The Pragmatics of Online Healthcare Communication: Politeness Strategies in the HealthUnlocked “Anxiety and Depression Support” Community

30 May 2024
Room D1

The Pragmatics of Online Healthcare Communication: Politeness Strategies in the HealthUnlocked “Anxiety and Depression Support” Community

As Locher and Schnurr (2017) remark, the vast literature on health and communication across different media has so far rarely employed theories of (im)politeness as a starting point for analysis, and applying (im)politeness research to healthcare communication represents a fairly recent area of enquiry within applied linguistics (Mullany, 2009). Moreover, although internet-related healthcare environments have received increasing attention in the last few years (Locher, 2010; Prestin & Chou, 2014), (im)politeness in interactions among patients remains a relatively underexplored area which only a handful of studies have investigated to date (e.g., Harrison & Barlow, 2009). Building on such a background, this paper presents a case study in CMC focusing on the health social network and online support community HealthUnlocked. It is widely acknowledged that, despite the ample availability of informational websites, many people experiencing health problems prefer to rely on social media consultations and debates to obtain information/advice about their conditions and share their thoughts/feelings with other patients, as these sites represent a non-judgmental space offering emotional assistance and support. This paper analyses the occurrence of diverse politeness strategies such as claiming common ground, hedging and indirectness (Brown & Levinson, 1987) related to expressing empathy and giving encouragement/advice, in the online feedback that patients sharing analogous mental conditions offer each other as members of the HealthUnlocked “Anxiety and Depression Support” community. Examining selected threads of conversational exchanges, it can be noticed that postings are broadly characterised by the use of short personal narratives aimed at asking for/providing emotional support; expressing encouragement/solidarity/shared concerns; requesting/giving advice relatively indirectly (mainly through declaratives) in order to minimise imposition and redress potentially face-threatening acts. Besides revealing the potential of CMC for emotional and psychological counselling, this study may also throw light on the pragmatics of conversational exchanges on medical platforms as forms of intercultural exchange, since the website policy of anonymous subscription and participation in discussions via nicknames leaves the question open as to whether its users share English as a first language, or use it as a LF to communicate in a specific context.



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