A Sociopragmatic Analysis of Griping: The Case of Iranian Students

| January 9, 2014

January 2006. Volume 1
pp 59 – 76 (PDF version) for academic citation

A Sociopragmatic Analysis of Griping: The Case of Iranian Students

Hamid Allami
Yadz University, Iran

Article: PDF version MS Doc version

Unlike direct complaint, “griping” is a non-face-threatening speech act in which the party or object of complaint is not present. The present study is an attempt to investigate the responses provided for griping in terms of six major categories: 1) topic switch/blank reply, 2) question, 3) contradiction, 4) joking/teasing, 5) advice, 6) agreement/ commiseration. The data has been collected through a ‘Discourse Completion Task’ (DCT) to set up the necessary conditions for the speech act to occur. The findings reveal that in response to griping, Iranian students, most of the time, feel obliged to further conversation and maintain solidarity through the use of the supportive speech act of commiseration. However, they do not support Boxer’s finding that women participate more in troubles-talks than men, or that women mostly commiserate with griping while men contradict or give advice.

Key words: sociolinguistics, pragmatics, speech act theory, non-face-threatening act, griping

Unlike direct complaint which is a face-threatening act (Sauer, 2000; Murphy & Neu, 1996; Olshtain& Weinbach, 1987) through which a speaker makes complaints about someone or something that is present in the speech act event, griping can be described as a non-face-threatening speech act in which the responsible party or object of the complaint is not present during the interaction within which the speech act is performed (D’Amico-Reisner, 1985). Although both direct and indirect complaints have the potential of leading to lengthy interactions between speaker and addressee, it is usually in the indirect complaint or griping that one finds conversational material upon which shared beliefs and attitudes may be expressed (Tatsuki, 2000). As such, the indirect complaint becomes a solidarity-building device since it freely invokes the listener to engage in a series of ‘commiserative responses’ to demonstrate attention and concern, or to maintain intimacy and stable social relationships.

In Australian English, the speech act known as ‘whinging’ seems to be closely related to ‘griping’ and also ‘nagging’. The definition using the Natural Semantic Approach is as follows (Wierzbicka, 1991, p. 181-2):

(a) I say something bad is happening to me.
(b) I feel something bad because of this.
(c) I can’t do anything because of this.
(d) I want someone to know this.
(e) I want someone to do something because of this.
(f) I think no one wants to do anything because of this.
(g) I want to say this many times because of this.

Wierzbicka (1991) deliberately juxtaposes the definitions of ‘complain’ as mentioned earlier, and ‘whinge’ so as to highlight the range of meaning a word, here a verb, can have with respect to the culture in which it has become a part.

According to both Tannen (1990) and Michand & Warner (1997), such commiserative responses frequently serve as back-channels or evaluative responses in an extended structure of discourse exchanges and might invoke expressions like “Oh, that’s horrible!”, “Yeah, I know what you mean”, and “That’s too bad.”

The present study aims to ascertain whether responses to griping by Iranians are in accord with the findings of the current research on griping. This may serve as further evidence to contribute to the universality of the function of griping, or provide evidence to indicate its non-universality.

Review of Related Literature
There is already an extensive literature on the speech act of complaint (Kasper, 1981; Brown & Levinson, 1987; Wierzbicka, 1991; Olshtain & Weinbach, 1993; Laforest, 2002 to cite a few). Searle (1976), in his typology of speech acts, distinguishes between apology and complaint as expressive speech acts, where the former is made to threaten the addressee’s positive-face want (See Brown & Levinson, 1987). Complaint has also been classified as a particular speech act – in reaction to a ‘socially unacceptable act’- to imply severity or directness (Brown & Levinson, 1987). It has been further defined as a speech act to give the speaker a way to express ‘displeasure or annoyance’ as a reaction to a past or on-going action the consequences of which are perceived by the speaker as affecting him unfavorably (Olshtain and Weinbach, 1993).

While direct complaint, as defined by Brown and Levinson (1987), is a face-threatening act, it has been claimed that griping carries no face threat. Furthermore, unlike direct complaint, which is used to call for negotiation, griping is used as a means to invoke commiseration (Edmondson, 1981).

The earliest study on griping (as cited in Boxer, 1993a) was carried out by Katriel (1985) who examined the ritual samples of griping among Israelis. Jefferson & Lee (1981) and Jefferson (1984) studied ‘troubles-telling’ encounters from a conversation analysis point of view. These studies refer to the potential of establishing solidarity through griping.

Bayraktaroglu (1992) in a study on Turkish commiserative responses found griping a common speech act among friends and intimates. He defined it in the following manner:

When one of the speakers informs the other speaker of the existence of a personal problem, the subsequent talk revolves around this trouble for a number of exchanges, forming a unit in the conversation where trouble is the focal point…,[involving] the speaker who initiates it by making his or her trouble in public, the trouble-teller, and the speaker who is on the receiving end, the ‘trouble-recipient’ (p. 319)

Bayraktaroglu also distinguished griping from troubles-talking in that the latter is a type of oral narrative which is initiated by the former.

Boxer (1993a) refers to her previous research in 1991 that showed that griping does not always function as rapport-inspiring speech interactions. She found that approximately 25% of griping sequences serve to distance the interlocutors from one another while 75% of the samples of griping were found to be rapport-inspiring by a group of 10 native English-speaking raters. The study found that speakers of English often employed griping in sequential interaction in an attempt to establish solidarity. Moreover, in this type of negotiation, which brought the interlocutors closer to each other by opening up a more personal side to the relationship, it was found to be a predominantly female phenomenon in the native speaker study.

In a further study, Boxer (1993b) investigated griping in conversations between Japanese learners of English as an L2 and their L1 peers. She found that natives use griping as a positive strategy for establishing points of commonality. She refers to Yamada’s (1989) findings that depict Americans as having a positive orientation towards talk, where talk is seen as a way of better understanding of one another, and resolving problems and difficulties; whereas the Japanese have a negative orientation towards talk where talk is seen as a kind of problem-maker itself. Therefore, the Japanese verbal and nonverbal back channeling behavior seems to be an attempt to avoid the possibility of face-threatening behavior. Further, she mentions that as negative evaluations of the type are frequently employed by Americans to establish solidarity, and in at least some U. S. speech communities they have the potential to open and support conversation, interactions and even relationships. If the Japanese transfer their rules of speaking to English and initially respond to griping with non-commiserative replies, they may well miss the opportunities that can lead to further interaction. She concludes that from what appears in her research, it may be very difficult for Japanese learners of English to establish fertile ground for interaction.

In another study, Boxer (1996) used ethnographic interviews as a way of tapping into the norms of both L1 and L2 communities. She found troubles-telling to be used to further conversation, build relationships, and establish solidarity. She classified the responses to griping into six categories: 1) topic switch, 2) questions, 3) contradiction, 4) joking/teasing, 5) advice/lecture, and 6) commiseration. In that study, Boxer used two sets of interviews, one of which was structured and the other open-ended, to elicit responses to gripings. Her findings reveal that gripings were seen more as a positive way of sharing mutual information and building relationships. She also found that women participated more in troubles-talks than men and were recipients of more indirect complaints because they were seen as more supportive in general than men.

Significance of the Present Research
The present research is an attempt to study the replies Iranian university students make to griping on different personal and interpersonal issues in terms of the six categories mentioned earlier. It is different from the previous studies in that this study tries to discover whether or not the responses on different issues all serve to establish commiseration.

Subjects: The subjects in this study comprised 50 university students – 25 male and 25 female – with a median age of 21 at Shahreza University, Iran. They were randomly selected from an original group of 40 female and 27 male students most of whom were majoring in ‘English Translation’.

Instrument: A DCT questionnaire of twenty items was devised to serve the purposes of the study. The stem of each item provided a griping situation, demanding a reply from the subjects. Each item included six responses (x1, x2, x3, x4, x5, x6) in line with the six categories of griping responses [1) topic switch, 2) questions, 3) contradiction, 4) joking/teasing, 5) advice/lecture and 6) commiseration]. For example:
You meet a classmate at the university. He grumbles;” Did you see what a terrible exam Mr…(a very strict teacher) gave us again?” You say:

a) When is our next exam?
b) What do you think your score will be?
c) It was not a hard exam at all.
d) Couldn’t be easier than that!
e) You should have studied harder!
f) Yeah, it was awful!

Five items (1,4,14,15,19) were griping on different subject matters among friends, five items (3,5,10,12,16) among family members, another five (2,6,7,18,20) on casual matters among strangers and the last five (8, 9, 11, 13, 17) on deeper, more challenging matters (e.g. political) among strangers.

Any student coming into my office would receive the questionnaire and would be requested to fill it out right away (if he were not in a hurry), or take it with him, complete it and bring it back later.

Data analysis: The data obtained was submitted to a 2 by 6 ANOVA. Gender was the first variable to observe as a between-subject factor (gender: 1= male, 2= female). The second variable, griping, was observed as a within-group factor (griping: x1, x2, x3, x4, x5, x6). The result of ANOVA indicates griping to be significant (F 5, 190= 21.09, 0.009) while gender does not seem to play any significant role (F<1). (see table 1)

In order to find which of the griping categories were preferred by the participants, a post hoc test (LSD) was run. (table 2)

Table 2. Post hoc Pair-wise Comparisons among Different Categories of Griping


* The mean difference is significant at the .05 level.

A further analysis of the summed pairs (x1.x2, x3.x5, x4.x6) also indicates that griping is significant (F2, 76=12.123, P=0.002) whereas the interaction of gender is again insignificant (see table, 3).

Table 3. Descriptive Statistics for Griping Categories Combined


Figure 2 simply shows that category pair (x4.x6) is more significant than other pairs.

To gain more insight into the nature of griping, the questions were grouped into four categories in terms of types of conversation such as those between friends, between family members, on casual matters between strangers and on serious matters (e.g. political) between strangers. The results indicate a significant difference between griping categories (F5, 180=21.309, P=0.001). However, the interaction between griping and question types was not significant (F15, 180= 1.351, P=0.176), (see table 4).

Table 4. Descriptive Statistics for Categories with regard to Question Types (QTYPE)

Complaint, by definition, is an expression of dissatisfaction made by one individual to another concerning the behavior of the other, in case of direct complaint, or that of a third party in the case of griping. While the illocutionary force of griping can be said to establish solidarity, its perlocutionary effect may not meet the complainer’s purpose.

The findings of this study suggest a significant difference between replies to griping, indicating that griping is mainly employed for commiseration and less for other purposes such as advice, joking and contradiction. This is in line with Boxer’s claim that griping principally aims at commiseration. The findings reveal that in response to griping, Iranian students, most of the time, feel obliged to make further conversation and maintain solidarity through the supportive speech act of commiseration.

Compared with findings of research on direct complaint (e.g. Kasper, 1981; Brown & Levinson, 1987; Wierzbicka, 1991; Olshtain & Weinbach, 1993; Laforest, 2002), this study, by implication, can serve as a piece of evidence in support of Brown and Levinson’s assumptions that, indeed, there are speech acts, such as griping, that are not only non-face-threatening but rather support seeking.

The findings, however, do not support Boxer’s finding that women participate more in troubles-talks than men, or that women mostly commiserate with griping, but men contradict or give advice. The equal attention paid to griping strategies, by both female and male groups under study with regard to furthering this act, serves to show a strong similarity between them and illustrates how both sexes have mutually assumed at least within certain limits the same reply foremost for maintaining this non-face threatening act.

The findings also indicate that the commiserative response to griping occurs not only within friendly groups but also between strangers to establish, at least, a momentary solidarity based on presumed negative evaluation.

Final Remarks
There are numerous studies investigating the speech act performance of native speakers of different languages. It has become evident in such studies and comparative studies that although the typology of speech acts appears to be universal, their conceptualization and verbalization can vary to a great extent across cultures (Blum-Kulka, House and Kasper, 1989, among others). In other words, speakers of different languages can have access to the same range of speech acts and realization strategies, but they can differ in the strategies they choose. Cross-cultural miscommunication is, thus, a result, not of poor linguistic competency, but a lack of understanding of cultural differences. In this respect, studies within the fields of pragmatics and sociolinguistics can have a tremendous impact on highlighting the potential areas one must look for in order to find out the similarities and differences between language behaviors of peoples from different cultural/linguistic backgrounds. As a result, L2 learners must be aware of L2 sociocultural constraints on speech acts in order to be pragmatically competent.

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