Susanne Mühleisen (Bayreuth)
Miriam A. Locher (2006): Advice Online. Advice-giving in an American Internet Health Column. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins. (= Pragmatics and Beyond Series, 149)
Advice-giving and advice receiving are activities which occur in a number of private or institutional contexts in our everyday lives. Advice-giving is not an easy speech act: as a directive, it is somehow related to a request – after all, you want your advisee to do something – but with the difference that an advice has to be thought of as beneficial to its recipient. In terms of linguistic politeness theory (cf. Brown & Levinson 1987), an advice is therefore a potentially face-threatening act, both because it places the hearer into the position that he or she is asked to do something and thus limits the hearer's freedom of action, and because it puts the speaker into a position of authority and power, as someone who "knows what is good for you." As most people know from experience, there is hardly anything worse than unsolicited and uncalled-for advice.
After an initial phase of largely theoretical discussions of speech acts – for instance, apologies, requests, promises, threats, compliments, advice, etc. – in the 1960s and 1970s, such performative acts received renewed attention in their contextual explorations ever since the 1980s. Studies in intercultural pragmatics (e.g. Blum-Kulka et al. 1989, Clyne 1994, Hickey & Stewart 2005) focus on cultural differences in the realization of speech acts, an issue which is also important for the study of second language acquisition (cf. Gass & Neu 1996). Research on language and gender (e.g. Holmes 1995, Mills 2003) has contributed to a better understanding of gendered differences in politeness issues, including speech act realizations.
Among the many studies on single speech acts in context or in cross-cultural comparison (e.g. Fukushima 2000), specific studies on advice are still relatively scarce. One of the reasons may be that advice, like many speech acts, is rarely given in an explicit form and it is sometimes difficult to determine what really counts as advice and what does not. After all, there are many ways to say "If I were you I would do X." However, its manifestation in public discourse, for instance, in advice columns or in counselling forums, has made this speech act particularly interesting for the exploration of public discourses on health counselling. Especially in studies on HIV counselling, the realization of advice-giving and advice-receiving has thus been given close scrutiny (cf., for instance, Silverman et al. 1992, Drescher & Kläger 2006).
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Public and anonymous forums of advice have a long tradition in the print media and there are numerous advice columns on delicate issues like health care, love, sex, relationships, etc. Usually, there is a team of advice-givers who act as a specific persona ("Dr. Sommer", "Dear Abby", "Marjorie Proops"1) Both in print media as well as on radio programs and television shows, advice serves not only an informational purpose but has also considerable entertainment value – which is why advice columns and programs are often frequented by a large audience. It is therefore no surprise that advice columns have very successfully established themselves also in the new media, many examples of which can be found on the internet.
A number of innovative studies have shown that the World Wide Web offers a particularly rich site of research on established and new text types and genres. One of them is Miriam A. Locher's (University of Berne) recently published book-length study on advice in an American internet health column (Locher 2006). Her in-depth analysis of one particular advice column, referred to as "Lucy Answers" in her book, provides valuable insights into the strategies used in the linguistic realization of advice, the relational work involved in the communication between advisor and advisee, as well as public versus private dimensions of advice. The author places her study in the framework of Penelope Eckert's "Community of Practice" model (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992), which allows her to analyse this particular social practice and draw conclusions on general strategies of advice-giving without over-generalizing the results.
The book is divided into four parts. After a brief introduction, part one gives a description of the site and the data collected from "Lucy Answers",2 an internet advice column run by an American educational institution since the early 1990s whose declared mission is "to increase access to, and use of, health information by providing factual, in-depth, straight-forward, and nonjudgmental information to assist readers' decision-making about their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health" (as quoted in Locher 2006: 9). Locher's corpus, consisting of selected "problem letters" by the advice seeker and the response by the "Lucy Answers" team, is subdivided into seven topic categories – relationships, sexuality, sexual health, emotional health, drugs, fitness and nutrition and general health. Part two comprises the review of literature on advice and a further chapter on research questions.
Section three is the main part of the study and contains five chapters in which various components of advice discourse are scrutinized. The first focus of analysis lies on the response letters where, after all, advice-giving is exercised. To establish how this is actually achieved and what strategies are involved in this act of advice-giving, the author categorizes the content of the letters in a number of units, "discursive moves". Besides the core speech act in various syntactic forms, advice is thus accompanied by various different units such as assessment, disclaimer, explanation, referral and even "offering of own experience" in the form of a personal anecdote by the advice-giver – despite the fact that "Lucy" is no real person. Such a categorization, even though not entirely unproblematic, is ultimately helpful in determining the various strategies which are used in the various topic categories.
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Thus, we can see that explicit advice is least frequent in response letters to sexual health problems/enquiries and most frequent in the topic category relationships. One interesting aspect of such anonymous discourse between advice-giver and advice-seeker is the negotiation of the relationship of the interactants. "Aspects of relational work in the response letters" is therefore given space in a separate chapter in which Locher demonstrates how strategies of bonding and empathising are used and what role humour, praise and criticism, hedges and boosters play in this type of "facework".
Chapter seven looks at the framework in which the advice column appears and discusses the personal versus public dimension of advice-giving in the response letters. Very often, the scope of the answer in the response letters is broadened to reach a wider audience. After all, "the advice column format of a ‘personal' problem letter followed by a seemingly individualized response letter functions nicely as a conveyor of advice and information that the general readership can either take or leave" (Locher 2006: 179). The construction of a unified voice in the form of the persona of Lucy in the response letters is at issue in chapter eight. Even though it is made explicit on the website of "Lucy Answers" that "Lucy" consists of a team of experts and is not a real person, the illusion of a personalised identity is often created in the response letters with statements such as "Lucy also wishes you the best on your first sexual experience, whenever it may occur", or even "Everyone will not agree with Lucy, but Lucy pumps up her vitamins, taking a stress-B formula" (Locher 2006: 186). The last chapter in part three of the book, finally, concentrates on the problem letters by the anonymous advice-seeker. Here, the author uses the same methodology she used to explore the content structure of response letters and links her findings. Part four of the book consists of one final chapter which summarises the factors constituting the discursive practice in "Lucy Answers", the Notes, Appendix, References and a helpful Index.
Miriam Locher's book provides a wealth of theoretical insights and empirical information on the social practice of this American internet advice column – findings which will certainly contribute to a better understanding of advice column as a text type and the discursive strategies employed in this genre. Advice Online is written in a clear and highly readable style; the mixture of dense factual information, lucid interpretation and a wealth of (sometimes entertaining) examples make it an essential and also enjoyable read for everyone interested in contextualized speech acts, discursive practices, as well as text types and genres on the internet.
It is clear that this in-depth study was not intended to answer questions of cross-cultural or gendered differences in the particular genre of advice columns. It is hoped, however, that Locher¹s findings on this specific example taken from an American Educational Institution context may also inspire cultural comparisons of the realizations of advice in further studies.
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Blum-Kulka, Shoshana et al. (Eds.) (1989): Cross-cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson (2004/1987): Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Clyne, Michael (1994): Intercultural Communication at Work. Cultural Values in Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Drescher, Martina & Sabine Kläger, (Eds.) (2006): Kommunikation über HIV/Aids. Interdisziplinäre Beiträge zur Prävention im subsaharischen Afrika. Berlin: Lit.
Eckert, Penelope & Sally McConnell-Ginet (1992): "Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community-based practice", in: Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 461–490.
Fukushima, Saeko (2000): Requests and Culture: Politeness in British English and Japanese. Bern: Lang.
Gass, Susan & Joyce Neu (Eds.) (1996): Speech Acts across Culture. Challenges to Communication in a Second Language. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Hickey, Leo & Miranda Stewart (Eds.) (2005): Politeness in Europe. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Holmes, Janet (1995): Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman.
Mills, Sara (2003): Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverman, David, Rober Bor, Riva Miller & Eleanor Goldman (1992): "'Obviously the advice is then to keep to safer sex' – advice-giving and advice reception in AIDS counselling", in: Peter Aggleton, Peter Davies & Graham Hart (Eds.): AIDS: Rights, Risk and Reason. London: Falmer Press, 174–191.
1 Despite the genuine name behind this famous "agony aunt" in the British paper Daily Mirror, Proops's name continued to be used for some time even after the retirement of the real person.
2 For legal reasons, Locher had to use a pseudonym for this advice column and for its host institution.