Strong expertise in interaction research drew this German professor to the University of Helsinki – He aims to understand better how people create meaning in social interaction with each other

People understand each other often in novel and unexpected ways. In psychotherapy, for example, therapists can discover meanings in patients’ stories, which they did not mean to communicate, leading them to rethink their experiences. Professor Arnulf Deppermann from Germany wanted to join the research team at the University of Helsinki due to its internationally high standard of expertise in interaction research.

How is meaning produced through interaction? This is what Arnulf Deppermann, Professor of German Linguistics at the University of Mannheim, comes to investigate at the University of Helsinki. He is working as a visiting professor at the Faculty of Arts, collaborating with interaction researchers at the University of Helsinki in a three-year project until the end of 2020. His partners include Professor of Finnish Marja-Leena Sorjonen, Postdoctoral Researcher Katariina Harjunpää and Professor of Sociology Anssi Peräkylä.

The team is interested in how speakers convey their meaning to their interlocutors. As research data, it is using interaction situations such as psychotherapy sessions and theatre rehearsals. Video material is used as much as possible, since it helps to examine non-verbal interaction: body movement, gestures and gaze convey a lot of meaning.

Rules of communication in therapy differ from those in everyday conversation

Communication related to psychotherapy sessions is of interest to the scholars, among other things, from the perspective of how and when therapists interpret the patients’ narratives and guide them to recognize their feelings and motivations. A patient may be talking about an episode in the past when the therapist intervenes: “How did you feel in that situation? I can see that you are angry. Could it be that you feel sad about what happened?”

The researchers are investigating when such interventions happen and how patient reacts to such observations by the therapist. The researchers believe that changes in patient reactions to such interventions by the therapist can indicate therapeutic progress.

Arnulf Deppermann points out that therapy is very different from other communication situations: in a conversation between friends, interpretations and questions attributing motives and feelings to the other party would create embarrassment and conflict in that interaction.

In addition to linguistic expertise, Deppermann is also a trained psychologist. He became interested in the study of languages after receiving his doctoral degree in psychology while participating in a research project that focused on the communication of patients who had suffered from brain injury during the Second World War. Interviews conducted for the study lasted up to three hours. Deppermann became aware of his interest in how language is used to construct stories and decided to continue his career in linguistics.

 “OK” increasingly common in many languages

The three-year cooperation that Arnulf Deppermann is conducting with researchers at the University of Helsinki commenced at the beginning of the year, but the colleagues had already known each other for several years. Deppermann has praise for his Finnish associates: the academic atmosphere in Helsinki is vibrant and international. The Intersubjectivity in Interaction project, granted Centre of Excellence status by the Academy of Finland, concluded its operations last year and is globally known for its work.

Starting last year, Deppermann has studied the use of the expression “OK” in 14 languages together with his colleagues from Finland and other countries. The expression has become increasingly prevalent since the 1990s, with its meaning expanding. By saying “OK”, a speaker may express their complete understanding of their interlocutor’s statement. Emphasis is another factor: rising intonation often signals surprise or suspicion caused by a statement.

In addition, a typical use of “OK” can be seen in the transition to a new activity. At the doctor’s office, “OK” is typically used in situations where the report of the patient’s medical history is followed by the bodily examination: “OK, let’s have a look at your leg.”

In his everyday conversations with other people, however, Arnulf Deppermann says that he pays no mind to the tenets of interaction research.

 “It would make for really strange, artificial and protracted conversations if I started analysing why the other person is using a certain emphasis or expression at a specific moment.”