Why are problematic interactional situations kept silent? The inequality of accountability as an invisible force

If we are caught lying, stealing, deceiving, neglecting important matters, or engaging in any other misconduct, we usually have to be accountable for our actions. Such accountability is an essential part of social order. However, accountability is also intertwined with power that is not evenly distributed. Many share the experience that some individuals seem to get away with misconduct more easily than others, and it doesn’t always feel fair.

We can also act wrongly in different interaction situations. For example, by not responding to a question or by answering a different question than the one the previous speaker posed. Interactional research has emphasized the democracy of interaction in the sense that such rules – as well as the accountability for breaking them – apply equally to all participants. But is it really the case? Is it still the case when one participant constantly talks over others or systematically ignores one participant’s opinions?

There are two types of accountability. There is “normative” accountability that indicates who has acted wrongly. However, accountability can also refer to the way we try to explain and justify our actions so that they appear rational, normal, and understandable. For example, a person who did not respond to a question may provide an account to their interaction partner, claiming that they did not hear the question or misunderstood it, thereby receiving immediate absolution, and most rational individuals usually aren’t even willing to label the incident as wrongdoing. In this “intelligibility”-oriented accountability, only misunderstandings or our ability to communicate effectively are at stake. From this perspective, interaction is immune to power relations and their unequal effects.

But who decides under which type of accountability each violation or wrongdoing is addressed? In our research project, we argue that this very question constitutes its own central arena for power struggles and is a source and perpetuator of inequality. The reason is that the prevailing cultural discourse that guides thinking suggests that violations that occur within interactional situations should be addressed right away – in those specific interactional situations, immediately after they occur. A competent, skilled interlocutor is assumed to be able to act this way, and if they cannot, it is considered that they have a reason to refrain from complaining afterward.

This inequality in accountability becomes especially evident in problematic interactional situations where the problems are related to expectations and demands related to the participant’s identity. This is the case, for example, in a work environment where an older person’s capabilities and expertise are consistently undervalued, and they are belittled. Handling these violations here and now can be challenging for anyone. However, it is particularly difficult for those who suffer the most from them. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Those in higher positions often have more opportunities and resources to control the agenda of the interaction and deviate from the rules and structures governing the “normal” flow of interaction, while those in weaker positions are more likely to ignore violations.
  2. If the violation is addressed in the interactional situation, it is likely to be referred to as a mere misunderstanding or a communication problem within the framework of “intelligibility,” which releases the wrongdoer from responsibility from the perspective of “normative” accountability.
  3. If a person provides post-hoc explanations for a problematic interactional situation, the narrative is immediately undermined if the storyteller has to simultaneously claim that they could have addressed the problem in the situation but chose not to for some reason.

Interaction problems can often be quite subtle, and they can be challenging to document credibly. For this reason, interactional problems often go unaddressed. The inequality in accountability and the discourse with slogans such as “Why didn’t you say it right away?” “You should have spoken up directly!” “Issues should be resolved immediately, and they should not be brooded upon to avoid misunderstandings!” are, however, significant factors in why problematic interactional situations are kept quiet, and why, in these cases as well, some individuals seem to get away with misconduct more easily than others.

This text is based on: Stevanovic (2023) Accountability and interactional inequality: The management of problems of interaction as a matter of cultural ideals and ideologies – an article.