Reading time: 8 minutes
Jonathan Culpeper’s paper on the television quiz show The Weakest Link explores how impolite behaviour can be used for entertainment.
The Weakest Link ran in the UK from 2000 to 2012. Culpeper describes it as an ‘exploitative’ show ‘designed to humiliate contestants, not to support or celebrate them as is often the case in standard shows’. The show is designed to maximise the potential for impoliteness (unlike ‘standard’ quiz shows such as University Challenge and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? where hosts are supportive to contestants).
One of the most culturally salient features of the show was the extremely impolite persona of the presenter Anne Robinson. Culpeper points out a number of ways in which this persona (distinguishing it from the ‘real’ Anne Robinson) is impolite to contestants. The focus of the show is on identifying ‘weak links’, ie contestants who are performing poorly. Between rounds of questions, each contestant identifies one other who they think has been performing poorly and the contestant with the most nominations has to leave. Robinson discusses nominations with some of the contestants and is impolite to them while doing so. Culpeper discusses several ways in which she is impolite. These include utterances which imply negative judgments about the contestants and their jobs, mimicry and prosody. Discussion of prosody can focus on pitch, rhythm, tempo, volume and voice quality. Here, Culpeper focuses in particular on pitch movement and stress placement.
In this exchange, Robinson mimics a contestant called Danny:
Danny: a little bit harsh Anne, I live in Solihull now so I’ve moved up
AR: what was wrong with Liverpool
Danny’s pronunciation of the filler eer includes a vowel articulated closer to the front of the mouth than would be produced by a speaker of something approximating ‘Received Pronunciation (RP)’. Robinson responds with an even more fronted vowel. As is often the case with mimicry, Robinson exaggerates features she mimics.
Another example appears in her chat with a contestant called Jay:
Jay: the Australian army trained me
AR: oh. is that why you go up in all your sentences
Robinson asks Jay whether his Australian training explains his use of what is sometimes described as ‘uptalk’ and mimics this by producing marked high rising tones centred on the words up and sentences. Again, her mimicry exaggerates the contestant’s manner of speaking. In fact, Culpeper points out that Jay’s speech does not provide much evidence of uptalk. This does not detract, though, from the opportunity to mimic him.
Robinson uses prosody to be impolite here:
AR: Shaun, you’re a traffic management operative
Shaun: that’s correct
AR: okay, what do you actually do
Shaun: er put traffic cones in in the road
AR: you don’t
Shaun: I do
AR: well what an interesting person you turned out to be
Robinson begins her interaction with Shaun by quoting what we assume is his own description of his job. She then asks him “what do you actually do?” prompting him to use a more everyday description of the relatively mundane task of putting traffic cones in the road. As Culpeper points out, we might assume that Robinson’s utterance “you don’t” is sarcastic even without hearing how she says it. The prosody plays a significant role since it is a form often taken to be ironic. As Culpeper points out, the prosody is also consistent with surprise so contextual assumptions play a role in recognising this (and other) sarcasm.
Robinson’s prosody falls throughout the utterance “well, what an interesting person you turned out to be” in a way which ‘resembles a staircase going down’ and so ‘seems to signal boredom’. The earlier utterance (“you don’t”) had prosody consistent with surprise associated with something we assume to be mundane. Here, words which suggest interest are accompanied by prosody suggesting boredom.
These features, and others discussed in the paper, contribute to attacks on the ‘face’ of the contestants. The notion of ‘face’ is key to work on politeness. Culpeper refers here to Helen Spencer-Oatey’s (2002) update of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) ideas on this. She suggests a distinction between ‘quality face’ and ‘social identity face’:
refers to ‘a fundamental desire for people to evaluate us positively in terms of our personal qualities, eg our confidence, abilities, appearance, etc.’
Social Identity Face:
refers to ‘a fundamental desire for people to acknowledge and uphold our social identities and roles, eg as group leader, valued customer, close friend’
Quality face is attacked by features which suggest the contestants are unimportant and have negative qualities. Social identity face is attacked by negative attitudes to their accents or jobs.
Culpeper also considers the idea that our understanding that Robinson is performing a role for the purposes of entertainment might mean that this is not really impolite after all. However, there is clear evidence that contestants do take offence. For example, Danny laughs nervously and looks down after his pronunciation of eer is mocked and another contestant smiles and exhales after a negative implication about his job. Culpeper suggests a distinction between impoliteness which is ‘sanctioned’ and impoliteness which is ‘neutralised’, concluding that the impoliteness here is sanctioned but not neutralised.
Culpeper’s discussion reveals a number of ways in which we can attack each other’s face. This approach can be applied in analysing a wide range of texts and interactions.
This is a digest of the following article: Culpeper, Jonathan. (2005). ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show: The Weakest Link.’ Journal of Politeness Research 1, 35-72.
Using this in teaching and learning
You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.
- Culpeper’s paper discusses other uses of prosody. In particular, he discusses the main catchphrase “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” Classroom discussion could focus on this utterance and consider the contribution to impoliteness of its prosodic form. This might lead on to discussion of other prosodic forms and how they contribute to meanings. Clips and episodes of The Weakest Link are available on the internet. One entire programme is currently available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMs5YNrBvkg This could support students with potential topic areas for their Non-Exam Assessment (Making Connections, A-level).
- Culpeper’s paper could be used to explore ways in which work on politeness has developed since the work of Brown and Levinson (1987), including in the focus on impoliteness as well as politeness. Again, students could explore some of these developments looking at different types of non-literary material for their Non-Exam Assessment (Making Connections, A level). One specific area to focus on could be Spencer-Oatey’s new proposals about the notion of face, intended to replace Brown and Levinson’s account which focused on ‘positive face’ and ‘negative face’. For Brown and Levinson, positive face was about a positive consistent self-image, about this image being appreciated by others, and about wanting our own wants to be desirable to others. Negative face was seen as being about our actions being unimpeded by others. Students could explore the extent to which Spencer-Oatey’s ideas can map on to these two notions. (Culpeper suggests that Spencer-Oatey’s new notions account for aspects of positive face and that ideas about negative face map onto a different notion proposed by Spencer-Oatey: the notion of ‘sociality rights’, which are about ‘entitlements’ that we claim in interactions with others).
- A natural next step would be to look at other kinds of interactions and explore ways in which we aim to be polite or impolite in interacting with others. The ideas developed by Culpeper and others could be explored in any kind of interaction. Students might begin by considering examples from their own interactions, including in classroom discourse. Another possibility would be to look at current quiz shows and other television programmes. Culpeper mentions an example where impoliteness is implicated in an exchange between the hosts Ant and Dec on the programme Pop Idol:
Ant: Our judges have been accused of being ill-informed, opinionated and rude.
Dec: We’d like to set the record straight: our judges are not ill-informed.
In discussing other examples, students might consider how other approaches they have considered are relevant here. Dec’s utterance here could be explained with reference to how pragmatic theories account for implicit communication.
- Ideas about politeness and impoliteness can also be useful in looking at literary texts on the AQA specifications. For example, students could look at ways in which speakers in the poetry of Donne or Browning use politeness strategies (Poetic voices, A- level; Views and voices, AS) and/or at how characters in prose interact (Imagined worlds, A- level; Views and voices, AS). Another very natural application would be to consider ways in which conflict of various types is constructed and understood (this could include exploration and comparison of conflict used to create tension and conflict used to create humour). A good starting point would be to look at interactions between characters in drama (Dramatic encounters, A-level), noting ways in which they aim to protect or attack the face of others and what the effects of these strategies might be.