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Research capsule

Saying no isn’t always easy

The ease of expressing disagreement or dissent to a proposition varies depending on the way the proposition is structured. In addition, this ability to reject assertions is not the same across all languages.

These are among the findings of the research of Elizabeth Allyn Smith, a researcher in the Department of Linguistics at Université du Québec à Montréal. In 2015, she conducted an experiment involving several groups of 60 participants, sorted by language. Participants spoke Québec French, English, Spanish from Spain or Uruguay, or Catalan.

This ability to reject assertions is not the same across all languages.

The participants listened to short exchanges during which one person made an assertion, to which the other replied in the negative. Everyone was then asked to assess whether the response seemed natural to them. The results illustrated certain differences between the languages. For example, French speakers found it strange to hear someone say “no” to a person who expressed a personal taste such as “I find this soup tasty”, while Spanish speakers found it perfectly normal.

In subsequent research, Elizabeth Allyn Smith showed that, depending on the language, the way in which certain questions are formulated can change a person’s negative response. For example, to the question “Around what time did you arrive at the movie theatre?”, French speakers and English speakers will tend to respond with a time, rather than saying “I didn’t go to the movies, I went to the gym,” because it is more difficult for them to correct a presupposition (here, their presence at the movie theatre) that is not the direct subject of the question (here, the time).
The researcher’s work could have applications in other areas, such as law, where, during an interrogation, the wording of a question may change the response of a witness or a suspect.