Discover Dialogue: Conversation Analyst Steve Clayman

With assertiveness, we’re looking at the extent to which the question is designed to favor or invite a particular answer. For example, if a journalist asks the president, “Are you going to run for reelection?”—that’s relatively neutral. Another way is to say: “Mr. President, many of your supporters are calling for you to run again. Are you going to run for reelection?” Obviously that question is pushing for a yes answer. Here’s another way: “Mr. President, aren’t you going to run for reelection?” It turns out that anytime you put a negative into the interrogative—“Don’t you think?” “Isn’t it true that . . . ?”—for some strange reason it heavily tilts the answer in favor of yes. So now we can code yes-no questions and ask whether they have linguistic features that tilt them one way or another. In that way, we’ve been able to chart the evolution of more assertive styles of questioning over time. With adversarialness, we’re interested in the extent to which the question contains information that either disagrees with the president or is somehow critical of him, or holds him accountable for his actions. For example, “Mr. President, why did you decide to do such and such?” That’s a mild accountability question. The more adversarial version is “Mr. President, how could you do X?” Obviously, it implies that there is no acceptable explanation. Dwight Eisenhower never got a question like that; that form was virtually nonexistent as a journalistic practice in the 1950s. It’s not common today, but it’s now part of the journalist’s repertoire. —Steve Clayman, interviewed by Alan Burdick —Discover Dialogue: Conversation Analyst Steve Clayman (Discover)