Seconds to troubles talk: the case of radio counselling

Draft paper prepared for "Language and Therapeutic Interaction: International Conference in Discourse Analysis and Conversation Analysis", Brunel University, Uxbridge 30-31 August 2001

By Paul ten Have©, University of Amsterdam

The problem

On many occasions, people talk about their troubles. This may take the format of a report, a passing remark, a question, a request, or whatever. I will, for now, call such talk 'a first' and want to consider the problems such 'firsts' present to their recipients, who are under some pressure to produce a 'second' to it. There is a range of possibilities for 'seconds', but they may not be received by the troubles teller equally well. Indeed, earlier reports by Gail Jefferson and John Lee (1981), suggest that quite often troubles tellers display their dissatisfaction with the 'seconds' they receive to their 'firsts'. Furthermore, they have indicated that these displays may be related to the overall format of the talk between the parties and the contexts in which it happens and/or which is constituted in and through those formats. Jefferson (1988) has specifically mentioned a tension between conversational 'business as usual' and trouble telling per se, while in her paper with Lee the focus is on a tensions between the formats of Troubles Telling and a 'service encounter'. In earlier work (1987, 1989), I have investigated similar phenomena within a medical context, i.e. general practice consultations. In those texts, I have suggested a triple tension between the formats of a Troubles Telling, that of a service encounter as typical of the GP consultation, and what I call Therapy Talk, i.e. talk designed to change the client's perspective.

So any troubles-telling recipient may find it difficult to produce the 'right' reaction to what he or she hears. Agreements may sound phony, advice may well be rejected and 'second stories' be seen as de-focussing the plight of the teller, turning attention to oneself. But professionals who are functionally troubles-telling recipients, have their own kinds of difficulties, because their responses may be seen as 'just' part of their routine, rather than being uniquely triggered by the details of the case at hand. They are to sound reasonably concerned, but not too much, since they are expected to be used to hear about troubles and they have to do some institutional job 'on' the troubles-telling.

In this paper, I want to examine the troubles-telling recipient reactions in a particular kind of situation, a radio phone-in program. Here, the host is a professional, but not in the sense of having special competences as regards the troubles that are reported to her, at least that was not the case in the program from which I will discuss an example. She did not have any special professional training, as in social work or medicine, although she was coached for a few months, when the program started. That was stopped, however, because it proved to be a hindrance rather than a support for her major quality, her ability to act and speak spontaneously about a range of matters, including sexual ones (2). What I want to do, then, is to analyse the 'seconds' to the 'firsts' produced by the callers as they told her about their 'problems with sex and relations'.

A younger boy friend (3)

In the case I want to consider here [The transcript is available in a separate file], a 16-year old girl requests advice concerning her being pestered by her peers about the fact that she has a boy friend who is two years her junior, 14. The girl formulates her problem in lines 12-21, stating the conditions and ending with a request for advice: can I do something against that? (21). Apart from some continuers, the first substantial reaction of the host is an elaboration request: and why are you being pestered about that? (23). The girl explains that her peers say that such a relationship is 'impossible' (probably meaning unacceptable; 24-5). The host again produces an elaboration request: and why is that impossible? (27). And again the girl reports on her peers' saying and thinking: a girl who's sixteen is much more serious (29). In other words, the girl is subjected to peer group control concerning what is seen as an unfitting categorical combination, an older girl with a younger boy, which is supported by a generalized categorical predicate in terms of 'being serious'. In fact, structures like this were quite common in the program: callers complaining about third parties' restricted acceptance of unusual categorical combinations and/or requirements for particular categorical predicates (4).

Then, the host produces a challenge to these opinions: and is that the case? (31). This challenge can be taken to refer to general ideas or to the case at hand. The girl takes it in the latter sense: well I am rather childish myself so that is not completely right (32). So she does not explicitly reject her peers' opinion in general. The host, however, reformulates peer opinions in general terms: they think that you uh that a girl must have a boyfriend who is older (33), which is confirmed by the girl (34). The host then produces a flat negation of the validity of that peer opinion: well that is nonsense of course isn't it? (35). What we see here, then, is that the two parties locate the problem on different levels, with the caller taking the individual, concrete level, and the host arguing at a general, 'ideological' or 'cultural' plane, taking up the argument at the level at which the peers have used it, according to the girl. By undercutting the general normative opinion, the host supports the girl in her individual deviation from it. The girl, however, continues at the individual level, accounting for her disagreement with the norm on the basis of her love for her boyfriend (36-7). The host supports this by supposing he loves her as well (38), which the girl confirms, although in a hedged manner: yes according to him he is (39).

Then the host produces her first 'advice': well I wouldn't be concerned about that at all (40), following it up after a doubtful no? from the girl (41), with a confirmation: not at all, and an account referring back to her earlier validity negation: because it is uh really nonsense it is nonsense that a boy should be older than a girl (42-3). So in her individualized advice, it is still the general argument that accounts for it. The girl, however, returns to her own case, by mentioning her personal nervous-ness (44), which she elaborates as a general propensity she has (44-50), worsened by her being in an examination period at school (52-3), so that the nagging of her peers is just too much (55-7). The host has supported this elaboration with continuers and a why-request (47). Then she upgrades her advice from 'being indifferent' to telling the peers to stop their nagging (59-60). The girl reports that she has already done so (61), but without any effect (63-4). Then the host asks whether the girl has anyone to support her (65-6). One might say that the girl has depicted her situation as being weak (nervous), and the peers as strong (nagging, indifferent to her plea to stop). In that sense the host's inquiry is a logical next step. The girl reports that she has indeed the support of a girl friend (67-70), but that even together they are too weak (72).

The next move by the host is to put the girl's membership of the sports club into question: but is it so bad that you say I have to leave it finally? (73). The girl, however, reacts to the first part, the is it so bad, by again stressing her nervous reaction to the nagging (74-6), in so doing effectively escaping the dilemma of staying on or leaving the club (5). The host at least temporarily follows this by invoking the support the caller gets from her girl friend (77). The host then starts another line of advise about what the girl could say to her peers: ah you should just say to them like uh look maybe that that you (ye-) (79-80) which she, however, breaks off (6), in order to return to her previous dismissal of the general norm (80-1), but this time adding an element that the girl herself has brought in (in line 32, 34), the acceptability of a categorical combination depends on personal characteristics: it just depends on how you are (83). This is followed by another statement to the effect that their opinion is irrelevant in that they don't have the right to prescribe the girl's choice of a boy friend: and that is further none of their business (86). The girl, however, ignores these remarks and expresses instead her anxiety to lose her boy friend: well so I don't want to lose him (87).

The host, in turn, ignores this expression, and seems to pick up the line she broke off in line 80, by suggesting that the girl could accuse her peers that they may be jealous of her (88, 90). The girl 'accepts' this in a seemingly surprised, slightly laughing manner (89). As a substantiation, the host inquires whether the peers have boy friends themselves (91), to which the girl gives a mixed answer (92), which is then used as a 'proof' of the jealousy thesis by the host (93). This works not only as an argument the girl could use in her conflict with the peers, but also as a debunking of their use of the general categorical argument.

The girl, however, starts a new thread (line 94), about a girl who continuously tries to flirt with her boy friend (94-5), which, although her boy friend puts the other girl off (97, 99), makes her jealous (101) and apparently insecure (104), although her boy friend reassures her (101-2). The host reacts to this story (apart from some continuers) with a suggestion that she might beat up that girl (105) to relieve herself (107). Again, the girls reception of this suggestion is a half-hearted, laughing: j(h)a (h) (h). The host pursues her suggestion by asking whether she would dare to do this (109) and mentioning that they, the peers, might be startled by such a move from her (111).

Then the host asks whether the girl's parents know about it (114) (7), which is not the case (115). The host does not comment on that but accounts for her inquiry by pointing out that her parents might also say to her that she shouldn't be so much bothered by the opinions of the peers (116-7), affirming that that is the point of the whole issue: because I think that is what you need (118). Then she immediately adds the alternative that was mentioned but ignored before (in line 73), leaving the field: and if you are really saying well uh I can't stand it this is so annoying then I would just seek another club (120-1). So the girl is confronted with a dilemma, either face up to the situation or leave the club. She immediately rejects the latter alternative: yes but so I don't want to drop that club I have been a member for so long (122-3). The host then formulates the consequence of this choice: well then you really just have to ignore it totally it is difficult but don't meddle with those girls and stick to your girl friend and uh just bark at them (124-6). And, after a yes from the caller (127), she adds another evocation of her overall judgement: because it is really nonsense nonsense nonsense (128). From the girl's clear rejection of the latter option in the dilemma, the host construct a necessity for her to face up to the nagging peers, which, supported by the nonsense position, sums up her overall assessment of the case.

The girl produces two times what sounds like a weak agreement (127, 129), and then, following the nonsense statement, formulates a tentative 'conclusion' of her own: so I can just keep it up with him? (130). This comes a bit as a surprise, since she has not as yet mentioned 'breaking up' as an alternative. In any case, she immediately gets a strongly supportive statement from the host, rejecting this implied option: yes of course of course who would have to order you what you yourself are feeling? (131-2), followed by: when you like it with him and you are crazy about him well then then nobody can say to you that you have to breakup with him only you (134-6). The girl, however, adds another invocation of her misery (137-9). The host then repeats that the others have nothing to do with it (141), that the girl should be happy with her boy friend (142), and that the peers may suffer from hardships themselves (143) (8).

With that post-conclusion, closing is now achieved in a few fast exchanges (145-9): yes / yes? / thank you very much / take heart / bye / bye; and then the music returns the listeners to the program.

Sequential organization

The progressions of the conversation can be described as a series of more of less connected sequences. The varied connectedness makes their distinction a bit arbitrary, of course, partly based of form, partly on content (9). The first sequence (after the preliminary) is concerned with the problem presentation (11-21): opened by an invitation by the host (11), followed by a tightly organized summary by the caller (12-21), ending in an explicit request for advice (21); it is supported by three yes-continuers from the host (14, 16, 20). The second and third sequences (23-6; 27-30) offer elaborations of the problem, initiated by two why-questions from the host (23, 27) and reports on the peers' opinions from the caller (24-5, 28-29). These opinions are concerned with categorical combinations and predicates on the basis of which the caller's choice of a boy friend is rejected by the peers. Sequence #4 (31-2) is concerned with the relevance of these opinions, which the caller at least in part denies (31-32). The fifth sequence (33-9) continues that theme, starting with a generalized formulation of peer opinions by the host (33), confirmed by the caller (34), followed by an outright rejection by the host (35), at which the caller expresses her unwillingness to conform to the peers' preferences because of her love of her boy friend (36-7), which the host supports by suggesting its reciprocity (38), which the caller confirms in a hedged manner (39). Sequence #6 (40-3) starts with the host's first advice, not to be concerned about it (40), accounted for in terms of the nonsense status of peer opinions (42-3) after a rather doubtful reception from the caller (41). The caller, in reaction to this advice, and in a sense accounting for her weak acceptance of it, starts a new thread by mentioning her nervousness, which is elaborated at some length, constituting sequence #7 (44-57). Next, in sequence #8 (59-64), the host reworks her advice in a more active mode, i.e. what the caller could do (59-60), which she caller reports to have done already (61), but without success (63-4). In sequence #9 (65-72) the host inquires about any girl friends at the sports club (65-6), which the caller has indeed (67-8), one who supports her (70), but which all the same is not enough (71). A less coherent sequence (#10, 73-8) starts with the host asking whether it is so bad that she would consider leaving the club (73), the caller does not take up that option but reports on flooding out (74-6), possibly triggered by 'bad'. The host adds a kind of cheer-up by mentioning the support of her girl friend (77). In the next sequence (#11, 79-87), the host reworks some of her earlier suggestions, with repeated arguments, to which the caller reacts with weakly committing yes-responses (81, 85). Then she mentions that she doesn't want to lose her boy friend (87). The host does not react to that, but continues her advice by suggesting that she might call her peers jealous, which starts sequence #12 (88-93). When that is finished, the caller brings up another complaint (#13, 94-104), another girl who tries to flirt with her boy friend (94-5), making her jealous (101-4). The host offers the suggestion (#14, 105-13) that she might wallop that girl (105), which the caller seems to take as a sort of joke (106, 108), but to which she does not commit herself (110). Next (#15, 114-9), the host brings up the caller's parents (114), who could also tell her not to be concerned about the peers (116-7). The parents, however, are not informed about the case (115), so this sequence returns to another version of the general advice not to be concerned (117-9). From this, the host continues (#16, 120-3) to reiterate her earlier (73), then ignored, suggestion that the caller has the option to leave the club (120-1). This option is the firmly rejected by the caller (122-3). This allows the host to confront the caller with the consequences of this choice to stay on (#17, 124-9): ignore the peers (124-5), stick to her girl friend, and bark at the peers (126). This gets some hardly committing yes-acceptances (127, 129). Sequence #18 (130-6) takes off as the caller comes up with another problem formulation, formatted as a request for advice: whether she can continue her relationship (130). This gets a strongly formulated confirmation from the host, stressing the caller's full autonomy in this regard (131-6). The caller, however, starts yet another compliant sequence (#19, 137-44), recounting her flooding-out experiences (137-9). The host then provides a kind of summary encouragement stressing the irrelevance of the peers (141), the caller's good relationship (142) and the others' possible misery (143), getting another yes-response (144). By asking for a confirmation of this 'agreement' (145), the host then initiates what turns out to be the final sequence, the closing (#20, 145-9), getting a thank-you (146), offering a take-heart (147), and ending with greetings.

We can construct the situation as involving three parties, the host, the pair and the peers. The caller, as a member of the pair who is attacked by the peers, requests support from the host. The boy friend, as the other in the pair, plays a remarkably minor role in the conversation. The host produces a series of 'seconds' to the 'firsts' as voiced by the caller. Apart from continuers and minor inquiries, the host's seconds at first address the problem presentation through elaboration requests (23, 27), then by preparing and taking a stand at the 'ideological' level (31, 33, 35), which she continues to do throughout the conversation (42-3, 80, 82-3, 128). Concomitant types of response concern the idea that the caller's choices are not the business of the peers (86, 135-6, 141), but only of the caller and her boy friend (131-2, 134-6, 142), that therefore the caller should not be concerned about it (40, 117, 119, 124), and that she should tell them to stop (59-60), that they are probably jealous (88, 90-1, 93), talk them off (79-84) or even wallop one girl (105-11) or just leave them alone (125). In addition to those remarks, she inquires about the possibilities of local support (65-6, 114), which she encourages (77, 126), and she also raises alternative options, i.e. leaving the field (73, 120-1). So the host uses her 'seconds' so as to redress the balance between the girl and her peers in a number of ways, downgrading the peers and their arguments, encouraging the caller and her choices, and stimulating her to use her own forces and local support.


From the literature that I mentioned in the introduction, especially Jefferson and Lee (1981), it appears that talking about troubles is an activity type that is liable to run into difficulties of various kinds, including 'interactional asynchrony', 'activity contamination', and perhaps something like 'activity competition'. In the materials from the program that is used in this paper, such difficulties occur quite often. In the case analyzed in this paper, the core activity is at first formatted as requesting/providing advice. Such a format might lead to the expectation that the conversation might follow a progression like opening > request > explanation > advice > acceptance > closing. What we get, however, is something more complicated.

The fist 6 sequences, as marked in the transcript, lines 12-43, run quite straightforward. But then, in line 44, the caller evokes her nervousness, just after the major advice has been given and confirmed, i.e. a moment at which the transaction could have been over, and closing initiated. This turns the interaction for a number of turns into a 'pure' troubles telling, as happens a few times more before the closing, starting at lines 74, 94, and 137; one could even see her expression of fear in line 87 as belonging to this class. These cases of activity contamination or competition do not get too many troubles telling relevant responses from the host. On most occasions she produces some continuers and when the troubles are told, she resumes her efforts to produce advice-related items (cf. lines 59, 105, and to a certain extent 141). In line 77, however, she does provide some consolation by invoking the support the caller gets from her girl friend. In other words, the host tends to abstain from active participation in the troubles talk that the caller initiates; she mostly just waits it out. If we accept that at line 44, closing could have been initiated, then the troubles talk, often in the form of a flooding-out report, works to put off the closing and lengthen the conversation.

What happened in sequence #6 is that the advice only gets a non-committal reception from the caller no? (41), her next utterance being the start of the nervousness report (#7, lines 44-57). This report can, in this context, be seen as a rejection of the advice, in that the caller makes it clear that she is too weak, i.e. nervous, to act on it. The host then advices her to tell the peers to stop, but she reports that she has done this, but failed - another rejection (#8, lines 59-64). Next, the host inquires about local support, any girlfriends (65), which is available but not sufficient - still another rejection (#9, lines 65-72). Then the host mentions the option to leave the club, but its introduction triggers a second troubles telling episode, with the host offering her only consolation (#10, 73-8, at 77). By ignoring the suggested option, the caller in fact rejects it. The rather desperate and a bit confused sounding summary of her previous advice, that the host produces next (79-86), gets non-committal continuers and what I see as an expression of fear: so I don't want to lose him (87) - so again a de facto rejection (#11). The next advice, to accuse the peers of jealous motives, is not taken very seriously (#12, 88-93). Next, and possibly triggered by 'jealousy', the caller goes into another troubles telling, about a would-be competitor (#13, 94-104), expressing again her general inability to cope. The host then suggests she could wallop that girl, which again is not taken very seriously (#14, 105-13). So the caller continues to withhold acceptance of advice, and therefore wards off closing.

The host now inquires about the caller's parents, but again without a positive uptake. It allows her, however, to add a kind of summarizing statement, which has a pre-closing suggestion (#15, 114-9). Next, the host repeats her earlier ignored option to leave the club, which is now rejected immediately and explicitly (#16, 120-3). From this firm stand, the host now is able to summarize her previously given advice, including the caller's local support (#17, 124-9). At this, the caller, for the first time, shows a willingness to draw conclusions: so I can just keep it up with him?, which is emphatically supported, while at the same time putting all responsibility on the caller herself (#18, 130-6). Then the caller goes into a last troubles telling, which now gets a fuller response which denies the peers' right to interfere, encourages her to enjoy her relationship and suggests again that the peers may suffer hardships themselves (#19, 137-44). It is this, slightly more emotional encouragement, that leads to a fast closing (#20, 145-9).

So when we inspect the part of the conversation that follows the first possibly acceptable advice, we can see it as a kind of negotiation about the caller's full acceptance, and therefore of a closing. The caller can bring in her suffering, demonstrate her weakness and the strength of her opponents, but she cannot deny that she has at least some local support, and that she does not suffer so much that she is willing to give up her club membership. The host, in turn, after rejecting the peers' opinions in the strongest terms, is faced with a caller who fails to accept her advice. She sits out the evocations of suffering, the troubles talk, repeats her advice with some variations and more or less concrete suggestions, and invokes local support. The final acceptance seems to result from summarizing moves on both sides, together with a mild emotional coming together in the final troubles telling sequence.

At the start of the call, the caller has formulated her reason-for-the-call in terms of a request for advice, as was usually done in the program. This projects the possibility to close the call after the production of an acceptable, i.e. workable advice by the host. The format, then, suggests a call-internal close-ability. This constitutes a radical difference from a number of other formats, such as how-are-things calls, pure troubles tellings and some forms of therapy talk. Advice-seekers can put off an early closing by rejecting, or at least not accepting the advice provided so far. Then we see negotiations like the one considered in this paper. From the advisors point of view, a mixture of making the advice more concrete, fitting it better to the personal circumstances of seeker, together with a mildly emotional reciprocity and encouragement might do the job.


2. Further details on the program are available in a separate file with quotes from a 1978 paper on the program.

3. A full transcript of this conversation is given in a separate file, to which the line numbers given below will refer. The start of the call has been discussed in an earlier paper (1999).

4. For some support for this claim, see an earlier paper (1999). The concepts used are, of course, those of Membership Categorization Analysis (cf. Sacks, 1972 a & b; Hester & Eglin, 1997).

5. The suggestion is given again later (120-1), and then rejected by the girl (122-3).

6. The rebuttal that seems to be started here, is taken up again a few turns later (lines 88- 93), and also towards the end (line 143).

7. This question is a bit surprising if one realizes that the preliminary exchange in lines 4-10 suggests that the parents are, in fact, not aware of the is having, or at least, that her daughter wants to keep them unaware of her current call.

8. Which suggests the earlier mentioned jealousy motive (cf. 88-93).

9. I have marked these sequences in the transcripts with # plus number signs, which are also given in the text below.


Have, Paul ten (1978) 'Radio Counselling'. Paper read at the 9th World Congress of Sociology, Uppsala, Sweden, August 1978 Research Committee on the Sociology of Mental Health. [Some quotes from this paper are available in a separate file]

Have, Paul ten (1987) Sequenties en formuleringen; aspecten van de interactionele organisatie van huisartsspreekuurgesprekken [Sequences and formulations: aspects of the interactional organization of general practice consultations]. Dordrecht: Foris

Have, Paul ten (1989) 'The consultation as a genre'. In: B. Torode, ed. Text and Talk as Social Practice. Dordrecht/Providence, R.I.: Foris Publications: 115-35

Have, Paul ten (1999) '"The first call is in, hallo, it's Germaine": Negotiating frames in radio counselling: opening sequences'. Paper for the conference on 'Broadcast Conversations: Interaction in the Media', Roskilde University, Denmark, March 25. - 26. 1999

Hester, Stephen, Peter Eglin, eds. (1997) Culture in action: studies in membership categorization analysis. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America

Jefferson, Gail (1988) 'On the sequential organization of troubles talk in ordinary conversation'. Social Problems 35: 418-41

Jefferson, Gail, J.R.E. Lee, (1981) 'The rejection of advice: managing the problematic convergence of a "TroublesTelling" and a "Service Encounter"', Journal of Pragmatics 5: 399-422

Sacks, Harvey (1972 a) 'An initial investigation of the usability of conversational data for doing sociology'. In: D. Sudnow, ed. Studies in social interaction. New York: Free Press: 31-74

Sacks, Harvey (1972 b) 'On the analyzability of stories by children'. In: J.J. Gumperz, & D. Hymes, ed. Directions in sociolinguistics: the ethnography of communication. New York: Rinehart & Winston: 325-45

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