Asymmetric communication encounters

The notion of asymmetry has traditionally been related to concepts such as power, authority, and dominance, i.

e., the stronger or more knowing party possesses more power than the weaker party. It is, however, possible to consider asymmetry as motivating and enabling interaction. For example, interaction for the purpose of transferring information would be unnecessary if all parties shared the same knowledge.

What, then, does asymmetry in interaction consist of? The notion of asymmetry has frequently been situated in the contexts of knowledge and participation. Asymmetries in knowledge refer to parties’ asymmetric knowledge about institutions and their established practices, as well as their rights to that knowledge. In medical contexts, doctors are considered experts with the right to knowledge based on their education in medicine, while patients are not considered to possess professional knowledge; in certain situations, this can lead to negligence of patients’ primary knowledge of their own bodies and their functions.

Asymmetries in knowledge are often associated with asymmetries in participation. In institutional interaction, parties have complementary roles with particular rights and duties. The professionals, who are representatives of the institution, carry the responsibility for the institutional activities, as well as for the potential written documentation of the encounter (i.e., medical records). Lay persons, on the other hand, must act in a manner required by the institution (for example, such as by answering the questions posed by the doctor in a medical appointment). At the micro-level, the division of roles is visible in the turn-taking pattern and in the parties’ opportunities to impact how the interaction unfolds: whereas one party (usually the professional) has the right and duty to advance their agenda by posing questions, the other party may be restricted to responding.

Besides asymmetries in knowledge and participation, there are also asymmetries in language. Asymmetries in language arise in situations where one or several participants have restricted language capacities, because of, for example, neurological or developmental problems or because the language is not their native tongue.

Asymmetries in language are often seen as asymmetries in participation, in that the division of communicative labor is particularly clear. The fewer the less competent participant’s resources, the greater the more competent participant’s responsibility and power. For example, if the less competent participant is a person with dementia who has difficulties in remembering and verbalizing memories, the more competent participant might end up verbalizing the memories, experiences, and feelings of that person. Thus, it is typical for linguistically asymmetric communication encounters to be based on the interpretations made by the more competent speaker. The outcome of the interaction is based on the more competent participant’s ability to design his/her contributions to the needs of the less competent participant. Recipient design is discussed in more detail in a separate section of the site.


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