22 February 2010

Did 'The Godfather' feature the longest pause and most blatant lie in the history of movies?

Watching The Godfather again the other day reminded me that the first time I saw it was when I'd just started getting interested in conversation analysis (c. 1974) - which meant, among other things, that I'd become fascinated by the way in which pauses can work in everyday conversation.

From that point of view, the most riveting scene in the movie came in the last few seconds, when Michael Corleone allows his wife to ask 'just one question' about his 'family business' (see below).

In conversation, pauses don't happen very often or for very long
As I've suggested in some of my books, one of the reasons why so many public speakers feel uneasy about pausing is that 99.99% of our talking lives is spent in the much more familar world of conversation, where we collaborate with others to minimise silences - therefore avoiding the awkwardness and embarrassment that so often come with them

As a result, inexperienced presenters often find it uncomfortable, if not unnatural, to pause far more often and for much longer than they do in everyday conversation - which is one reason why some of them carry on using the conversational practice of killing off silences with frequent "ums" and "uhs".

Delay as a warning of coming trouble
The early work on turn-taking in conversation showed how a very slight delay between the end of one turn and the start of another often works as the earliest warning that the speaker is having some difficulty in producing an appropriate response.

An example of this is when you say something that limits the next speaker to making a choice between two alternatives, as when you're looking for yes/no, agreement/disagreement, acceptance/refusal, etc.

Quite often, one or other of these options is, in the jargon of conversation analysis, 'preferred' -which is to say that the speaker and respondent both know perfectly well which one is expected and which one is not.

For example, in the case of invitations, acceptance is 'preferred' over refusal. And that's what we're implicitly taking into account when we lead up to issuing an invitation by checking out whether or not the recipient will be able to reply with the 'preferred' option (i.e. accept) if and when the invitation comes.

So a question like "are you doing anything on Saturday night?" is hardly ever heard or treated as a neutral enquiry about your plans for Saturday night. Much more usually, you'll hear it both as a signal of what the speaker has in mind (i.e. an invitation) and as providing the you with a chance to say whether or not you'll be able to take the 'preferred' option (i.e. accept) before any firm invitation is actually made.

'Preferred' options tend to come straight away
Once an invitation has been issued, the 'preferred' option (acceptance) is much the easier of the two options to deal with, and normally comes within a split second. But if the option taken by the invitee is not the 'preferred' one, their refusal will be delayed and constructed very differently from an acceptance.

So, if you invite someone to dinner and they haven't started speaking within about a fifth of a second, you can be pretty sure that they're going to refuse.

And the actual refusal itself will typically be delayed beyond the initial 'warning' that came with the pause, and will be pushed back towards the end of the turn so that the eventual 'dis-preferred' response is cushioned by preliminary expressions of thanks and appreciation, and/or an explanation for the upcoming refusal - as in the following:

[0.5 second delay] - "Well - I'd love to - but unfortunately - I'm baby-sitting on Friday night - so I won't be able to make it."

In this case, each of the components (between the hyphens) progressively confirms that the initial delay did indeed mean that the 'dis-preferred' option (refusal) is on it's way (but not before suitable statements of appreciation, disappointment and explanation have been made).

The general point is that taking the option that's not preferred (refusal) is more complicated and involves considerably more time and effort than taking the option that is 'preferred' (acceptance).

The peculiar impact when a 'preferred' option comes after a long pause
At the end of The Godfather, Michael Corleone has just finished 'settling family business' by delegating his minions to bump off everyone who's betrayed it. His sister has just become 'hysterical' (his word) in accusing him of having had her husband murdered.

Michael's wife, Kay, has heard the argument with her sister-in-law and now wants the truth from her husband.

He knows and she knows (and we in the audience all know) that the 'preferred' answer to her question "Is it true?" is No. And we also know that the true answer is Yes. If we were in any doubt that Kay suspects and fears that this is so, the long delay of eight seconds before she braces herself to whisper the key question confirms that this is exactly what she is afraid of.

But, before he eventually comes up with the 'preferred' option, Michael delays for another eight seconds - again, far longer than would ever happen in a real, rather than a dramatised, conversation.

The suspense presumably comes from the fact that the pause implies that he might be about to select the 'dispreferred' option (Yes). The longer the silence lasts, the more it implies that this is where he's going - as he would, after all, need plenty of time to work out an apology, explanation, justification and/or whatever else might be required to cushion the journey towards the dreaded "Yes".

His blatant lie lets those of us in the audience know for sure that the respectable college graduate and war hero at the start of the film has gone forever, and that Michael Corleone has now fully committed to a career of crime and deception.

Kay's apparent acceptance and relief when he goes for the 'preferred' option makes us feel sorry for her and appalled that even his long-suffering wife is now included in his web if deceit.

Then, when she sees his murderous underlings paying homage to him as the new Godfather and shutting the door on her, the expression on her face leaves us wondering whether she's finally got the point: