PIXI shoes making PIXI steps

By Susan E. George (formerly, Università di Pisa, Italy)

©inTRAlinea & Susan E. George (2018).
"PIXI shoes making PIXI steps"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2329

Eleven pairs of bright red plimsolls of all sizes lay beside the breakfast table one Sunday morning - a gift from Guy Aston to the P.I.X.I. (Pragmatics of Italian-English Cross-cultural Interaction) group.  They were our “pixi” shoes…

Every time I come across my pair at the back of a wardrobe, a smile flickers across my face remembering our meetings. We were an unusual research group: two men and nine women coming from a wide variety of linguistic approaches and methodological backgrounds: conversation analysis (Anderson, Aston, Brodine, Gavioli, Zorzi); systemic linguistics (Tucker); Brazil’s intonation theory (Mansfield); text-linguistics (Merlini Barbaresi); education and discourse analysis (Ciliberti); cross-cultural pragmatics and anthropology (Vincent), pragmatics and ethnomethodology (George).  We also had a variety of linguistic repertoires, as we came from Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Naples, Rome in Italy; the north, centre and south of England, the south of France and the East and West coasts of the USA.

We can’t have been an easy group to coordinate but there was much fun, anxiety, curiosity and desire to learn from each other.  We engaged in what is now called generative listening (Scharmer, 2007) to the point that often we could not remember who said what, so involved were we in discovering the regularities of English and Italian bookshop interactions. We would have achieved little, though, without the exacting, generous tenacity of Guy Aston who demanded scrupulous data collection and transcription following the norms of conversational analysis while encouraging interpretation from a range of perspectives.  The majority of the group were conversational analysts and this guaranteed a strong framework against which some of us railed, but in the end the solidity of the data collection provided a starting point from which to make interesting observations and even dare the odd explanation.

Mention of the red plimsolls may seem a whimsical gesture but they sum up for me implicitly what we were trying to do: to find the steps of the conversational dances that speakers engage in; to see if these matched, overlapped or were differently articulated in the two languages in one specific type of context – a large bookshop in two different places, London and Bologna.

I have several vivid memories of moments when we discovered differences in our interpretation of the data, which led in turn to a discovery of diverse interactional patterns and to reflections on how these reveal differences in role and in attitude to others and to conversational space. I remember in particular Brodine commenting that the Italian shop assistants were blunt and Zorzi saying that the English speakers took ages to get to the point. This led to later work by Aston on how we say “No” differently.

The group as a whole moved from Merlini’s initial observation that the interactions were request-response sequences to notice the differences in:

1. when, where, and how English and Italian customers make requests for information;

2. when, where and how shop assistants give news that a book is not there.

The routines of the English shop assistants and customers match and balance each other, as do those of the Italian shop assistants and customers.

We noticed that most English customers would look for the book themselves or make a category request (“Polish literature?”), only subsequently asking for help if they did not find the book. Even in the latter case they would attempt to make the request from the addressee’s perspective (“Do you have?”) or suggest options in order to protect the sales assistant’s face. The English shop assistant would be equally sensitive to the customer’s face, signalling in advance if he/she did not have the requested book by using non verbal signals such as “er” or “hh” (laughter) before giving the “brutal” news that the book was not there. And when eventually he/she gave this news, he/she would provide a solution if possible (“the book will be here in three weeks”, ”try the shop down the road” etc.) within the same turn.

The contents of the Italian interaction were quite different: the Italian customer would usually ask for help immediately and from a first person perspective “Sto cercando” (I’m looking for) and the shop assistant would overlap if he/she guessed what the request was and, moreover would say immediately if the book was not in the store.  Indeed - and here was the biggest difference in the dynamic of the interaction -it was then the responsibility of the customer to put pressure on the shop assistant to get news of when the book would be available.

The difference in this dynamic is beautifully summed up by Zorzi (1990) in “Parlare Insieme” where she suggests a script for the Italian interaction:


C = Customer

A = Assistant

C             Volevo X.

              I wanted X        

Speaker perspective

A             E’ in arrivo.

               It will arrive soon

Vague information

C             Quando arriva?

               When will it arrive?

Customer asks a question echoing the expression and puts pressure on the Assistant

A             Mercoledì.


Information given


(Zorzi, 1990: 42) translation and comment in italics added by me, S.G.

One could imagine that the equivalent English script would be:


C             Do you have X?              

Addressee perspective

A             erm

Embarrassment/protection of Customer’s face

C             Is it upstairs or

Option given to protect Assistant’s face

A             uhm hh              

Embarrassment/protection of Customer’s face

C             downstairs

Option given

A             erm (0..) er no I’m sorry, it’s not one we stock.

Apology + information in the same turn

Script and comment in italics invented by me, S.G.

These scripts reveal the skeleton of actually occurring interaction and serve to expose the difference in internal dynamics, showing how a different rhythm of request and response is created.

The usefulness of this type of work is illustrated yet again by Zorzi when she shows how a female English speaker interacts in an Italian bookshop. This person makes no syntactic errors but a series of pragmatic ones, precisely because she has not understood when pressure is required after a negative response by the shop assistant.



Scusi, avete questo ACT English. (01) Ho perso la mia copia.

Excuse me, do you have ACT English. (01)  I’ve lost my copy

Addressee perspective


+ Si vero + Un attimo che controllo se me n'è rimasta una copia.

+ Yes true + One minute and I’ll check if I’ve a copy left



 grazie. (03)

Thank you. (03)



(fra se) Porca miseria.  PORca.++ A:llora Act English ++  (ad alta voce) No infatti NON c'è. Non c'è

(to himself) Bloody hell. BLOOdy. ++ W:ell Act English ++ (aloud) No in fact it’s NOT here.  Not here.



Non c'è?             

It’s not here?

Appropriate use of echo


E' in arrivo.

It will arrive



E' in arrivo però.  %ecco% Non è che sia s:parito totalmente.

 It will arrive but %ok% it’s not dis:appeared completely

Pressure not put on




Il problema è che tarderà un PO'.

The problem is that it will take SOME time



Va bè.  


Pressure not put on


Direi almeno la metà di febbraio.

 I reckon at least not before mid February



Va bè, basta che -+ dopo c'è + io non ce l'ho proprio più.       

OK, as long as + afterwards it’s here + I just don’t have it.

Pressure not put on

 (BOF D-04; discussed in Zorzi 1990: 110)  Comments in italics by me, SG


underlined text:  pragmatic errors

In this interaction one can clearly see how the English speaker of Italian uses an English interactional pattern which does not require placing pressure on the shop assistant and how the Italian shop assistant appears embarrassed by the absence of this pressure.  The result is that the routines of the two speakers do not match and synchrony is lost.

It took the research group time to discover such differences and to mine our preconceptions of what is appropriate behaviour in a mundane action such as buying a book in a large bookshop.  It took us even more time to see clearly just how the instruments of description are themselves imbued with latent social expectations. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the use of the norms of Conversation Analysis themselves. At first these were, perhaps naively, assumed by the group to be neutral.  Instead, after wrestling for two years with the use of the CA description of turn-taking, Zorzi (1990) showed that what would be considered an interruption in American terms could instead be a collaborative overlap in Italian ones.  Once again, the perennial problem of finding universal modes to describe local realities was confirmed (cfr. George, 1990).

Similarly, albeit at the level of social attitude, Anna Ciliberti commented on how the Italian shop assistants seemed to need to assert a sense of their authority, probably because they were intimately less sure of an Italian authority structure than the English ones who appeared sure of themselves and without the need to assert power.

These observations reveal just how much can be discovered through the painstaking analysis of an apparently simple interaction.  In fact, in my opinion, one of the unexpected strengths of this project is that it shows how a conversational and possibly a social order is constituted. The ethnomethodologist Garfinkel tried to discover this with experiments of, for example, not paying for a ticket on a bus, but these did not show how order is constituted, only how social actors react to the disruption of an expected order. Instead, the analysis of the PIXI data base shows precisely how order is achieved by dancing the steps of known interlocking routines.

I drew inspiration for a whole range of teaching activities on spoken interaction at the University of Pisa from generalisations about face, attitude, power, authority and social and conversational space emerging from the PIXI work. Now I have moved on and am engaged in the opening of the heart beyond language in the work of the Social Presencing Theater developed by Arawana Hayashi (Presencing Institute, MIT, Boston). Even so, I shall never forget the restless inquisitiveness of Anna. the profound acumen and humbling humanity of Daniela, and the far-sighted determination and generosity of Guy in caring for texts (George, 1990) which even went beyond PIXI. I am deeply grateful to have been a Pixi and to have worn those bright red pixi shoes!


Garfinkel H. (1967), Studies in ethnomethodology, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

George S.E.  (1990), Gettings things done in Naples, CLUEB, Bologna.

Scharmer C.O. (2007), Theory U, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., San Francisco.

About the author(s)

Explorer of cross-cultural worlds through living in different parts of Italy while originating in the north of England. Lecturer in English linguistics in different universities but mostly in Pisa, where I was Head of Communication studies and organizer of a lower and higher degree in communication and systemics in four faculties + computing dept. of Pisa. Beyond all this, though, is a love for theater and teaching and for water-divining. Presently I’m specializing in Social Presencing Theater and the Theory U of the Presencing Institute (Boston) and applying it in different public administration contexts in Italy. If you can kindle the flame of individual exploration and set up real round (not rectangular) tables, you can create positive change easily and economically!

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©inTRAlinea & Susan E. George (2018).
"PIXI shoes making PIXI steps"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2329

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