In this blog we will discuss the complexities surrounding the use of particular expressions that are somewhat ‘heavy’ from the point of view of language use.
In interactional ritual theory, these expressions are referred to as RFIEs. Many RFIEs are intrinsically interrelated with speech acts and their use helps us to indicate that certain ritualistic rights and obligations hold for a particular standard situation. Whenever we want to enforce social distancing, we might use conventional RFIEs – most typically ‘sorry’ (articulated as a request rather than as an apology) – to keep other people at a distance. However, as ongoing research by the authors of this blog has revealed, one problem with using these RFIEs is that language users in many linguacultures find them relatively ineffective, because those who are not interested in complying with social distancing requirements often pretend not to understand their implied meaning, or simply ignore standalone ‘sorry-s’ (see ‘Covidiotism’ in this series).
The question therefore emerges: can more powerful RFIEs be used to ‘force’ others to step back and keep their distance? From our research, we have identified that these expressions can be classified into two types.
The first type relates to written expressions: our inquiries have revealed that written signs (printed on T-shirts, held in a person’s hand, attached to a wall, etc.) have a certain degree of pragmatic power simply because they are explicit. An example of this type of RFIE is “1.5 metres”, written in boldface. Under normal circumstances, it would be unclear what this sign is referring to; however, now that governments have enforced social distancing, the vast majority of people are able to discern that this ‘information’ is a direct request to maintain the required distance between one another. The second type of expression includes strongly formulated RFIEs. A typical example is the RFIE ‘sorry’ uttered along with a meaningful cough.
While these RFIEs may not be as direct as using various speech acts, this does not mean that they are any less efficient in enforcing social distancing. In the event that COVID-19 persists for a longer period of time, it remains to be seen whether conventionalised RFIEs will emerge.
The Research featured in the blog was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Momentum Grant (LP2017/5)