Red Carpet Blues
What Hugh Grant's awkward moment tells us about failed conversations
By now you have probably seen the clip (below) of Hugh Grant on the red carpet at the Oscars and if you have, you probably have an opinion on it. Indeed, it’s the fact that a clip like this is so good at generating opinions which makes it likely you’ve seen it. Viral clips, like well-designed products, instruct the user into how to use them. The most “successful” clips effectively offer up two possible opinions, like a red dress/blue dress puzzle on which we can all take sides over social media. This is a good example.
The first available opinion here is that Hugh Grant is doing something marvellous. He is exposing the shallowness and insincerity of the questioner and by extension the whole fake and tacky show. He’s deploying English erudition and irony to reveal the vacuity of Hollywood manners.
The second available opinion is that Grant is being insufferably rude. He deliberately embarrasses his blameless interviewer, Ashley Graham. He refuses to play the red carpet game despite having consented to it by turning up in the first place. This is a high-status person humiliating someone beneath him in the showbiz hierarchy.
For myself, I took the second option. I instinctively recoiled from Grant’s apparent air of superiority. The moment when he mentions “Vanity Fair” and kind of mugs at her seems both pompous and insular (why should anyone expect a twenty-something Californian to be familiar with nineteenth century English literature?).
To say I had an opinion on the clip isn’t quite right. I think it’s more accurate to say I had an opinion on the opinions. What I was really reacting to was all the people enthusiastically and, to my eyes, obsequiously, congratulating Grant (and therefore themselves) on his cultural dominance display. Having studied the actual conversation more closely, I think I might have been too harsh on Grant.
Now, I’m wary of presenting two polarised opinions and saying ‘hey guys, there’s a more nuanced third way here’, which itself can be a subtle display of superiority, and quite an annoying one. I’ll be honest: I still lean towards the second opinion. But I’m less certain that I was.
When I say I have studied the conversation more closely, what I really mean is that I asked someone else to. Elizabeth Stokoe is an LSE professor and a leader in the field of conversation analysis. Conversation analysts study all kinds of social interactions, from, from small talk to big talk, first dates to hostage negotiations (I guess sometimes those two overlap), in painstaking detail. They break each conversation down into its constituent parts, gathering data on every split-second pause, microtonal adjustment of pitch, and momentarily furrowed brow. Then they analyse what’s going on in relation to the hidden rules of conversation - the unspoken norms and conventions which determine how well or badly an interaction goes.
Elizabeth is more interested in why conversations work or don’t work than in assigning blame. She created a detailed transcript of the Grant-Graham conversation using the protocol of her field: the Jefferson Transcription System. I won’t include the transcript here but I’ll quote from her notes on it.
Elizabeth observes that as the conversation progresses, the two participants move in and then out of alignment - that is, their mutual understanding of what they are doing, why they’re having the conversation, and how they feel about it. “They start off on the same page, more or less. AG is smiling – note all all the £ signs, plenty from HG too.” (“£ signs” has a specific meaning in the Jeffersonian system, unrelated to money - it means using a smiley voice.) When Graham calls him “a veteran of the Oscars”, Grant shrugs and smiles, which, as Elizabeth puts it, is “a slightly ambiguous response that is perfectly fitted to the slightly ambiguous categorisation - i.e. is she calling him old, or respecting his experience?”
So far, so aligned. This conversation is going well!
Next, she asks him his favourite thing about coming to the Oscars. Hugh does a “thinking face”, and comes up with “the whole world of humanity is here!”. Ashley laughs. Although there is a little tension, at this stage, as Elizabeth puts it, “they’re still together – her laughter supporting his project.”
Now things start to get more tricky. Hugh says “it’s Vanity Fair!” and gives Ashley a meaningful look, inviting her to acknowledge his joke and sympathise with his implication. But she takes him to be referring to the Vanity Fair afterparty - which, frankly even if she did know her Thackeray would be a reasonable inference given the immediate context. Notably, Hugh does not do anything to “correct” her.
Now they really start talking past each other. The exchange becomes a stop-start series of new topics as they struggle to find the kind of common ground or shared vibe that allows a conversation to flow naturally.
Graham asks Grant what he’s most excited about seeing. He doesn’t understand the question and attempts something that conversation analysts call “initiating repair” - that is, he tries to fix the problem (“…to see”?). So he is at least making an effort here. And as Elizabeth points out, his confusion is legitimate, since Graham said “what” rather than “who”, which made it sound like she was asking about movies rather than awards being handed out.
When Graham makes it clear that she’s asking who he’s excited about seeing, he leaves what Elizabeth calls a “long gap filled with an embodied display of searching/thinking” (in conversation analysis, a “long” gap can be very short, depending on context). Then he gives up on it. Graham ploughs on: “OK, well, what are you wearing tonight then?” Elizabeth: “The ‘then’ at the end of this question is interesting, and perhaps is expressing a bit of frustration, as if she’ll try a different approach to get him talking.”
Grant’s response - “Just my suit?” - is what conversation analysts call “try-marked” – turning a response into a question, to seek confirmation that the speaker understands what their interlocutor means. Graham initiates repair in a mildly teasing tone: “YOUR suit”. Grant says, “My tailor”. I think for those of us on the anti-Hugh side he might have lost points for that, but it’s a reasonable response - he’s just telling the truth, what’s he supposed to do.
Then Graham asks him about Glass Onion. Elizabeth notes that up until now, all Graham’s questions have been entirely generic. The shift to the personal ought to have helped but only ends up making things worse, since he only has a small part in the film and feels awkward about accepting her extravagant praise. Graham talks about all the fun he must have had making the movie, but this again is generic - you don’t have to know much about Grant to perceive that he’s not really a “fun” guy. They end up in very different places; Graham effusive, Grant disgruntled.
In Elizabeth’s view, the Graham-Grant conversation foundered on bad tailoring, or what she calls “recipient design”. Recipient design refers to everything a person does to tailor their communication to the person they’re talking to. It can include choices made in tone of voice, topics, words - anything that shows that the speaker has an eye to who the recipient is and what they might want from the conversation. Poor recipient design leads to poor conversation; to confusion, boredom, embarrassment and annoyance.
Graham was working to a script that was particularly ill-fitted to this recipient and made no attempt to modify it. Grant’s responses were a series of anguished signals that he wasn’t the right person for these questions (not the first time he’s struggled with a bad script). Elizabeth: “One might say that HG was not rude, and AG was not asking silly questions of her own design. She had the difficult task of delivering (poorly) scripted questions - while having to look happy about everything! - and he had the task of trying to figure out what the questions actually meant for him - of trying to turn generic questions into ones he could respond to.”
Elizabeth’s analysis has shifted my view of the conversation and makes me think I was too harsh on Hugh. But, like a detective who can’t shake his suspicion of a suspect with a foolproof alibi, I still have doubts. I think they come down to this: to what extent was he tailoring his responses for the third party in this conversation - that’s to say, us? If he was self-consciously creating a scene for the camera in order to display his craggy integrity, then damn him to hell. If he was genuinely struggling to answer generic questions in a way that was both honest and polite then, as someone who occasionally gets stumped by the question, “How are you?” I have sympathy. If you’re not in the mood for it, small talk can be hard.
If you’re interested in learning more about conversation analysis I recommend Elizabeth’s brilliant book, Talk: The Science of Conversation.
I haven’t had time to finish my usual rattle-bag of notes and links, so that’s going out separately, tomorrow. It will be for paid subscribers only. You won’t want to miss it, there is some fantastic stuff in it.
You can support The Ruffian by taking a paid sub and/or booking me for talks. I offer flawless recipient design.