April 09, 2007

Speaking on behalf...

Some close partners and friends say that they know each other so well that when one of them starts a sentence, the other one can finish it. I don't know about you but this strikes me as dangerous. Even though in some ways it can be considered cooperative behavior, it always irritates me when it happens to me. Even more dangerous, though, is when one person speaks on behalf of another, as though they represent that person fully.

This "speaking on behalf" phenomenon has been around a long time and it has been noticed by discourse analysts. Deborah Schiffrin calls it "speaking for another" and Deborah Tannen's term for it is "ventriloquizing." Erving Goffman pointed out that when one person speaks on behalf of another, that person becomes the "animator"for the other person and  seizes that person's conversational role. A more common term for this might be "butting in." Whatever we call it, it's so common that we often don't even notice as it happens. Depending on the context and circumstances,we often don't even correct it when it's slightly off -- sometimes even when it's way off. And when "speaking on behalf" happens in covertly tape-recorded conversations in criminal cases, targets who don't bother to correct the undercover agents who highjack their turns of talk can find themselves in a heap of trouble. Institutionally sanctioned rules of conversation sometimes permit "speaking on behalf," as when a parents speak on behalf of their children or when translators speak on behalf of non-native speakers. But in most conversations participant alignments are related to the way the participants position themselves relative to each other, as Goffman put it.

A classic example of "speaking on behalf" occurred in the Abscam case of a New Jersey gaming commissioner, Kenneth McDonald. In this case that took place in the early 1980s, an undercover FBI agent had already co-opted a New Jersey mayor in a bribery plot. The mayor then told the agent that he knew how he could bribe a gaming commissioner to get his favorable vote on a new casino project that the mayor and the agent were planning. One evening the mayor invited McDonald to go to dinner with him at a downtown restaurant. McDonald's wife had recently died and he thought  some company might do him some good, so he agreed. On their way the mayor said he had to stop and pick something up at an office and he asked McDonald to come in with him. That "something" the mayor was to pick up turned out to be a briefcase full of cash. The FBI agent, who was unaware that the mayor had neglected to tell McDonald anything about the bribery scheme, tried hard to involve McDonald in the video-taped conversation.

The video shows McDonald standing on the far side of the room, looking out the window and reviewing his appointment book while most of the conversation between the mayor and the agent took place a few yards away at the agent's desk, where McDonald couldn't see the contents of the briefcase. The agent seemed perplexed by McDonald's distancing himself physically if, as the mayor told him, he was actually in on the scheme. So he tried to bring McDonald into the conversation, which had been vague, unspecific, and guarded. Finally, the agent turned directly to McDonald (still on the far side of the room) and the following exchange took place:

Agent:I hope, Ken, that there won't be any problem with you---

Mayor (interrupting and speaking on behalf of McDonald): No, there's no problem.

Agent (finishing his interrupted turn of talk): --- licensing or anything in, uh, Atlantic City as a result of this.

Mayor (answering on behalf ofMcDonald): Okeydokey, in regards to licensing, if I may just bring that point out, just recently I talked to him on the phone, so there's no question about that. You're in first place.

The mayor's indexicals, "him" and "that," apparently were not specific enough to attract McDonald's attention. It should also be noted that McDonald could have interpreted the mayor's "him" to refer to someone else. One might have expected the mayor to use McDonald's name here. When it was time to leave, the agent tried to involve McDonald once more:

Agent:Thank you very much, Ken.

McDonald: Good to see you and I'm sure---

Mayor (interrupting and speaking on behalf of McDonald): I'm sure we'll do alright, huh?

Agent: I don't---

Mayor (interrupting the agent this time): Won't be any problems.

Agent: No problems?

Mayor: No problems.

McDonald: I'm, I have nothing to do with that.

Throughout this conversation, McDonald tried politely to disalign himself from them physically by staying out of their conversation and enduring the mayor's speaking on his behalf. But, even though he denied having anything to do with whatever they were talking about, he was indicted and was facing bribery charges when he suddenly died a few weeks before his trial was to begin.

I like to think that this would have been a winnable case for McDonald. Besides being an example of the "speaking on behalf" conversational strategy, this event suggests that people, including prosecutors, should pay attention to blocking strategies like this one as they evaluate the evidence in cases like this.

Postscript: More information about several other powerful conversational strategies used by undercover agents and cooperating witnesses can be found in my book, Creating Language Crimes, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 9, 2007 08:29 PM