A Reviewed Article: Doing Disagreement at Work: A Sociolinguistics Approach by Holmes & Stubbe


Research on sociolinguistics such as in the area of organisational behaviour and business communication is important. Domain of organisational interaction has been a focus of social investigation where the linguistics usage can also be critically analysed. However, the authors of this article claimed that it has been rarely explained explicitly on how power is communicated and enacted among participants through daily communication in organisation. This article, thus, tends to fill this gap by looking deeper at those contextual factors which play a significant role at the interpersonal exchange level.

In this article by using a sociolinguistic approach the researchers investigate the role of power mainly focusing on the way participants “do disagreement” which they contend is inevitable in the workplace setting and they illustrate some distinctive differences between different cultures from one workplace to others. More than that, this investigation also uses the more specific sociolinguistic model of interpersonal interaction called politeness strategies to see how different power of participants who hold different position express their disagreement in a “conflicting” discussion. But before coming to the findings of this research, this review also presents the theoretical frameworks provided by the authors.

This section outlines the comprehensive theoretical basis to the analysis. In the theoretical background, the authors suggest a number of issues related to the topic under discussion such as modelling conflict management, discourse analysis and politeness theory. In each main point, the relevant theories are presented to support the study.

Regarding the issue of modelling conflict management in workplace settings, Rothwell (2000, p. 253-257 cited in Holmes & Stubbe, 2001) suggests five typical examples on how disagreement or conflict is handled: collaborating, accommodating, compromising, avoiding and competing. Those are the common models applied by the participants when any conflicting occasion emerges. The authors maintain that even though conflict is an inevitable element which can’t be eliminated in workplace settings, it doesn’t mean that conflict only contributes to the negative results in seeking to solve a problem. Indeed, open communication can lead to more constructive solution to problems because the satisfying or acceptable decision couldn’t be reached until a kind of consensus has been agreed. Therefore, the existence of the conflict can’t be seen only from negative associations such as “war”, “fight”, “explosive situation” as it is likely usually a metaphor that comes up spontaneously when we hear the word “conflict”.

The researchers follow Rothwell (2000, p. 254 cited in Holmes & Stubbe, 2001) who ranks their strategies from the most to the least frequently used in conflict management. On the basis of research into management styles, he has found that collaborating is the most constructive style of conflict management and avoiding and competing are considered to be the least constructive. Those models highlight the close association between the constructive expression of conflict or disagreement and effective problem-solving and decision-making process. In collaborating style, he suggests that participants are more open to the discussion by bringing their different viewpoints to be carefully examined and discussed. Moreover, the collaborating behaviour tends to allow more room for participants to display their position for all so that they can fully understand others’ opinion and other alternatives suggested by other participants.

In the second analytical model, the authors (2001, p. 57 cited in Brown & Levinson, 1987; Bulbitz, 1988; Edmondson, 1981; Wootton, 1981) have shown that disagreement is a “dispreferred” speech act. Sacks (1987 cited in Holme & Stubbe, 2001, p. 57) has observed that in question-answer sequences “yes” is a much more frequent answer than “no”. Indeed, this evidence shows that “yes” is a “preferred” speech act. It can mean that more people tend to maximise the potential agreement instead of disagreement among interlocutors. Based on his research, it is not always possible to avoid expressing disagreement, therefore linguistic strategies occur to set a better communication. According to the authors, how people do disagreement and what strategies applied in the workplace context, this point can best be explained by politeness theoretical perspective.

Brown & Levinson (1987, p. 69 cited in Holmes & Stubbe, 2001, p. 57) argue that the disagreement can be expressed either “off record” or “bald-on-record”. The “off record” actions are phrased ambiguously so that the actor cannot be held to have committed himself to one particular intent. In other words, there is an open-ended interpretation to the hearer(s) because the disagreement is conveyed in more subtle or implicit way of communication. the off-record strategy is indicated by the use of the number of politeness strategies such as hedging, apologising or indirectness used by the speaker to mitigate or attenuate the potential face threatening actions.

On the other hand, Brown and Levinson (1987, p. 69 cited in Holmes & Stubbe, 2001, p. 57) also suggest that speaker can do “bald-on-record” to demonstrate the speakers’ refusal to the previous statements/arguments. This action involves as the most direct, clear, unambiguous and concise possible way in denying or contradicting a statement with no attempt to soften the disagreement.


The data was taken from formal meetings in professional workplaces in the government and corporate sectors in New Zealand. The meetings were equipped with an unobtrusive recorder over a certain period of time. With the explicit knowledge and agreement of all involved. The recorded conversation includes short telephone calls of less than a minute to long meetings that last more than four hours.


This article focuses on strategies people use in expressing disagreement in a specific context: the formal workplace meeting in New Zealand. There are four excerpts (1, 2, 3 and 4) as analysed examples related to the topic.

The general results indicate that there are a number of strategies speakers use to demonstrate their opposition in those formal meetings. One of the evidence demonstrates that disagreement or opposition is expressed overtly or in Brown & Levinson’s term called “bald-on-record” strategies. From the examples 1 & 2, we can find how more powerful participants typically express disagreement more confrontationally. The first example shows how Eric (in example 1) confronts his colleague, Callum. Eric as the expert in this particular area, initially uses the conventional disagreement employing an initial agreement “yeah” followed by “but” (line6).

Example 1

1 Collum: what we’v- what we’ve actually decided to do is
2 er test it by asking by losing some data or pretending to lose some
3 something significant like everything that’s in [technical term]
4 like all our documents and all our code
5 Barry: [laughs]
6 Eric: yeah but d-
7 Collum: and then asking them to restore it

However, Eric’s disagreement is getting more overt to assert his confrontation to Callum. This explicit assertion occurs when Callum further explains his idea of pretending to lose some data. He reinforces his opposition by saying “don’t do that at all” (line 13). According to Holmes & Stubbe (2001, p. 59), the main reason why Eric does disagreement in more explicit and apparent way can be analysed from sociolinguistic aspects. Accordingly, this is because 1) the discussion or confrontation takes place in formal meeting where the efficiency is more important than face consideration; 2) Eric has some authority represented by his expertise or significant imbalance in power between speaker and hearer. So it is clear from the data that those in positions of authority and power tend to give more instructions and more advice directly (Holmes, Stubbe, & Vine, 1999; Vine, 2001).

Examples 3 & 4 (cited below) illustrate the consensus-seeking and cooperative response to the expression of disagreement where hierarchical relationships are played down and authority is not paraded explicitly. In particular example 3 reveals how disagreement and conflict may emerge gradually and be expressed over several turns rather than being neatly located at a single point in interaction.

Example 3

1 Jake: he’s also very popular locally as well
2 ’cause he actually looks after his workforce he’s jkept them\
3 Stuart: loh right\
4 Jake: he’s kept them on payroll while there’s been no stuff
5 going through the factory he’s he employs far more people than
6 than COMPANY NAME across the ro- er
7 Stuart: no
8 Jake: across the way he’s he’s got a quite high profile
9 and he’s considered to be + Iyou know
10 Connie: la good chap \
11 Stuart: la good guy\

This illustration initially started with the maximally cohesive and collaborative agreement in the conversation. It is Jake and Stuart (line 1-9) who are in line of agreement to the discussed topic. But the conflict emerges when the discussion develops into male-female stereotyping (line 10). According to the authors, the issue of gender becomes gradually foregrounded of the conflict. The logical consequence then is that the discussion becomes a competitive site where males and females try to make independent contribution (lines 26-32).

Example 3

26 Wendy: Ibloody good bloke/
27 /[General laughter]/
28 Jeft: bet he doesn’t employ many women workers
29 [General laughter]
30 XM: no
31 Connie: (oh) I probably wouldn’t want the job /either/
32 lake: lit I depends on your definition of /good bloke/

The interesting point, however, found in the organisational business is that the disagreement or conflict is “managed” through discourse strategy of humour that serves to defuse the tension as displayed in by the frequency of general laughter.
The last point to be presented in this section is about the negotiating through disagreement strategies. The authors’ 4th excerpts describe how this particular action unfolds. This recorded conversation takes place in a regular team meeting in a government department. The team was discussing the issue of allocated responsibilities due to the loss of personnel within the organisation. It can be seen that the classical strategy is applied in this context where the speaker uses “yes but” strategies to indicate his/her opposition. This example also exemplifies the “positive confrontation” as suggested by Rothwell found in this negotiation.

Example 4

1 Zoe: mm /but\
2 Leila: /mm \
3 Zoe: okay but hang on what are our other options here um we’ve
also got Hannah
4 Leila: yeah…

Example 4 strategies in discourse disagreement are played through a number of two different linguistic forms: the classical strategy (mm/but\) is used followed by positive confrontation. Providing an alternative can be interpreted as a positive confrontation which is supported by the illustration (…. here um we’ve also got Hannah) applied by Zoe. This is considered to be a standard strategy by the authors for disagreeing politely.

The interesting point also highlighted here is about how Leila, as chair and manager, uses negotiating strategies to point out her disagreement to the alternative proposed by Zoe. It can be seen (lines 5-6 in 4b) from the way how she made a positive confrontation (you know it may well be that we haven’t got quite enough hours but I’ve got a feeling that we might have the solution within here). This excerpt indeed provides example how disagreement is unfolding and how can be negotiated through a certain number of strategies.

From the data above, the authors contrast the two different workplace cultures in term of doing disagreement. Example 1 & 2 were taken from a private enterprise, a commercial workplace where the competitive and confrontational style of interaction are more prevalent in daily or meeting conversation settings. Meanwhile, excerpt 3 & 4 which were taken from official government departments indicate the more tightly knit community and more complexities because the opportunity is greater of showing status of power position when they disagree.


Besides presenting the general findings of this reviewed article, this section also describes the basic differences compared to or contrasted with other article which I supposed has similar interesting area in the field of linguistic politeness strategies associated with power. The article entitled Power behind linguistic behaviour: analysis of politeness phenomena in Chinese official settings by Yuling Pan (1995). The discussion section is based on two distinct categories in term of the main focus of the investigation and methodologies applied.

Regarding the recent investigation conducted by Holmes & Stubbe (2001), the general findings indicate that there are a certain number of linguistic strategies in expressing disagreement in workplace settings. For example, classical strategies “yes/but” and “positive confrontation” characterise how participants manage conflict and pursuing negotiation through disagreement. In Pan’s article (1995) also revealed that three are a certain number of linguistic behaviours chosen by participants to state their opposition such as challenging a previous suggestion by showing doubt and downplaying the proposition and/or reasoning without directly stating one’s position.

The other interesting points unfold from both articles are that there is a close relationship between social power which significantly impacts on linguistic behaviour. These two articles suggest that people with higher power in official rank tend to use “bald-on-record” strategies in expressing their opposition. In other words, they use more overt and unambiguous ways to demonstrate their confrontation. Indeed, they are task-oriented goals and less concerned on potential face-threatening.

These two articles vary from the main focus of the area of analysis. In their investigation, Holmes and Stubbe (2001) are particularly interested in three aspects of contextual linguistic strategies in doing disagreement: overtly expressed opposition, emerging conflicting views and negotiating through disagreement. Meanwhile, Pan (1995) focuses her analysis on three speech acts: directives, management of conflict talk and decision-making process.

If we carefully paid attention to the fields or areas of the analysis, it seems to us that they are similar. Unfortunately, they are quite discrete in tittles but closed in term of content. However, I personally found a unique description in this context. As it is mentioned these articles examine the association between linguistic usage and power contribution to the linguistic behaviour, I think Pan (1995) largely discusses about how that social power heavily influences the linguistic politeness strategies such as in management of conflict talk. So, power is definitive in Pan’s article.

On the other hand, Holmes and Stubbe (2001) deeply explore the linguistic strategies in expressing disagreement. In other words, Holmes and Stubbe, in my opinion, talk less the contribution of power to linguistic expression in negotiating through disagreement. Indeed, their findings are likely giving us description or guidance how to tackle the same problems.

Furthermore, I will present the methodologies designed to both investigations. Referring to data and method applied, it gives us an idea how those data was taken from official government meetings. Pan (1995) collected her data in Foshan, a southern city in mainland China. Meanwhile, Holmes and Stubbe (2001) did it in New Zealand workplace (without being explicit what the exact government department engaged) and corporate sector. The conversation was recorded and then analysed to support their analysis.


Holmes, J & Stubbe, M (2001), Doing disagreement at work: a sociolinguistic approach. Australian Journal of Communication, vol 30 (1), 53-77. Retrieved on April 14, 2012, from http://search.informit.com.au/fullText;dn=200308877;res=APAFT.

Pan, Y. (1995), Power behind linguistic behaviour: analysis of politeness phenomena in Chinese official settings. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 462-481. Retrieved on April 14, 2012, from http://jls.sagepub.com/content/14/4/462.


About Halili

Indonesian student of Master of Language Studies at Flinders University, South Australia.
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