitors provide advice to mothers on how best to look after their infants. Hutchby (1995) also considered advice delivery to invoke these asymmetrical knowledge or competence positions of the advice giver and the advice recipient in his work on radio phone-in interactions, and Waring (2007) claimed that advice giving needs to be delicately managed as it is a “face-threatening act” (p.368).

12This asymmetry is essentially incompatible with goals such as ‘client empowerment’ as it privileges the knowledge and suggestions of the advisor, not the client. Butler et al (2010) examined this issue in calls to an Australian helpline for children, where advice was prohibited and client empowerment featured as a core organisational aim. Butler et al found that the call takers would issue questions such as “Do you have a counsellor or guidance officer at school?”, and would follow these questions by asking whether callers would utilise such resources as a way of remedying their problems. Butler et al treated such questions as “advice implicative” (p.265) and discussed these as managing the restriction on advice by privileging client knowledge, and as achieving client empowerment through allowing them to (ostensibly) decide whether to engage in a course of action.

13In sum, the existing body of work in the area has shown how the delivery of courses of action for clients can be interactionally problematic, particularly if delivered when unwanted, and that interactional work which allows it to be hearable as information can indeed help in ensuring that it is not rejected by the recipient. Advising / informing practices may also be problematic as a result of the asymmetric, relative positioning of the speakers; advice givers are positioned as more knowledgeable as to the actions which the recipient is, or should be, engaging in. As such, managing information delivery such that it supports client empowerment may be a challenge for an organisation’s representatives. Exploring these issues in the MIND Infoline corpus could potentially cover a wide range of interactional phenomena (advice requests, advice uptake, resistance, etc.). It was clear in early hearings of the calls that remedial courses of action were often provided by the MWs in turns that followed callers’ descriptions of problems, and the analysis of the calls began with these MW turns. Due to the organisational restriction, advice is potentially a live issue for MWs at any point where they discuss actions that callers may engage in. It is not the intention of our analysis to determine whether the conversational practices examined do indeed constitute examples of advice, but rather to explore a practice used by the MWs to achieve their organisational goals of information provision and empowerment, while managing a restriction on advising.

14This paper also draws upon and offers an addition to the small body of conversation analytic work available on if / then constructions. In his work on compound turn constructional units, Lerner (1991) discusses if / then constructions (and the similar when / then constructions) as two-element constructions where the initial ‘if’ (or ‘when’) element allowing recipients to project the forthcoming ‘then’ element. This is the case even when the initial ‘if’ element is extended or has parenthetical information inserted before the ‘then’ element is produced (see Mazeland, 2007), and the projectability of the ‘then’ element allows recipients to collaborately complete the turn constructional unit. Kitzinger (2008) analysed a large collection of if / then constructions and found that recipients typically orient to these as a single unit, and do not speak between the ‘if’ and ‘then’ elements even when the speaker pauses before issuing the ‘then’ element. In Kitzinger’s collection, recipients typically remained silent even when parenthetical information was deployed between the ‘if’ and ‘then’ elements, and when recipients did speak between the two elements, it was typically to issue a continuer of other minimal receipt, and as such treat them as an incomplete turn in progress until the ‘then’ element had been completed. The following analysis will be seen to support Kitzinger’s findings while outlining a specific usage of if / then constructions in the achievement of organisational goals, and their role in constituting the institution of MIND Infoline in interactions.

15All occurrences of talk about a course of action (henceforth COA or CsOA in the plural) that callers may engage in were included in the initial exploration and analysis of the data, and analysed using conversation analysis. After detailed searches of the complete data set, it became clear that there were certain methods for proffering a COA that were repeatedly used by all of the MWs. One such form is where the CsOA were explicitly marked as conditional, using an ‘if / then’ construction, although only sixteen occurrences were found in the data set. Detailed transcripts were made of calls or of sections of larger calls where this practice occurred. These transcripts served as an aid to data analysis and are presented with the analysis below. Callers are identified in the transcripts as CA, and the MIND Infoline workers are identified individually by number e.g. MW1, MW2, etc.

Delivering actions as information, and achieving empowerment

16The if / then format for proffering a COA is clearly demonstrated in the first extract below which comes from the same call as transcript 1A above, where a caller with post-natal depression has asked for the MW’s recommendation for treatment, and has said that she had been taking depression medication which did not work. The MW has previously told this caller that they cannot recommend anything as MIND Infoline is “an information service” and has listed non-medication treatments which are available including psychotherapy and counseling (data not shown). The extract begins after the MW has listed a number of treatments.

Extract 1B – JM-48578 Post Natal Depression and Talking Treatments

Extract 1B – JM-48578 Post Natal Depression and Talking Treatments
  • 2 While the sequence follows a traditional pattern for repair it may be argued that the MW is using t (...)

17On lines 1 and 2 the caller asks the MW what the first thing she would do is (following the delivery of a list of available treatments). The MW’s question which follows is hearable as a clarifying question; “If you wanted to try: (.5) those kind of treatments .hhhhh”, and the caller orients to it as such, responding with “mmmm.”. This forms a repair sequence2, with the question checking the MW’s understanding of what it is the caller wants to do and offering her candidate understanding, and the repair solution “mmmm.” confirming this. There are many potential alternative designs for the MW’s question of lines 3 and 4, such as “Do you mean to try these treatments?” or “To try these treatments?”. All still treat the unsaid action of trying these treatments in the caller’s prior turn as the trouble source which led to the MW’s understanding check. The repair initiator ultimately used by the MW (“If you wanted to try: (.5) those kind of treatments”) is designed such that it fits pragmatically and grammatically with the conditional element of the prior turn which occasions it (“What would be the first thing I’d do”), and thus it may be argued that this is the main reason for its use. As the MW’s question is the first-pair-part of an insert (repair) sequence, which is completed with the caller’s second-pair-part (repair solution) “mmmm.” on line 5, the MW is now free (from line 6) to provide the second-pair-part to the caller’s initial question of what she would do. When it arrives, this too is begun with “If you wanted” (line 6).

18Why does this appear again here? Designing a turn which incorporates a COA in this manner, allows for the COA to be heard as a normative, logical (If A, then B) matter. In this case, if the caller wants these treatments, then it is a matter of going to the G.P. and asking for them. Producing a turn in this way prevents against the COA being heard as the advice of the MW for this particular caller, and instead as information about what is normally done in such circumstances. In this particular instance, designing the ‘then’ element as what the MW ‘guesses’ also helps the turn to be less hearable as advice, through presenting it as a guess rather than as a considered, or as advice which might be routine or typical from this organisation. Before discussing this further, let us examine another occurrence of this practice, which appears a few moments later in the same call. The following transcript begins at the point where the previous extract ends (see next page).

19We can see that after the MW proffers the COA of going to the doctors to ask for treatments, the caller issues a complaint about doctors and claims that she has no confidence in them. The MW then asks the caller where she is in the country and says she is going to search for the services run by the nearest MIND association, and check that it is accessible for the caller. The MW’s next turn after this (from line 76) is “^Yeah I mean our d- th- our office in ((town)) >if you< didn’t want to go >to the< gee pee but you’d=fancied giving counseling a try: .hh they do have a counseling se:rvice. .hhh”. As in the previous extract we have the ‘wants’ of the caller invoked using an if/ then format before a COA is proffered, and again, the COA is hearable as information about what can potentially be done when in a particular situation (in this case wanting counseling but not wanting to go to the GP) rather than as tailored advice to remedy this caller’s problems.

20While the CsOA in the transcripts above may be hearable as directed at an individual, the use of the impersonal ‘you’ also allows for them to be hearable as available to anyone as they do not index any of the prior talk by the individual. This can be demonstrated using the example of a potential alternative form of the target turn from extract 1C; ‘As you don’t want to go to the doctor, but you fancy giving counseling a try, they have a counseling service’. Designed in this way, the turn would index the prior talk of the caller, and the ‘you’ would not be heard as the impersonal form. In his analysis of advice on radio phone-in shows, Hutchby (1995) also analyses advice given using if / then constructions e.g. “if you ar::e, disabled, and in touch with a society, or er .h a disablement group in your area, .h then you must put pressure on that society or group, .h to respond to the reviews” (p.230). In Hutchby’s data, these occurrences of advice giving follow specific questions from live callers, but Hutchby argues that the ‘you’ in the advice is designed to be hearable as the impersonal you as well as the personal form, as a way of extending the advice to others in this situation, and marking it as generally able to be done by anyone in the situation. Similarly, Edwards (1995) showed how speakers can draw upon such an if / then format to construct events as routine or scripted, as logically following or pertaining to a particular circumstance. It is this sense of the routine, invoked by the use of a conditional format, combined with the oblique person reference, which allows for the CsOA above to be heard as generally available CsOA to be followed when in the conditional situation invoked by the MW i.e. ‘if you /anyone wants x, then the COA is y’. Such turns typically follow an if / then format, with the conditional (if) element followed by an ‘upshot’ or ‘resulting’ (then) element, and as mentioned above, recipients orient to them as such (Kitzinger, 2008), although if the ‘then’ element is not produced recipients may orient to its ostensible existence (see example in De Kok, 2008).

Extract 1C – JM-48578 Post Natal Depression and Talking Treatments

Extract 1C – JM-48578 Post Natal Depression and Talking Treatments

21With these points in mind, let us revisit the relevant segments from the above transcripts.

22The first of these extracts matches the above example from Hutchby (1995) with the conditional element (if X) preceding a COA (then Y). The second example is slightly different in format, with an element of the COA (where to go) preceding the conditional element. Both examples carry out the same interactional work though of making the COA hearable as a readily available action to engage in when in this particular situation. There is no doubt that the CsOA are directed at this caller, particularly in the first extract where the COA includes specific information on what the caller would say to the doctor about her past experiences, and thus it may indeed be claimed that this is an occurrence of advice giving. Yet the ‘you’ which is hearable as the impersonal form assists in making these CsOA open to being heard as general and pertaining to anyone in the situation, and not just as the best or preferred next actions which this specific caller should engage in but rather as what is routine for all people when a set of (conditional) circumstances are met. It is important to remember that the MW is open to being heard by their co-workers, and the whole call is open to being heard by the line supervisor. Any talk produced by the MW is available for this audience as well as for the caller, and thus any talk produced by the MW may be designed for both audiences.

23In both of the examples above, once the MW has delivered the COA she asks the caller if this is something that ‘would be helpful’. The caller appears to align with the action in extract 1B but not in 1C. Introducing the COA using the if / then format, and then by asking the caller for their view on it, may be seen as a way to achieve client empowerment, as their knowledge and decision making is privileged rather than that of the call taker. Following ten of the sixteen occurrences of these if / then constructions, callers appeared to treat the space following the construction as one where their opinion or uptake of the COA was relevant, and offered these without a question from the MW. This practice can be seen in the next example, which comes from a call where the caller has described feeling suicidal and has said he has been trying to get access to hospital treatment. Just prior to the start of this extract, the MW has asked the caller if he has a G.P. (family doctor) and he has said no.

Extract 2 – JM-64023 Suicidal thoughts, wants to be hospitalised

Extract 2 – JM-64023 Suicidal thoughts, wants to be hospitalised

24In this instance, the call taker proffers a COA of going to a hospital accident and emergency department (colloquially called ‘A&E’ in the UK) and does so using the hypothetical wants of the caller. These are presented as ‘wanting a mental health assessment’ and the if / then format claims that if this condition is met, the “quickest” way to get this is to go to the hospital A&E. Notice again the use of “you’ and “your” in lines 1 and 4 which allow the COA to be heard as pertaining to anyone in this situation, and as routine action if certain conditions are met. The MW does not begin another turn (notice the gaps on lines 6 and 8) and this may be argued to indicate to the caller that a turn at talk from him is relevant here. When the caller does come in, he receipts the MW’s turn with “Right” and then offers an account as to why he would not engage in the COA proffered by the MW (not wanting to “look stupid”).

Avoiding advice

25Offering a further, similar example of these constructions would add little to the points of interest and the series of actions described above, and an analysis is offered next where the MW begins a turn which is hearable as the ‘if’ element on an if / then construction, but then moves to issue a question. This form which the conditional construction takes occurs only once in the data corpus. In this call, the caller has been complaining that she cannot get any information about her son who is in what she calls a ‘private rehab hospital for people with schizophrenia’. Despite calling a number of times to request information on her son’s wellbeing, and being told that someone would get back to her, she claims that she has not been contacted by anyone at the hospital. She has asked the MW why the hospital staff would withhold information, and has then engaged in complaining about the hospital staff at the point before the following extract begins.

Extract 3 – JM-69622 Contact with Son

Extract 3 – JM-69622 Contact with Son

26In this example, the MW begins the turn of interest (beginning on line 4) with “if >you want< more con\/tact” but in place of the asserted CsOA seen in the previous extracts, the COA here is embedded within an interrogative “>can you> go there?”. This variant on the conditional form still functions in the same way as the previous examples, as the COA (going to the hospital) is presented as a normative action to engage in when the condition of wanting more information is met. The occurrences of ‘you’, both of which are run through at speed, are again hearable here as either the personal or impersonal use of the term. Also, similar to previous extracts, the caller has made it clear throughout the call that she wants to visit her son and to have more information on his progress from the staff (data not shown), yet this is hypotheticalised in the MW’s formulation of her wants; “if you want more contact”. What is different is that the ‘then’ element is embedded within an interrogative, and the ability to engage in the COA is constructed as unknown to the MW.

27The turn in question is troubled with pauses and a restart. Focusing on the ‘I mean’, Maynard (2007) claimed that when these appear mid turn, they usually indicate trouble with the turn in progress, and are followed by self repair. If the MW were to complete the turn using the syntax he had begun with, the turn would have taken a form such as ‘If you want more contact you could go there’, which may have sounded directive in nature, or at least as an occurrence of advice giving, which does not (on it’s own) allow for the caller’s perspective. It is such a form that has arguably been abandoned here and replaced (after the “I mean”) with the grammatically odd form which was used, as the normal if /then construction form for proffering a COA would have sounded inappropriate if used in this instance. The ‘you’ in the form used still functions as hearable as the personal or impersonal form in this format, and client empowerment is achieved by avoiding a directive or advising turn, and through privileging the caller’s knowledge regarding uptake of the COA.

28The if/ then constructions here thus address a number of organizational goals in one interactional device. They have been seen to proffer information in the form of a COA to callers, manage a restriction on advising, and aid in client empowerment through allowing the caller to align (or not) with information rather than having to accept or reject advice. Thus, the if / then constructions may be seen to ‘make live’ the organisation’s goals and remits in interaction, bringing abstract notions such as ‘organisational remits’ into the world through talk. As such, the if / then constructions may be considered to represent MIND Infoline’s “institutional fingerprint” (Drew & Heritage, 1992:26).


29It is arguable that the CsOA in all of the extracts above represent advice-giving – they are future oriented actions to engage in, proffered by the representative of a service, which are aimed at remedying a trouble told by a service user. We have seen how the use of if / then constructions in deploying CsOA manages the issue of proffering remedial actions to others in an environment where advice giving is prohibited. In this conditional format, the CsOA are explicitly marked as conditional, contingent upon the recipients’ wants, but are also hearable as a COA to be engaged in by anyone in this situation. Yet these turns manage to proffer a COA which is a remedy to a trouble delivered by the caller, and thus are in one sense tailored for that caller. These turns also deliver the COA as information about what can generally be done by anyone as a remedy to that situation, and allow for the privileging of caller knowledge and uptake of the action and as such, for client empowerment.

30Having analysed a number of examples from the ‘if / then’ construction form for proffering CsOA, it is clear that they share a number of characteristics, which are worth focusing on in detail. First, the CsOA proffered in the constructions are targeted to the troubles told by the callers and are all actions that may address or remedy these issues. As such, these CsOA could potentially be delivered in a number of forms which could be argued to represent an occurrence of advising, e.g. ‘What you should do is call social services’. Of course, the available literature has described a number of devices which can be utilised in organisational settings which avoid issuing turns hearable as advice, but it is clear from the analysis of the MIND Infoline corpus that the use of if / then constructions is a repeatedly used method for this purpose, in this setting.

31Second, while these CsOA are relevant to the problems told by the callers, they are issued following a formulation of the problem or issue described by the callers, which is deployed by the MW in the ‘if’ element of the construction (e.g. “if you wanted to try those treatments...”). Common to all of the examples discussed here, and indeed all of the examples in the collection, is that by the very nature of the format, the formulation deployed in the ‘if’ element of the construction is hearable as hypothetical. This aspect of the constructions may serve a function which is peculiar to a context such as MIND Infoline, where the MWs are prohibited from advising, and their talk is continuously available not only to the caller but also to their colleagues and supervisor on duty with them. Issuing a hypothetical situation before proffering a COA makes the COA more hearable to the overhearing colleagues and supervisor as information about a class or type of situation, rather than as targeted advice for a specific trouble which has just been told to them.

32Indeed, the next commonality is that these constructions aid in making the CsOA as information rather than advice. The constructions offer the CsOA as logically or typically done in response to particular circumstances or events rather than specifically something to be done by the caller. If / then constructions are proffered as examples of advice delivered as information by other writers examining organisational interactions (e.g. Silverman, 1997; Hutchby, 1995) who again show that the construction makes a COA hearable as information on routine activities rather than as targeted advice. The frequent, oblique use of the pro-term ‘you’ in the constructions supports this feature, as it could be heard as referring to the caller or as referring to anyone in that situation, thus helping to extend the COA as pertaining to all those in a class or situation. This use of ‘you’ is also discussed by a number of writers as serving this particular function in helping advice to be heard as information, through ambiguity regarding the speaker’s intended referent (Silverman, 1997; Hutchby, 1995; Waring, 2007; Kinnell & Maynard, 1996).

33A further result of utilising this format for proffering a COA is that in the ‘if’ section of the construction, the formulation of the situation serves as an account for why the COA which follows it is relevant. Waring (2007) examined the provision of advice in peer-tutoring sessions, and found that accounts were frequently issued with advice, e.g “the other problem with this is that you just mentioned Ruskin like (0.2) out of the blu:e.” Waring found that these accounts would most frequently be issued before the advice, and that this served to invoke the relevance of the advice to the recipient before issuing it, and thus help to protect the advice against being treated as irrelevant. Advice was also less likely to be resisted when the account preceded the advice. Indeed, formulating the perspective of a client before issuing advice targeted to this perspective has been found to occur in other organisational contexts, as a method for making the relevance of the advice more available for the client (see Silverman, 1997; Vehviläinen, 2001). Such interactional work is also achieved here by the if / then formulations, which proffer a formulation of the problematic issue or situation (and thus the relevance of a engaging in a remedial COA), before issuing the advice which targets these. In line with Kitzinger’s (2008) findings, recipients of the if / then constructions in the MIND Info corpus do not speak (other than offering continuers and minimal receipts) until the ‘then’ element of the construction has been issued. As such, delivering a COA in this manner allows the MWs the interactional space to deliver the ‘account’ and the COA in one turn constructional unit.

34The final, common feature of the constructions discussed here is their ability to lessen or soften the asymmetry between advice-giver and advice-recipient; a dilemma frequently discussed in the existing literature on advice giving as an endemic feature of advice (Butler et al, 2010). As the MWs are not hearably giving explicit advice, the potential asymmetrical relationship of knowledgeable advice-giver and less knowledgeable or less competent advice-recipient is not invoked. This process of avoiding the typical asymmetrical relationship typically invoked in advice giving may indeed aid the process of allowing these particular turns to be heard as information rather than advice. As mentioned, Silverman (1997) claims that delivering advice as information is a useful method for avoiding the interactional dilemmas of advice giving. Indeed, where we have seen that COA is resisted, it is the specific COA that is rejected, and not the offering of a COA in itself. Callers may be able to resist the CsOA proffered in the if / then constructions in a manner which is more socially cohesive than typical advice resistance, as they may be heard as responding to information than as rejecting the advice of another (see Silverman, 1997, for a more detailed discussion of this notion).

35The data here also fit with Jefferson and Lee’s (1981) seminal finding that advice cannot follow a troubles telling, as the reversal of the recipient from troubles teller to advice recipient will lead to interactional asynchrony, unless it is as part of a service encounter. Both callers and MWs do indeed orient to the turn following a troubles telling as a place for a COA to be delivered, and we have seen that following the if / then constructions, callers’ view or uptake of the COA can be made or oriented to as relevant. Allowing for callers’ views may be seen as a method for achieving client empowerment, through privileging their knowledge and / or decisions over those of the call takers, and as such, as an important mechanism for achieving the core organisational goals of information provision and client empowerment.

36Although individual examples of if / then constructions have been included in previous studies of advice-giving in interaction, this paper focuses solely on these as a device for managing the delivery of advice in an organisational context where advice-giving is prohibited. These if / then constructions have been shown to make the courses of remedial action proffered to callers hearable as information on generally available to anyone in a particular situation, rather than as targeted advice. This format also delivers a formulation of the problematic issue in the same turn constructional unit, which may defend against advice resistance. These constructions indeed prove effective for the MWs in managing the organisation’s prohibition on advising by avoiding the production of what may be over heard by colleagues as occurrences of overt advising, as well as managing various dilemmas in delivering advice to callers, such as the potential for resistance and the asymmetry endemic in advising. The constructions also pave the way for client turns in which they can issue their view and / or uptake of the action. As such, when the provision of information and the empowerment of clients are the core goals of an organisation, and an organisational restraint on advising is oriented to in an attempt to ensure these goals, interactional devices such as the if / then constructions discussed here can be seen as constituting the work of the organisation.

37Issuing advice is generally treated as incompatible with elements of counselling (e.g. Silverman, 1997; Butler et al, 2010) as its directive nature may prevent the elicitation of clients’ perspectives. While MIND Infoline does not offer counselling per say, they share the institutional goal of client empowerment. The analysis above demonstrates the ability of CA work to explicate the ways in which such activities are achieved in interactions, and also offers an entry point to this topic for other social science approaches. The application of CA findings has become a regular feature of such work (see Antaki, 2011 for a recent collection of work in this area) and the findings from this analysis have been fed back to the staff and management of MIND Infoline through a series of presentations, as a way of helping them to understand and to document the ways in which they achieved their institutional aims. MIND Infoline has not incorporated these findings into their training sessions for new staff, as a way of offering examples of how to achieve, in their future interactions with clients, the somewhat abstract goal of client empowerment.

Haut de page


Arminen, I. (2005). Institutional Interaction: Studies of Talk at Work. Aldershot, Ashgate.

Bilmes, J. ( (J.), 1992). Mishearings.  In G. Watson, R. M. Seiler (ed.), Text in Context : Contributions to Ethnomethodology. London : Sage, 79 -98.

Butler, C., Potter, J., Danby, S., Emission, M., & Hepburn, A. (2010). Advice Implicative Interrogatives: Building ‘client centred’ support in a children’s helpline. Social Psychology Quarterly, n° 73, 265 - 287.

De Kok, B. C. (2008). The role of context in conversation analysis: Reviving an interest in ethno-methods. Journal of Pragmatics, n° 40, 886 - 903.

Drew, P., & Heritage J. (1992). Analysing Talk at Work. In P. Drew, J. Heritage (ed.), Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 3 -65.

Edwards, D. (1995). Two to tango: script formulations, dispositions, and rhetorical symmetry in relationship troubles talk. Research on Language and Social Interaction, n° 28, 319 - 350.

Heritage, J., & Clayman, S. (2010). Talk in Action : Interactions, Identities, and Institutions. Sussex, UK : Wiley.

Heritage, J., & Sefi, S. (1992). Dilemmas of Advice: Aspects of Delivery and Reception of Advice in Interactions between Health Visitors and First-Time Mothers. In P. Drew, J. Heritage (ed.), Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 359 -417.

Hutchby, I. (1995). Aspects of recipient design in expert advice-giving on call-in radio. Discourse Processes, n° 19, 219 - 238.

Jefferson, G. (2004). Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction. In G. H. Lerner (ed.), Conversation Analysis: Studies from the First Generation. Amsterdam : John Benjamins, 13-31.

Jefferson, G., & Lee, J. R. E. (1981). The Rejection of Advice: Managing the Problematic Conversion of a “Troubles Telling” and a “Service Encounter”. Journal of Pragmatics, n° 5, 399 - 422.

Kinnel, A. M. K., & Maynard, D. W. (1996). The Delivery and Receipt of Safer Sex Advice in Pretest Counseling Sessions for HIV and AIDS. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, n° 24, 405 - 437.

Kitzinger, C. (2008). Developing Feminist Conversation Analysis: A Response to Wowk. Human Studies, n° 31, 179 – 208.

Lerner, G. H. (1991). On the syntax of sentences-in-progress. Language in Society, n° 20, 441 - 458.

Maynard, D. (2007). Defensiveness in Interaction : The Use of I-Mean Prefaced Utterances in Complaint and Other Conversational Sequences,  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York, Aug 11, 2007.

Mazeland, H. (2007). Parenthetical sequences. Journal of Pragmatics, n° 39, 1816 - 1869.

Moore, J. (2008). Responses to crying in calls to a mental health information line. Swiss Bulletin of Applied Linguistics, n° 88, 43 - 64.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, n° 50, 696 - 735.

Schegloff, E. A. (1991). Reflections on Talk and Social Structure. In D. H. Zimmerman, D. Boden (ed.), Talk and Social Structure: Studies in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis. Cambridge : Polity Press, 44 - 70.

Silverman, D. (1997). Discourses of Counselling : HIV Counselling as Social Interaction. London : Sage.

Silverman, D., Peräkylä, A., & Bor, R. (1992). Discussing safer sex in HIV counseling: Assessing three formats. AIDS Care, n° 4, 69 - 82.

Vehviläinen, S. (2001). Evaluative Advice in Educational Counselling: The Use of Disagreement in the “Stepwise Entry” to Advice. Research on Language and Social Interaction, n° 34, 371 - 398.

Waring, H. Z. (2007). The multi-functionality of accounts in advice giving. Journal of Sociolinguistics, n° 11, 367 - 369.

Haut de page


1 More information can be found at <>.

2 While the sequence follows a traditional pattern for repair it may be argued that the MW is using the technology of repair to engage in an action other than repair; one of ensuring that the caller’s desire to engage in the therapies mentioned is cast as conditional.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Extract 1A – JM-48578 Post-Natal Depression
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Titre Extract 1B – JM-48578 Post Natal Depression and Talking Treatments
Fichier image/jpeg, 176k
Titre Extract 1C – JM-48578 Post Natal Depression and Talking Treatments
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre  Extract 1B
Fichier image/jpeg, 100k
Titre  Extract 1C
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Extract 2 – JM-64023 Suicidal thoughts, wants to be hospitalised
Fichier image/jpeg, 104k
Titre Extract 3 – JM-69622 Contact with Son
Fichier image/jpeg, 69k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

John Moore, « The Use of If/ Then Constructions in the Achievement of Information Provision and Client Empowerment »Sciences de la société, 88 | 2013, 117-157.

Référence électronique

John Moore, « The Use of If/ Then Constructions in the Achievement of Information Provision and Client Empowerment »Sciences de la société [En ligne], 88 | 2013, mis en ligne le 22 avril 2014, consulté le 06 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


John Moore

Assistant Professor, Communication Department, University of Wisconsin - Parkside, (1) 262 595 2481.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Sciences de la société est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires du Midi
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search