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Surprise as an interactional achievement: Reaction tokens in conversation

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JournalSocial Psychology Quarterly
DatePublished - Jun 2006
Issue number2
Number of pages33
Pages (from-to)150-182.
Original languageEnglish


The expression of surprise-at something unexpected-is a key form of emotional display. Focusing on displays of surprise performed by means of reaction tokens (akin to Goffman's "response cries"), such as wow, gosh, oh my god, ooh!, phew, we use an ethnomethodological, conversation-analytic approach to analyze surprise in talk-in-interaction. Our key contribution is to detach the psychology of surprise from its social expression by showing how co-conversationalists collaborate to bring off an interactionally achieved performance of surprise. Far from being a visceral eruption of emotion, the production of a surprise token is often prepared for several turns in advance. We also show how surprise can be recycled on an occasion subsequent to its initial production, and how surprise displays may be delayed by silence, ritualized disbelief and other repair initiations. Finally, we consider some of the uses of surprise as an interactional resource, including its role in the reflection and reproduction of culture.

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