Many helpline services are available to women with experiences of violence. But what actually happens when these women call for help? Are there small things that could be changed to improve interpersonal communication between service providers and clients? Our research shows that an ordinary question about address could pose difficulties for women experiencing housing instability. Although routinely used by the institution to identify callers, the question sometimes led to personal disclosures of violence which can be retraumatising for women.
The negative impacts of gendered violence, the barriers that prevent women from help-seeking, and the difficulties women face being believed and getting help are well established. However, little is known about what happens in the ‘here and now’ of interactions between support service providers and clients. Our research analyses naturally occurring calls for help which were audio recorded with ethical permission from callers and call-takers. The setting is a victim support helpline in New Zealand. We used conversation analysis to examine in detail the sequential unfolding of talk turn by turn. For women who had experienced violence at home, answering a routine institutional question about address could be difficult. Housing instability is a well-known problem associated with domestic violence and our findings originally highlight how it also creates trouble at the micro level of social interaction with institutions whose role is to help.
A seemingly innocuous question
At face value, the question “what’s your address?” seems innocuous. It’s the kind of question that routinely gets asked in a variety of institutional interactions. On the victim support helpline we studied, call-takers asked the question to confirm callers’ details against their casefiles. Yet our analyses reveal that the question can be difficult to answer. Questions convey presuppositions and communicate values, assumptions, and beliefs about the world. These assumptions are particularly problematic for women experiencing domestic violence and housing instability.
Recurrently, women who had experienced violence were unable to answer the address question straightforwardly. The case below demonstrates how this interactional trouble is visible in the details of the talk. The transcript represents both what was said and how, including features like silences (timed in tenths of a second) and non-lexical sounds like “um”. Capturing this level of detail makes visible what is happening at the micro level of social interaction. For example, the first indication that the question is not straightforward for the caller is the 1.8 seconds of silence that follows (line 12). Usually straightforward answers to questions come without delay. The second indication of trouble is the “um” at the beginning of the caller’s turn (line 13).
The caller responds to the question by describing her living situation. Housing instability is indicated by the reference to time “at the moment” and the description of where she is “staying” (line 13) – which is not a place of permanent residence. In her next turn (line 17), the caller elaborates with an explanation. Accounts like this reveal how people understand and construct their worlds. In this case, the caller treats her living arrangements as non-normative and in need of explanation. The reason that she does not have an address is because, like many women escaping violence, she does not reside where she used to. The term “ex-partner” (line 17) makes it inferentially available that the caller left her home because of violence, which is confirmed later in the call. Thus, a routine institutional question about address is difficult to answer for this caller and occasions an unnecessary – albeit implicit – disclosure of violence.
Unintentional consequences of ordinary actions
Asking for an address is a very ordinary question that does small but important things such as confirming a caller’s identity for institutional purposes. Our research suggests that institutions should carefully consider how routine practices such as asking for address might pose unintended problems for service users in vulnerable circumstances. Analyses of what actually happens in service encounter interactions is important for empirically grounded recommendations for the delivery of socially sensitive support.
In sum, this study shows how a global problem of domestic violence and housing instability also becomes a trouble at the micro level of social interaction.
About the authorsAnn Weatherall is a professor in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington whose work is shaped by conversation analysis, feminism and social psychology. Her current research examines how empowerment self-defence classes teach vocal and embodied strategies to deescalate and deflect violence.
Emma Tennent is a lecturer in psychology with research interests in interpersonal communication, gender and language, and social psychology. Her research examines identity and social relations in both institutional and everyday interactions.