“can you tell me how to get there?”: Naturally-occurring versus role-play data in direction-giving

Jennifer D. Ewald


This study takes up the current debate on natural versus elicited data in investigations on speech acts by comparing both types of data in a particular context, that of asking for and giving driving directions. An analysis of route-descriptions offered by male and female direction-givers in both natural and role-play settings revealed only one statistically significant sex-related difference: More male than female participants included mileage estimates in the natural setting but not in the role-play setting. However, when male and female participants’ responses were combined to compare natural with role-play direction-giving, the role-play participants exhibited several significantly different linguistic behaviors in terms of their use of verbal devices (e.g., landmarks, mileage estimates, stoplight estimates) throughout the interactional phases. Direction-givers, when acting in an authentic context that carries real-world consequences, unanimously recognized an indirect request for directions while the direction-givers in the role-play setting generally did not. Additionally, this study revealed that the cognitive behaviors and the conventionalization evident in “natural” direction-giving were lacking in the role-play exchanges. Finally, the role-play participants were generally more aware of their role as research participants than as direction-givers, an awareness that affected their linguistic behaviors.

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