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Professor Dawn Archer Explores The Pragmatics Of Influence

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By Jacqueline Grima

Humanities in Public Festival returned this week at Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) with an inaugural lecture by Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange for Languages, Information and Communications, Professor Dawn Archer.

The lecture entitled ‘Influencing Others: An Explanation of “How it’s Done” from a (Primarily) Linguistic Perspective’ was introduced by Dr Derek Bousfield, Head of Department of Languages, Information and Communications at Manchester Met.

Speaking to Humanity Hallows, Dawn explained that her lecture was designed to explore what she refers to as ‘The Pragmatics of Influence’, or, in other words, what people want others to think when they communicate. She said,

“I’m starting from the premise that influence is generally a really good thing but will also be looking at how it can become manipulative. Influence is a very powerful thing and with great power comes great responsibility.”

Dawn began by sharing the many positive influences in her own life, such as parents, teachers and work colleagues and how she tries to be a good influence to her own children and students. However, according to Dawn, influence can also be a negative thing and can quickly turn into manipulation or even deception. She said, “There are people out there who are extremely adept at using people.”

As an example of this kind of influence, Dawn looked at Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, a character she referred to as “the master manipulator”. In the play, Iago plants the idea in Othello’s head that the King’s wife, Desdemona, is being unfaithful, influencing him in such a way that Othello believes he has thought of the idea himself. In poisoning the King’s thoughts in this way, Iago displays what Dawn referred to as a “high level of emotional intelligence.”

“We tell lies but we leak truth.”

Dawn went on to talk about a research project that she has worked on with Director of the Emotional Intelligence Academy, Cliff Lansley, that focusses on the SCAN-R method of reading people’s body language during attempts to influence and potentially deceive.

To demonstrate, Dawn showed the audience a clip of a public appeal made on ITN News by Mick Philpott who lost six of his children in a house fire that had been started deliberately. Philpott was eventually convicted of starting the fire himself and was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison. Dawn revealed “points of interest” or inconsistencies in his language and body language during the television appeal that unveiled his deception.

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Photography: Ade Hunter

According to Dawn, Philpott’s facial expressions, extensive politeness and distancing language were all inconsistent with the words he was saying and the context in which he was speaking. This is something that Dawn referred to as “impression management”, further commenting, “We tell lies but we leak truth.”

Dawn then went on to examine the work of police negotiators who are trained to influence and persuade hostage takers or potentially suicidal individuals in critical situations. They are expected to become attuned with the people they are speaking to in order to shift them towards a safer way of thinking.

As an example of how negotiation procedures can go wrong, Dawn told the audience about the case of 20-year-old American Grant Sattaur, who shot himself in 2007 after his girlfriend, Krystal, ended their relationship. Worried about Grant’s safety, Krystal called the police. Dawn demonstrated how the seemingly negative influence of the police negotiator, who called Grant “stubborn” and a “coward” and told him to “shut up”, appeared to lead the young man to tragically take his own life.

As Dawn said, “It was as though the negotiator was talking to himself.” She added, “I know how to influence people and I make it my maxim in life that if I’m going to influence I’m going to do it for the good of others as well as myself.”

The respondent to Dawn’s lecture was Professor Jonathan Culpeper from the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University. Jonathan talked about how much he had enjoyed the lecture and discussed what he called “takeaways” or ideas regarding influence that he could take away from the event and apply in the real world.

The theme for this strand of Humanities in Public is ‘WORLD’ and the intention of this strand is to ‘examine just a few of the pressing questions that our existence in the WORLD confronts us with’. The next event, entitled The Great British Breadwinner: Shared Parental Leave 1 Year On, takes place on Wednesday 20th April.

For more information about this and other upcoming events, visit the Humanities in Public webpage.

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