Delivering criticism through anecdotes (published in Discourse Studies)


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Criticising someone’s conduct is a disaffiliative action that can attract recipient objections, particularly in the form of defensive detailing by which the recipient volunteers extenuating circumstances that undermine the criticism. In Therapeutic Community (TC) meetings for clients with drug addiction, support staff regularly criticise clients’ behaviours that violate therapeutic principles or norms of conduct. This study examines cases where, rather than criticising a client’s behaviour directly, TC staff members do so indirectly through an anecdote: a case illustrating the inappropriateness of the type of conduct of which the client’s behaviour is an instantiation. TC staff members design the anecdote to convey a principle or norm of conduct which the client has putatively violated, and they systematically pursue endorsement of that principle by the client. By constructing the anecdote as an exemplary case, distanced from the individual client’s personal experience, TC staff members make it an empirically unverifiable, self-evident, and therefore hard to challenge, illustration of a norm.