Adjacency Pairs: Is Dispreferred Always Least Preferred?
By Suzy Bills

Several years ago, a TV commercial let viewers eavesdrop on an intimate conversation between a man and woman enjoying dinner at a restaurant. The woman leans in close to the man and earnestly says, “I love you.” She waits for his reply, which will surely affirm he loves her too. However, instead of a response, there's silence, which becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Understandably, after the woman can’t take the silence any longer, she rushes to the exit. Just after she's out of earshot, the man finally responds: “I love you too.”

This commercial provides a great example of an adjacency pair that ends with a dispreferred response. An adjacency pair consists of one person’s utterance that necessitates an immediate reply or reaction from the other member of the conversation. Usually, the other member has two options for responding: One is the preferred reaction, what is expected as the reply. The other response is the dispreferred answer, what is unexpected, less ordinary, and more difficult to give.

In the commercial, the man provided a dispreferred answer because he did not supply an immediate response. His silence was an unexpected reaction, which became very awkward for the man and even more so for the woman. When the woman expressed her love for the man, she expected to hear him immediately profess his corresponding love for her. Such a response would have been a preferred answer. Even though the man did eventually confirm his love, his answer was still dispreferred. He had waited too long for his response to match her expectation. The uneasy pause was too big to mend.

Adjacency Pairs

This commercial and the idea of adjacency pairs led me to wonder how often this specific situation occurs. The phrase “I love you” or a comparable assertion is the definite start of an adjacency pair. Typically, an individual does not express his or her love to someone without expecting to hear an immediate reply—and the reply is expected to be a preferred response. Love is extremely personal and invites vulnerability. As such, (most) people do not express their love in a frivolous manner. Doing so, without already believing the other person feels similarly, can easily result in embarrassment—something people tend to avoid. Thus, “I love you” functions as a tag, indicating a response is necessary and that the reply should equally profess love. Indeed, most adjacency pairs involving this phrase do follow this pattern, with the preferred answer being given. It seems to be almost an automatic, unconscious response. When someone tells me that they love me, I often begin to return with “I love you too” before I truly realize what I'm saying. For instance, a few weeks ago I was talking with my brother-in-law on the phone. As the conversation was ending, he told me he loved me, and then I immediately reciprocated the term of affection. My response was entirely sincere, but still, it seemed to be an automatic reply—I didn’t really think about the reply before I gave it.

Which Is Better: Dispreferred Answer of Insincerity?

Since it appears that a preferred response to “I love you” is standard and practically engrained into individuals from the first years of life, I wondered how often this expected response is sincere and how often it is used as a way to avoid a difficult situation. Of all adjacency pairs, I can think of few (okay, none) for which hearing the dispreferred answer would be worse than when it's a response to “I love you.” Because people avoid causing embarrassment—to themselves and to others—the decision to give a dispreferred and potentially humiliating response is a difficult one to make. It could be quite tempting for an individual to reciprocate the words of love—and then pretend to move to another country to avoid seeing the person ever again—rather than to deal with the immediate effects of giving a dispreferred response. How can you give a dispreferred answer without being hurtful? With the issue of love, it is quite tricky. There really is no other reply to give. What can one say? “Thank you”? “Sorry, but I don’t love you”? I would rather lose a limb than hear one of those responses to my expression of love.

Putting It to the Test

Curious about others’ perspectives, I decided to ask several people what they would do in such a situation. Truthfully, I was surprised (but relieved) that they all indicated they would not give a preferred answer. Though they admitted it would be difficult, they would not give an insincere but expected reply. One person had even been in such a situation once. When a girl said she loved him, he remained silent. The situation certainly became awkward because of his dispreferred response. Interestingly, though he gave what is socially considered a dispreferred response, his honesty corresponded with other expectations of communication, such as the Gricean maxim of quality (we’ll leave exploration of that topic for another article).

Communication is a challenging process, with many protocols and expectations. Adjacency pairs and the possible responses are just one example of the important but often complex mechanics of conversation. While some types of responses are preferred and others are dispreferred, both are important and each are used, despite the negative effects that may result. Dispreferred responses are given even in the most difficult situations, such as in issues of love. Even dispreferred responses facilitate increased communication and help conversations to maintain structure.

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