"She Looked at Me Crazy": Escalation of Conflict through Telegraphed Emotion

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This exploratory study investigated a feature of adolescent social interaction that can quickly initiate or escalate conflict: telegraphed emotion (a specific emotion conveyed through a subset of its expressive components or through a brief, extreme display of the complete expression; Shields & Maybury, manuscript in preparation). In the form of "the look," telegraphed emotion conveys intensely felt, yet controlled, affect. Using focus groups, teenage females were asked to define the look and to discuss its use, such as who employs it, when it is used, and the consequence of using the look. They reported that the look has different meanings depending on whether it is directed at a friend or a nonfriend, and whether it is used by females or males. With friends, the purpose is to communicate anger, sadness, or disgust; with nonfriends, it indicates disgust or anger, but within a framework of asserting power or status. The look often results in escalation of conflict, especially a verbal or physical fight. These findings are discussed, and the implications for investigating and preventing adolescent interpersonal conflict are explored.

Adolescents in peer contexts are often faced with emotionally charged interpersonal situations (Gottman & Mettetal, 1986). A number of researchers have emphasized the need for greater understanding of the sequence and configuration of conflictual interactions that may lead to, or escalate, aggressive behavior (e.g., Johnson & Johnson, 1996; Laursen, Hartup, & Koplas, 1996; Rutherford & Nelson, 1995). Most research has focused on the larger societal, family, and peer group variables associated with violent behavior (e.g., Fraser, 1996), while there is a dearth of information regarding the transactions that contribute to specific, immediate conflicts.

Concern about adolescents' lack of skills for managing conflict effectively has led to the creation of intervention programs, which often provide peer mediation or teach conflict resolution. However, these have been devised largely without the benefit of data on the nature and frequency of routine conflicts (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). In their extensive, review of the literature on conflict resolution and peer mediation in schools, Johnson and Johnson (1996) point to the need for "analyses of the triggering events that spark conflict and the barriers that prevent it from occurring" (p. 469).

The goal of the present exploratory study was to gather information about one feature of nonverbal interaction that can quickly initiate or escalate conflict: telegraphed emotion (a specific emotion conveyed through a subset of its expressive components or through a brief, extreme display of the complete expression; Shields & Maybury, manuscript in preparation). In the form of "the look," telegraphed emotion conveys intensely felt, yet controlled, affect. How the look is implicated in emotionally charged peer interactions is examined here.

Focus groups were deemed the most appropriate method for obtaining a wide range of information and for enabling participants to disclose, and comfortably elaborate, the social dynamics of the look (Krueger, 1994; Vaughn, Schumm, & Sinagub, 1996). Only females were included in the groups, which avoided the introduction of cross-sex dynamics. Further, adolescent females are generally more advanced in social development than are males of the same age, and more able and willing to verbalize their observations of social processes (see Fine, 1992). The objective of each focus group was to have group members describe the types of emotionally charged situations in which adolescents find themselves and to gain an understanding of how they "read" the emotions of others. Of particular interest was telegraphed emotion as expressed in the look: (1) how they define it, (2) who uses it, (3) when it is used, and (4) the consequences of using it. Are certain adolescents more likely to use the look, and under what circumstanc es? …