8.3 The Collaborative Floor vs. The Single Floor

Having discussed the basic similarities and differences of the panellists and seen how their relationships change during this stretch of talk, we now will look at how these features are actually talked into being through the conversational organisation. We earlier (6.3.1) distinguished between the single floor and the collaborative floor, where the former usually occurs in dyadic conversation and involves regular turn-taking between the interlocutors, and the latter can occur in groups of equals who all feel free to contribute to the discussion, sometimes simultaneously with other speakers. These terms are most useful for the exchange under review here and it is through them that we will now see how the problem of assigning a particular kind of meaning – joke or insult? – to 53 is intimately connected to the nature of the floor. It has also been noted that some observers (Edelsky 1981. Coates, 1997a, 1997b) see the collaborative floor as a chiefly female form of conversation, but we will see here that, at least until the fateful remark in 53, men, too, also use this mode of communication. Of course, it is what is done with such forms that matters, and comments about this will be made in the appropriate place.

BM, as host, nominates the macrotopic of sex in the UK (1). Immediately EM contributes 2, ‘We like that’, which causes laughter. This 2 is then elaborated with RB’s 4, ‘Just talking about it’, before BM returns (5) to further elaborate the topic he started in 1. Though 2 and 4 do not add any great weight to the topic and may even be seen by some as distractions, they are significant utterances for at least two reasons. Firstly, they give immediate notice that the floor is not solely the host’s, and secondly, that such additional contributions need not be strictly referential but can be, if so desired, affective (in this case humorous). That is, the primary function of utterances 2 and 4 is not to directly convey further information about the topic, but to create a jovial atmosphere around it.

In 7.1 the varieties and complexities of contemporary sexual and gender identities were given attention. Clearly such diversity presents itself as a resource for humour, and this proves to be the case here. As BM utters 5 there is again additional comments from RB, this time about the possibility of gender confusion (7) ‘Speak for yourself!’, gender inversion (9) ‘Quite a gal!’, and sexual orientation (11) ‘I’m a queer gal’. Note that BM does not protest that he is being interrupted even though he has still not made his point clearly or fully. Indeed, it is seen in 10 that he actually appreciates these comments – laughing as he repeats RB’s ‘Quite a gal’. Also note that these contributions, like 2 and 4, are primarily made to amuse and, further, are, to use Sherzer’s (1978) term, ‘centripetal’ to the topic of sex introduced in 1. This underlines, then, that the kind of exchange we have here is one that is collaborative, where all present are free to contribute when they wish and to do so in a manner that does not strictly adhere to ‘one-at-a-time’ turn-taking. All of this is a joint effort where meanings are constructed co-operatively, though not necessarily unequivocally.

In fact this co-operation takes on a particular form from 10 onwards as BM and RB work closely together on the microtopic of feminism. Between 10 and 19 BM and RB are so close in their exchanges – aided also by their physical proximity – that they demonstrate some of the key features of Falk’s ‘conversational duet’ (1980). Duetters, says Falk, can show they have the following characteristics: (a) mutual knowledge of the topic, equivalent authority to express that knowledge, and a sense of camaraderie; (b) a shared communicative goal; (c) a mutual audience, and (d) that each of their contributions counts on both their behalves (pp.507-8). Between lines 12 and 16 BM and RB both show: a knowledge of the topic (the specific microtopic here is RB’s political views on women, evidently something also known to BM); an equivalent authority to express such knowledge (it has been established that this is a collaborative floor); a sense of camaraderie (their banter). They both share the communicative goal of establishing RB’s feminist credentials in front of a mutual audience, and what they each say can be seen to also represent what the other is at the same time saying.



You’re much er

women would say you’re much more>



Yes I am I’m



> enlightened than I am






About (0.5) women’s rights

Falk comments that duetting is carried out in such a way that ‘a written version of their [duetters’] resultant in-sequence text would be indistinguishable from that of a single speaker’ (p.507). We see from the transcript that our pair’s utterances could indeed come from a single speaker: ‘Women would say you’re much more enlightened than I am about women’s rights’. Coates notes in her discussion of jointly-constructed utterances that such collaboration ‘demonstrates careful monitoring in terms of semantic, syntactic and also prosodic levels’ (1997a:57). Their following utterances in 17 and 18, ‘Yes’ and ‘OK’, confirm that they have been accurate in their joint construction of meaning.

Some might see this duet as a dominant move by the men, as for its duration they hold the flooor and the women are excluded. Even if this is the case, it is brief: five lines out of the ninety-five in the extract. But it is also worth recalling the point made in 7.2 that men and women both draw on all manner of linguistic resources and here these men are, for reasons of clarification to the others and the studio audience, briefly duetting to establish someone’s footing in relation to the topic. This also involves their prior knowledge of one another – right at the beginning of the show they exchange remarks which demonstrate that they know one another.

Once this element of RB’s identity is established BM presses on with the macrotopic in 21, introducing a new microtopic of page three nudes, which he further develops from 28 onwards with microtopics of ‘Hustler’ (a pornographic magazine) and Margaret Thatcher, the former reference establishing, in his discourse at least, a link between pornography and newspapers (see the discussion on representations in 7.1 for a similar link.). That is, he is questioning the seemingly contradictory nature of representations of women in the UK. In this he is given some support by RB (29) and EM (30). We can also note that the exchanges at this point reaffirm that the floor is a collaborative one – note how JK’s 33 completes BM’s 32 (‘we’ve never come/come close’), for example, and, important for this discussion, also note that a serious topic – sex in this country – is continuously handled in a humorous manner. The (possibly unintentional) source of humour at this point would seem to be BM’s sequential placement of ‘Hustler’ and Margaret Thatcher, this establishing in the studio audience’s discourse an incongruous and humorous coupling to which they respond accordingly (32 [Audience begin tittering]), which once again underlines the importance of the audience in determining meaning. Panel members further contribute with EM’s amused surprise at the pairing (34), LL’s assertion that Thatcher was never on page three (35), and EM’s mock-authoritative confirmation of this in 37 and 41.

Before continuing let us pause here to take stock. It has been established that there is a collaborative floor through which a serious topic has been developed in a largely humorous manner, with the discussants displaying many of the features from Hay’s (2001) list of different types of humour support discussed in 3.1 – contributing more humour (EM in 2, RB in 4, 9,11, 27, LL in 35), echoing speaker’s words (BM in 10), overlap (RB in 4,7,9,11, EM in 41), and a general sense of heightened involvement (LL excepted). The macrotopic of sex in this country invokes the panels’ scripts about sex and related matters, and the free-for-all that follows builds to the collective amusement (initiated by the studio audience) around Thatcher and a pornographic magazine.

This latter mixture of sex and Thatcher is not seen as objectionable by the participants, and this is understandable as in many ways it is not such unfamiliar territory. Thatcher herself on a chat show with Michael Aspel related the story of how as prime minister she received an important dispatch and earnestly remarked: ‘I have the latest red hot figure’ only to find those present collapse into laughter (Alaoui 1991:25-6). Elsewhere she also commented in praise of her Home Secretary William Whitelaw: ‘Every prime minister needs a Willie’. (It is not entirely clear if this play was intended or not, or, indeed, if the utterance is apocryphal. The important fact here is that it is a well-known story.) And in the satirical television puppet show ‘Spitting Image’ she was invariably shown as a man. Ian Hislop, one of the writers on the show, comments in a TV interview:

Mrs Thatcher was undoubtedly the star of ‘Spitting Image’. Her very masculine qualities were played up. [Shot of Thatcher puppet shaving her face in front of mirror] She always wore a suit and smoked cigars and went to the gents loos and was generally incredibly tough (0.5) and much tougher than the rest of her cabinet, who were presented – I think accurately – as a bunch of wimps.
(Wood 2001)

Further, it was common among Tory shire ladies at the peak of Thatcher’s popularity to say that ‘Thatcher is the best man for the job’ or ‘Thatcher is the only man in the cabinet’ and such similar remarks. And Young (1991:615) notes in his biography of Thatcher that in 1984 Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, referred to her as the ‘Iron Man’ of British politics (Cf. the ususal stereotype of ‘The Iron Lady’). That is, humorously (and, indeed, seriously) intended remarks on Thatcher and sex/gender are not unusual, and sometimes have come even from her own mouth. These latter remarks call to mind comments made in 7.1 concerning gender and the polity. Brown stated that politics is ‘more intensely, self-consciously masculine than most other social practices’ (in Duerst-Lahti and Kelly 1995a:24), and Gatens noted that the public sphere has developed in such a way ‘which assumes that its occupants have a male body’ (1992:124). Such views are given greater weight by these observations concerning Thatcher.

As the talk flows further we get more collaboration. Once more RB briefly duets with BM in 42-44 to establish a serious point about page three nudity and a woman prime minister, a point supported by EM in 45. We then get the triple request from three non-British panellists for an explanation of this seeming contradiction. JK’s answer in 50-1 (which recognises a multiplicity of female identities) receives two responses; the first is unequivocally supportive – EM’s 52 ‘There you go’ – and as such continues the collaborative floor. But the other is RB’s 53, which leads to a turning point in this exchange, not simply because it is unequivocally lacking in support or directly hostile, but as much because of its equivocal and indirect nature. From one perspective it can be seen to continue the free-for-all nature of the floor up to that point: it is delivered with a set-up nominating Margaret Thatcher followed by a comedian’s pause for effect in 54 (1.0), which is followed immediately by the punch line accompanied by exaggerated facial expression and gestures – the wry smile, the shrug of the shoulders etc (54-5). Such ‘contextualisation cues’ (Gumperz 1982) can be seen to be delivered in what Bateson would call ‘a play frame’. That is, just as Bateson observed monkeys playing in such a way that ‘the playful nip denotes the bite but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite’ (1972:180), here the manner of delivery (by a professional comedian who has written a book on how to be one) can be seen as a paralinguistic metastatement: ‘This is a joke’. (More on reflexivity shortly.) The majority response of both the studio audience and the panel (including JK) is one of amusement, and, given the crucial determining role an audience’s response has for humour, it is for many simply a continuation of the joking cooperative work. It is also coherent in that it obviously develops the subtopics of Thatcher and sex/gender.

But there are also sound reasons for seeing it as a negative development in the conversation. In the discussion of gender and humour in 7.3, Craword and Gressley (1991:228) found that men showed a preference for formulaic joke-telling, and women for telling stories and anecdotes, which we can reformulate here as men having a more competitive and aggressive style in their use of humour. Victoria Wood (in Hind 1991:93) added some support to this when she said she believes men use humour more to attack than to communicate. Thus RB’s reversion to a rather formulaic delivery of his 53 in the midst of a free-flowing collaboration can be seen as formally disruptive. More to the point, it is not simply a linguistic choice of words designed to amuse. We saw in 4.2 how such choices can involve ‘a hierarchy of acts’ (van Dijk 1995:5) and how language is a vehicle for ideology. Here with this seemingly simple comment RB deliberately overrides a person’s obvious biological identity with the dominant gender identity of politicians to make an ideologically-loaded rhetorical point about the limits of women’s potential. His is a deliberate misrepresentation of a woman as a man based on the premise that women cannot be great political leaders. (In 56 he demonstrates that he knows her sex: ‘I don’t think she qualifies’, but at the same instant denies certain possibilities to her gender.) This once again brings to mind the comments made in 7.1 concerning politics being a male domain, particlurly Jones’ observation that women in such positions are faced with a double bind: if they are perceived as feminine they risk losing authority, and if they are perceived as masculine they risk social disapprobation (1993:103). It seems to be the latter which is is the heart of RB’s 53.

However, the host, who is, recall, the mediator between all the layers of the audience, is not amused by the remark and explicitly condemns it as ‘sexist’ (59). This serious accusation from someone who has played a significant role in the construction of RB as ‘enlightened’ and ‘outspoken in the cause of feminism’ is a complete reversal of attitude and this, in terms of conversational organisation, marks an end to the general collaborative floor. For the rest of the extract RB would seem to be on his own but the others (with the exception of LL) still do some work together against RB; JK in 61, for example, immediately lends support to BM with her ‘You tell him’. BM pursues his charge (62,64,66) in answer to which RB chooses not to indicate that the majority response of amusement would seem to confirm his assertion in 60 that his comment was a joke, but instead attempts an explanation in 67: Thatcher was a man not because she was strong but because she was mean. EM and JK reject this simultaneously (68 and 69) and JK adds the admonishment ‘Shame’ (69). It is easy to see why RB’s defence is rejected in this manner. He seems to believe that substituting ‘mean’ for ‘strong’ has some genuine explanatory force, whereas it is received as just another crude example of a gender characteristic from one side of some simplistic binary opposition (as discussed in 7.1). Jones identified (also in 7.1) what she saw as some of the essential traits needed by a public figure of authority: official, knowledgeable, decisive, and compelling (1993:103-5). Mean is not among them.

This admonishment of RB triggers another change in the floor and this change, too, hinges on political diversity. The collapse of the collaborative floor after 59 was brought about by an overt disagreement about gender politics. Now after 69 we see another change, this one brought about by overt party political differences. (We will see, though, that the politics of gender dominance are also still at work to some degree in this confrontation.)

In response to JK’s admonishment RB becomes excited and directs all his attention on her. His position is not now one of defence but one of attack through which he aims to establish a justification for his joke. His attitude, it was noted above, is one of aggression. Though masked in mock anger (he is an actor and comedian) it is clear that he is also genuinely angry too; for example, he has difficulty controlling his facial expression. A significant move in terms of the floor is that, whereas earlier he had happily duetted with BM to construct the image of himself as feminist, he now firmly excludes BM from the floor with what Moerman (1988:21) would call an ‘obliterative’ interruption in 80. (Moerman notes such interruptions are obliterative socially not simply acoustically.) In doing this RB maintains the dyad he seeks with JK (this might be called a ‘duel’ as opposed to a ‘duet’) and in 83 obtains the ‘admission’ that his cross-examination has sought in order, in his terms, to justify his joke. His thanks (84) can be seen as an act of magnanimity and, for him only, a kind of closure. However, it is clear that to get himself to this position (which he seems to see as one of safety) he has had to physically and verbally dominate anyone who opposed his sexist views, casting aside any masquerade of feminism and cooperation he had previously had.

One more comment here. Scott & Lyman, borrowing from Austin’s work on excuses, broadly divide accounts into two types: justifications and excuses. Justifications are ‘accounts in which one accepts responsibility for the act in question, but denies the pejorative quality associated with it.’ Excuses are ‘accounts in which one admits that the act in question is bad, wrong, or inappropriate but denies full responsibility’ (1968:47). From the exchanges it is perhaps possible to conclude that RB believes he has justified his 53 – ‘I said it but there was nothing wrong in it’, whereas the other interlocutors may well feel that his offerings at this point have been mere excuses – ‘Being a purported feminist, I know it was wrong to say such a thing but I’ll wriggle out of the responsibility by changing the subject’. As Perinbanayagam notes, ‘Accounts are signs that indicate self, and the contents of accounts…allow that self to be read by others’ (1991:127).

However, for every argument there is a counter-argument and JK continues her praise of Thatcher (86>), which seems to take place on two floors. As she praises Thatcher she receives sarcastic snipes from RB (87) and this can be seen to continue their dyad, and at the same time BM responds with a supportive comment (88), which can be seen as a continuation of the collaborative floor BM, JK, and EM have maintained throughout. That is, her remarks are addressed to the discussants generally but in practice, given that there has been a division among them, they are responded to on one floor with sarcasm (RB), and on another with support (BM). A strong indicator that RB is at this juncture outside the shared floor is the fact that in 90 he makes yet another comment which misattributes gender to a powerful female politician (Madeleine Albright was the then US Secretary of State) and this is studiously ignored both as a joke (no-one laughs) and as an insult (no-one chides him). Instead it is cleverly used by EM as the starting point of a new microtopic of women in politics.

Thus in the 95 lines/ 2 minutes of this multiparty talk we see how the nature of the floor is changed by certain sequences (59 is formative in the change from generally collaborative to RB exclusive, for example) and how these changes in turn shape the subsequent sequences (the dyad from 70 onwards is the necessary ground for a cross-examination). We can illustrate these changes diagrammatically.

The collaborative floor up to line 59

Fig.12. The collaborative floor up to line 59

The change in the floor after line 59

Fig. 13. The change in the floor after 59

The RB-JK dyad from line 70- 84

Fig.14. The RB-JK dyad from 70-84 (BM excluded)


8 Humour in Context: The Thatcher Joke>

8.1 The Performers, the Audience and Space>

8.2 The Discussants>

8.3 The Collaborative Floor vs The Single Floor

8.4 Negotiating The Serious Import of Humour>

8.5 Two Psychological Perspectives on Joking>

8.6 Preference>

8.7 Politeness>