Misunderstanding as a resource in interaction

Jessica S. Robles


The phenomenon of misunderstanding is a recurrent feature of everyday life – sometimes a source of frustration, sometimes a site of blame. But misunderstandings can also be seen as getting interactants out of (as well as into) trouble. For example, misunderstandings may be produced to deal with disaffiliative implications of ‘not being on the same page,’ and as such they may be deployed as a resource for avoiding trouble. This paper examines misunderstanding as a pragmatic accomplishment, focusing on the uses to which it is put in interactions as a practice for dealing with threats to intersubjectivity: the extent to which persons are aligned in terms of a current referent, activity, assessment, etc. A multimodal discourse analysis of audio and video recordings of naturally-occurring talk inspects moments in which misunderstandings are purported or displayed (rather than overtly invoked) as well as how such misunderstandings are oriented to as simply-repairable references, versus inferential matters more misaligned and potentially fraught. Rather than being a straightforward reflection of an experience of trouble with understanding, misunderstanding may also be collaboratively produced to manage practical challenges to intersubjectivity.

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