Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Art of “Yes, But …”

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I am not an unusually argumentative person. but it is true that I disagree with people all the time. I disagreed with my husband this morning when we talked about what might be causing our stuffy noses. Right now, at work, we are renegotiating some of our duties and in order to express my opinions, I have to disagree with co-workers and even my boss. I even disagreed with my mother just last night on the phone about what she should pack for her trip to visit me. Now, I don’t go out of my way to be contrary, but expressing alternate opinions is a normal part of almost all relationships. Just think about it. Who was the last person you disagreed with? It probably wasn’t all that long ago, was it?

Most of these disagreements are no big deal. I mean, just because my husband and I disagree about whether we have colds or allergies, it doesn’t mean our marriage is on the rocks. In my culture, disagreeing with my parents about something like a packing list doesn’t mean I don’t respect or love them. I am just giving a different opinion. So, can we agree that our English interactions are peppered with (usually) minor disagreements?

Expressions of Disagreement may not Translate

The problem for our students is that, according to many researchers, such as Johnson (2006) and Walkinshaw (2009), the expressions proficient English speakers use to disagree are not the same as what learners might use in their L1. In fact, the language that speakers use to signal polite disagreement differs widely from culture to culture. While this is true for many conversational acts, it is more frustrating for both parties when students disagree in English while following their cultures’ conversational “rules.”

First, they might be so indirect it is not clear to the listener that they are, in fact, disagreeing. Sometimes it takes me a while to understand that a student is disagreeing with me because, in their efforts to be polite (they are, after all, teenagers disagreeing with an adult teacher), they are so vague their message is obscured. Or, more disastrously, it might seem like they are being too direct or even rude. No one ever likes to be told, “You are wrong,” especially a boss by an employee or a teacher by a student. Clearly, international students who need to work or study in a native English speaking context need to be aware of the expectations speakers may have, as “it does not take massive breakdowns to create tensions between people of different cultural backgrounds. Rather, it is a cumulative process made up of uncomfortable moments and small frustrations.” (Beal, 1992, pages 49 – 50) In other words, listeners won’t hear a direct disagreement as a pragmatic error in the same way they would hear a dropped final –s as a grammatical error. They might just think the speaker is weak or obnoxious.

Teaching Student to Disagree

So, if disagreeing politely is different in students’ L1s, and if we want to equip them with the tools to dispute another opinion, we need to be teaching this in our classes. Research indicates that students don’t pick this sort of thing up accidentally; explicit instruction is necessary (Huth and Taleghani-Nikazm, 2006). The problem is that many texts or other ESL materials don’t cover this. Or, if they do, the expressions they present are often stiff and formal. For example, when I went online to have a quick browse, I came across, which is a nice site I use in my classes. However, the list of gambits they suggest include the following:

  • I don’t think so.
  • (strong) No way.
  • I’m afraid I disagree.
  • (strong) I totally disagree.
  • I beg to differ.
  • (strong) I’d say the exact opposite.
  • Not necessarily.
  • That’s not always true.
  • That’s not always the case.
  • No, I’m not so sure about that.

Some of these expressions are useful in certain circumstances, for sure. But if I were having a conversation with a student about whether or not “Transformers” is a good movie, I would be thrown off if the student “begged to differ” rather than just said “No way,” even though the latter is a stronger form of disagreement.

Thus, rather than an awkward list of occasionally useful phrases, we would do better to look to Conversational Analysis for inspiration. In fact, experts who have recorded hours and hours of conversation and then studied it all under a linguistic microscope have narrowed our strategies for disagreeing into the following 4 tidy categories (Pomerantz, 1984):

  • agreement prefaced disagreement (“Yes, but …”)
  • delaying strategies (“Well …”)
  • expressing disbelief / checking (“Really?”)
  • pretending confusion (“What?”)

The “agreement prefaced disagreement” is the most popular, but since becoming familiar with this list, I have heard all 4 used. For instance, my husband’s favourite is to pretend he doesn’t understand. A fellow teacher tends to cock her head to one side and say “Well …” in a drawn-out, high-pitched Southern accent.

A Disagreeing Lesson Plan

Students first need to think about how they disagree in their L1, so I usually prompt a discussion by asking them if they can disagree with just anyone in their culture and what language they use to do so. Then, we watch a video I have made of friends disagreeing politely (the conversation was not scripted; I just asked them to disagree and pressed record) and read the transcript. I ask questions to prompt the students to notice the strategies used. Then, I write the list categories CA has uncovered, and we brainstorm expressions that might be appropriate to each one. Finally, I give the group a topic that is bound to prompt disagreement, like the “Starting a New Civilization” (Rooks, 1988) activity that I describe in a previous post. Finally, I might assess their output by having them disagree with me and recording them for feedback.

At the end of the day, disagreeing may not be the most pleasant or comfortable thing our students have to do, but they need to understand the indirect ways we disagree in English and they need to know how to do it themselves if they have to.


Beal, C. (1992) Did you have a good weekend? Or why there is no such thing as simple question in cross-cultural encounters, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 15 (1), pages 23-52.

Huth,T.and Taleghani-Nikazm, C. (2006) How can insights from conversation analysis be directly applied to teaching L2 pragmatics? Language Teaching Research, 10, pages 53-79.

Johnson, F. (2006) “Agreement and disagreement: A cross cultural comparison”, BISAL 1, pages 41-67.

Pomerantz, A. (1984) Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred / dispreferred turn shapes. In J. Atkinson & J. M. Heritage (Eds.), Structures in Social Action, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rooks, G. (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook, Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Walkinshaw, I. (2009) Learning Politeness: Disagreement in a Second Language, Oxford, UK: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers.


Comment from Patrick T. Randolph
January 31, 2016 at 11:07 pm

This is an excellent idea for a lesson plan. Furthermore,
the notion of “disagreeing” effectively is necessary for all of our ELLs to learn. It could be used at so many levels–from intermediate to international TAs.

Comment from Tamara Jones
February 1, 2016 at 11:26 am

Thanks, Patrick! I agree that this kind of lesson can be tweaked to be appropriate at a variety of levels.

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