Problems and troubles are a common aspect of human life; descriptions of these problems and troubles usually make relevant some kind of affiliative or supportive response. The study of support talk examines how interactants seek and obtain aid in a variety of informal and institutional settings. Support talk occurs when interactants attempt to aid, assist, or help another by addressing troubles that can be mutually shared and mutually solved. Support provided can be informational (e.g., advice), emotional (expressions of caring, concern, empathy, and sympathy), or tangible (offers of goods or services). One challenge in distinguishing support talk from other forms of talk in interaction is that routine talk, especially in close relationships, can also serve a supportive function.
Advice-giving involves recommending, suggesting, or describing a course of action for remedying another’s troubles. In situations where the advice-giver is clearly the authority, advice tends to be strongly prescriptive, including overt recommendations, imperatives (“always be very very quiet at night”), and modal verbs of obligation (“should,” “ought”: Directives). Giving advice in these ways implies an asymmetry of roles: the advicegiver plays the role of knowledgeable advisor, while the advice recipient’s role is one of lacking competence and needing help. Advice may often be resisted by recipients so as to reassert their autonomy and/or competence, despite their stated troubles.
In situations where the advice-giver wishes to be seen as a friend or equal, more mitigated methods are typically used, such as presenting advice as an allowable alternative (“if you . . .”), placing a recommended action within the format of information or a query (e.g., “did you see the doctor?”), or telling a second story. These allow the advice recipient to determine whether the information/advice/story is relevant to their specific circumstances.
Empathy involves understanding another’s situation and/or feelings and, preferably, displaying understanding in such a way that the other feels understood. In response to troubles telling, “how awful” and standardized oh-prefaced assessments such as “oh God” and “oh no” display understanding of another’s situation as troubling. Formulations (e.g., “sounds like you were really frightened when you discovered that lump”) demonstrate more significant understanding and contribute in meaningful ways to subsequent disclosures of delicate matters, especially if seen as an accurate paraphrase of the trouble’s nature and intensity, and placed at the seeming end of a troubles telling.
Sympathy involves relating to another person’s trouble by sharing feelings beyond basic concern. Basic expression of one’s own feelings (e.g., “I’m sorry to hear that”), sharing similar reactions, and/or telling second stories (i.e., sharing one’s own similar experience) convey sympathy. These second stories seem best fitted to peer support. So as to avoid telling second stories, doctors sympathize by describing some possible consequences of the patient’s circumstances, implying access to an equivalent experience.
Troubles tellers also seek tangible aid, often through calls for emergency assistance or customer service. On an emergency assistance line, callers request help as one requests food for delivery, while call takers require proof of a need for assistance before providing it. An interrogative series that, for the call taker, facilitates provision of appropriate assistance, for the caller delays the arrival of help. This dilemma is common to service encounters, whereas a troubles recipient, concerned about the troubles teller’s feelings and experiences, and an advice-giver, oriented to a problem to be solved, are seemingly separate and contradictory roles. Methods that address this dilemma often blend these distinctive roles; for example, emergency assistance workers still interrogate but for a condensed period of time.
While conversation analysts and discursive psychologists have described interactional difficulties and nonaffiliative responses that indicate lack of successful support, support talk typically distinguishes itself from the study of social support by focusing not on outcomes but on what is said and done. Compared to the larger literature on social support, studies of support talk are in their adolescence. This area is ripe for language and social interaction contributions, with the recognition that appropriate supportive responses, demonstrated on a case-by-case basis, can improve the health and well-being of others.
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