Two Rhetorical Uses of the Description 'Chat'

How to Cite

Antaki, C. (2000). Two Rhetorical Uses of the Description ’Chat’. M/C Journal, 3(4).
Vol. 3 No. 4 (2000): Chat
Published 2000-08-01

1. Introduction: How the word 'chat' can be demeaning

I think the editors mean the word 'chat' to be something of a tease. They remind us that to call something 'chat' might be to strip it of anything more serious or substantial it might be doing and, by extension, to weaken pretty well all talk. It joins 'mere talk', 'rhetoric', 'chatter' and of course 'gossip', with the pungent flavouring of sexism as an added extra. It seems that chat is limp, directionless, passive. Whoever gets to call something 'chat' has scored a win in a battle.

Let's just stay with this image for a moment. Suppose it is a rhetorical victory. Scored for which side? In a battle against who or what? Well, for a commonsense view of the world that rates objects over practices, things over their descriptions, and facts over the discovery of facts. And that commonsense view, of course, is the high street version of tangled scholars' web of philosophies -- realism, materialism and essentialism. But breathe easy, because I'm not going to get us stuck in that web. All I want to do is point out -- as has long been pointed out before, especially by feminists taking a cool look at 'female language' - that some uses of the word 'chat' betray a very old-fashioned view of language. To call this edition of M/C 'Chat' is to examine that attitude. The editors want to rate practices over objects, descriptions over what they describe, and the act of discovery over what is discovered. Or at least, even if one doesn't all want to go that far, to redress the balance a little in each case.

The attitude the editors want to correct is a rather complacent one. It takes people's exchange of talk as just that; as a means of transmitting what's in one person's head into the head of the other person, more or less. Inefficient, noisy and unreliable, but fixable by technology. This is, of course the 'conduit' metaphor so devastatingly unmasked by Reddy in 1979. But it would be good to see some actual examples of real people really using the word; all this has been rather hypothetical so far. In fact, what we shall find is a bit of a paradox. It turns out, if I can prefigure the action, that when people use the word 'chat' to decribe some stretch of talk, what they want to do (at least in the data I have) is not to sneer at it -- quite the contrary.

But it is nevertheless highly rhetorical. It does a job. The speaker tends to use it to promote a description of a warm, informal and above all blameless event, just when there might be reason to believe that in fact something rather different would be more accurate.

2. How to analyse talk as consequential?

Let me pause for a moment. Soon I shall be doing a quick survey of some examples of actual live usage of the word. I should say, in parenthesis, that M/C offered me the wonderful opportunity of actually having a link to an audio sample of these extracts, and had the data come from public sources (say from talk radio or a political speech) then I would have jumped at the chance. That way you would have been able yourself to catch the flavour of the talk undiluted by transcription conventions and the overwhelming blandness of print. But all the extracts I shall use in the article are from private conversations, the participants in which didn't give permission for their voices to be broadcast, so I'm afraid that opportunity must be passed up.

But given I have transcripts, what now? How to think about language-in-use? Obviously, I have to put my money where my mouth is and treat them not like 'chat' in that demeaning, inconsequential caricature I mentioned at the beginning (and against which this whole issue of M/C is dedicated). What are the broad alternatives available? There are, loosely speaking, two sorts of things one could do, familiar to all students of language. A couple of images will be helpful, if a bit crude.

The first is the pearl necklace. Here, the interesting things about the talk are its content (pearls or ivory pieces?) and its setting (one string? two?). Less fancifully, the interest is in asking: what words, what speakers, what occasion? You can trace that from William Labov and his street-level sociolinguistics (1972), or further back if you want to. What you get is a thorough rejection of the words + settings = chat. You discover, by empirical comparison of what words in what settings, such thorough non-'chat' states of affairs as social location, social discourses and social power.

If the pearl necklace doesn't appeal -- it seems a bit static perhaps -- then how about the origami bird? In its prior life as undistinguished flat sheet of paper it fails to command much attention. It's the transformation that fascinates. You have to fold it up to produce it, and you have to fold it up in a certain way if you don't want it to produce an aeroplane or a hat or just a disaster. The interesting things, of course, are the details (which side do you fold first? where do you tuck?) and how that produces the beautiful end result. Or, less fancifully, the sequential structure of talk in interaction, how one part supports and constrains the next and how a stretch of it achieves social goals (beautiful or otherwise).

Now for the rest of the paper I'm going to try a bit of origami, or rather, some origami-in-reverse. I'm going to try and get across the spirit of Conversation Analysis and, without spraying around too many technical terms (indeed, any, if I can help it) I'm going to take a stretch of talk and see how it folds and tucks together to make it what it is. Doing that will, I hope, show up things about it that might pass unnoticed otherwise). Readers whose fancy is tickled for this sort of thing might well want to have a look at the references at the end of the article to take it all further.

3. Example 1. "about two years ago I came round an':: (..) spent some time chattin' didn't we"

Let's make a start with this case. Here we have an encounter between a psychologist and a person he is about to interview. The interview proper hasn't actually started yet, and we can read the lines below as the interviewer 'working up to' the start of the interview proper. Part of it is to remind MA that the psychologist had seen him before. Notice how the psychologist uses the word 'chatting' to describe that earlier encounter.

In line 11, MR describes his previous encounter as involving "chattin'. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. I know I shouldn't be calling in evidence which the reader can't get hold of, but Mark Rapley, the psychologist involved (and with whom I worked on the analysis; see Rapley and Antaki) pointed to that line and said to me that ('in fact') his previous dealings with MA, far from being 'chatting', had been a formal administration of a questionnaire, with all the paraphernalia of paper and pencil, and strict question and answer rights and obligations, all going down on the record. "Chattin'"?

Calling it "chattin'" obliterates all that in favour of something altogether more homely and friendly. Look at what team of players it's sent out onto the field with: he "came round" (rather, than, say, 'paid an official visit') and "spent some time" (rather than 'completed my business'. They did it together -- hence the "didn't we?" The psychologist was "jus' (..) watchin' what was going on" -- not intervening, merely casually watching the world go by; note also the dropped g's. Now he's back to "see how you were gettin' on" (rather than 'administer a standardised assessment questionnaire'"). What an assembly.

I'm trying to leave off any guess at what the interviewer's intentions or motives are -- we just can't know such things. But we can certainly have something to say about the effects his words give off. The origami structure that emerges from the folding is one of the 'chat' having been an interaction off the record, personal and friendly; all hearably at odds with the business the interviewer is officially prosecuting.

4. Example 2: "what Tim does (.) which is come and chat"

Here is a very similar case, this time in a committee meeting:

Again, I'll briefly gloss the scene (based on the previous talk, and visible in such terms as 'matters arising', the thanks expressed by one speaker to another, and the "we turn to" topic change in line 19/20). A committee meeting is in session, and AC is touting for new names to replace a member who is leaving. Committee membership is, by definition, something that is carefully regulated in standing orders and by convention, and is quite capable of being described in the most off-putting bureaucratic language (as it might be, say, were an errant member being disciplined for some infraction or other, and the thing became legalistic). Here it isn't. How does AC fold it up?

AC in lines 1 to 9 is working up a request for other to nominate candidates to replace Tim Brown (all names are of course pseudonyms). We leave aside consideration of how he folds his talk so as to make the request as he does (rather than, say, deliver it as a petulant blast against his colleagues for not having provided him with any names so far). Our interest is in how the folds involve the description 'chat'. Like the psychologist interviewer in extract [1], AC bundles the 'chat' word into a description of the whole scene -- that the postgraduate representative will "come and chat," and that the interviewer "came round an':: (..)spent some time chattin'".

To bundle up the description with the act of arrival is an elegantly efficient way of implying that this is the person's interest and motive in the interaction -- what they're there for. This way any candidate member can be reassured that the thing is much less onerous, official and formal than it would have sounded had AC used the bureaucratic description buried away in the Committee statutes. 'Chat', in this fold of the talk, works to eliminate the consequentiality and offputtingness of the event -- even though, of course, when the new member is inducted onto the Committee, he or she will be subject to all the dread rules and regulations that lurk in the other, hidden bureaucratic description.

5. Example 3: "we sat and chatted til about eleven"

Here is another case, where, probably because the setting is not as institutional as in the first two, working out what 'chat' is doing will take us a bit more work.

First the gloss. Gordon is on the phone to Danielle and talking about what he was doing the other night - we could dwell a little on his description of his guitar performance ('it went down really well') but we'll skip straight to where "chatted" appears. Unlike the previous two cases, it isn't bundled up with arrival at the scene ("come and chat" and "I came round an':: (..)spent some time chattin'"), but it does still get bundled with something -- sitting -- which parcels it up nicely as a combination-verb, something done while doing something else. Gordon and the others had no plans here; the food and wine had been consumed, then "we sat (0.3) an:' chatted (0.4) til: about eleven".

Now what does such a description do for his then being struck by the thought that he'd go home and 'just phone her' (".hh then I thought (0.3) I'll come back (0.3) an' I'll jus' jus' phone you t'say that uh I'd like t'see you")? It's a magnificent play of accountability -- it holds off a collection of implications which might damage the tender sentiment presumably involved in wanting to tell someone you'd like to see them. Sitting and chatting is (notwithstanding the wine) not being drunk; it's with other people, so it's not sad-sack lonely rumination; still less is it insistent, stalking, recriminative or even violent obsession. Thinking of Danielle after (merely) being with others sitting and chatting till eleven disarms all of those possibilities; as the discursive psychologists have it (Edwards and Potter 1992) , this is a piece of 'stake management'. Gordon is inoculating himself against being seen to have the wrong sort of motivations. 'Chat' here is used as a part of a positive rhetorical strategy to have sentiments, but of the right sort.

6. Example 4: "I said to him, you know, come down 'n have a chat with me"

One last example to see us out. This time we are in a marital counselling session, and the husband's ('Jeff') exams have been part of the topic of conversation, which I will gloss as being about the attention each partner pays to the other. 'Mary' now speaks.

Once again the speaker is exploiting the pleasantly unspecific glow that 'chat' can have. Mary wanted Jeff to come down from 'upstairs' and 'have a chat' with her. Against this she puts words in his mouth: "I've gotta start my revising," and then her own commentary -- it was the same "every ni:ght, (.) for o:hh ye:ars.", regular as clockwork and at decidedly antisocial hours. She "never had anyone to ta:lk to" as a consequence. So the hearer is faced with Jeff's choice -- to come down from upstairs (remote, cold) and have a chat with Mary; or pursue his mechanical, laborious, self-centred and inconsiderate regime. There is, in her description, no contest; hence Jeff comes out looking something of a cold fish. Here is a lovely example of 'chat' once again being a good thing, loading the dice in the speaker's favour.

7. Concluding comments

I started out saying that the word 'chat' was something of an insult. That certainly might apply when the word is used (or might be used, or is allegedly used) in a discussion about human action, and someone who wants to push the 'real', the 'material' and the 'consequential' might use 'chat' to dismiss an opponent who wants words to be responsible for some rather substantial things: reality, materiality and consequentiality.

But there's a nice paradox. When you do take words seriously as doing things, and you look for what 'chat' does in people's actual usage, you find that it isn't an insult. Far from it. In the four cases we looked at the speaker was using 'chat' as a basically pleasant, socially positive and blameless description. Of course, they were doing so for rhetorical purposes, as words always are. But nevertheless there's a paradox there. In the abstract, nasty; in actuality, nice. The one thing that's constant is the fact that, in our analyses, both the hypothetical insulters and our actual glossers are using the word.

In the mouths of both parties 'chat' is an interested description, as the discursive psychologists have it, following the tradition established by Garfinkel and, especially, Harvey Sacks (see, for example, the compendious Lectures on Conversation). It is always heard as a contrast (implicit or not) with something else, and does its work that way. Like it or not, 'chat' is no polite cipher. If you look at how it's folded and manipulated into the interaction, you see how it will smooth a potentially difficult interview, naturalise a possibly unwelcome encounter or set up a loaded distinction againt something mechanical and self-interested. All human life is here. If anyone needed persuading that 'chat' isn't chat, then the examples we've looked at here might have gone some way to doing so.

Author Biography

Charles Antaki