Forced “yes” or “no” response as an interview format

Sticker with text: EU-hær - NEJ
The use of yes and no was also discussed up to the vote on Denmark’s EU defence opt-out in the spring

Many interviewers may pursue a “clear response” in political interviews by trying to enforce an interviewee to respond with either yes or no. Such yes-no-rounds are well established in Danish political interviews, and already on the first day of the current election, the second yes-no-round took place (as the prime minister had been interviewed with one the day before).

Yes-no-rounds build on the idea that politicians have difficulty providing a “clear” answer to questions, and that a response token like yes or no (Danish: ja and nej) is a “clear” answer. The actual worth is slightly more complex however, and both the interviewer and interviewee uses a number of resources to establish and circumvent the requirements of a yes-no-round. The purpose of questions and answers in a political interview is also slightly different from how questions and answers take place in everyday conversation.

In 2018, I was in contact with Brian Weichardt from Radio 24syv who created an experimental interview series with long discussions (approx. one hour) with politicians that were only allowed to answer yes or no (simply titled Ja eller Nej”Yes or No’). In an article from 2021, I looked at how the interviews went, while also drawing on some other yes-no-rounds, from the 2019 edition of Mød partierne (‘Meet the parties’) and from prime minister duels that took place in 2015.

Here I share some observations in the strategies used in yes-no-rounds, both for questioning and answering, based a number of examples. Excerpts are transcribed according to the conventions used by (except underlining is absent).

Yes, no and other responses used by the politician

In yes-no-rounds, politicians of course do respond with yes and no. However, there are a number of variations of them. Danish has variants of ja in nja or tja, but it is also possible to prosodically manipulate an action. For instance, a prolonged ja or nej can confirm or disconfirm with hesitation, while one with rising pitch can express enthusiasm or some positive attitude. There are also potentially spontaneus mixed variants (somewhat comparable to the nyem as described by Jefferson) – translation are approximate in this excerpt:

Ja eller Nej 2018: Brian Weichardt & Ida Auken
01 INT: har du noget imod at den midlertidige
        do you mind that the temporary
02      grænsekontrol egentlig er der↗
        border control takes place
03      (0.3)
04 IA:  nja:e*r*↘ (.) næ↘
        nye:*ah*       nope
05      (1.8)
06 INT: det (h)ar du ikk noget imod↘
        you don't mind that
07      (0.5)
08 IA:  .mt °°njar:ghj°° hh ja:→ jo:→ jein↗
              ne:uh:gh     ye:s yea:h yope   
09      (0.4)
10 INT: .hhhh ja jo jnein↘ ja→

Here, a yes-no-question gets a response first with a njaer that has a initial nasal sound [n] while prolonged and creaky, and then a ‘nope’. After a request for reconfirmation, the politician then uses a longer and lower in volume combination of nja and argh ‘ugh’, followed by ja, jo, jein.

Another strategy is to add words that limit the confirmation of e.g. a ja:

Mød Partierne 2019: Kåre Quist & Pia Olsen Dyhr
01 INT: du mener (a) skatten ska stige i den
        you believe (that) taxes should increase in the
02      kommende ↑valgperiode ja eller nej↗
        coming election period yes or no
03 POD: ja→ for nogen↘
        yes for some

Here, the politician adds for nogen ‘for some’ to specify why, or what, is being confirmed.

This may even take place without a yes or no and limiting the answer so much that a follow-up question is necessary:

Mød Partierne 2019: Kåre Quist & Mette Frederiksen
01 INT: lige nu der der f:yrre procent
        right now there are forty percent
02      kvinder i løkkes regering↗ 
        women in løkkes government
03      (0.4) 
04      vil du <love> (.) at du har flere (.) hvis
        will you promise that you have more if
05      du blir statsminister↘ 
        you become prime minister
06 MF:  .hhh 
07      (0.3) 
08      i hvert fald på statsministerposten↘ 
        at least on the prime minister post
09      (0.5) 
10      ((laughter from the audience, 1.9)) 
11      (0.3) 
12 INT: hva med resten↘
        what about the rest

Instead of a yes or no the response contains “at least on the prime minister post”, thus only confirming one of the ministers and not a whole goverment. The interviewer explicitly asks for an answer about the rest.

An answer can also partially (dis)confirm by formulating what it does not cover:

Mød Partierne 2019: Kåre Quist & Pernille Vermund
01 INT: du vil forbyde muslimske tørklæder
        you want to forbid muslim scarves
02      i det offentlige rum ja eller nej 
        in the public space yes or no
03      (.)
04 PV:  ikke i det offentlige rum mennot in the public space but in
05      offentlige institutioner å offentlige arbejdsplader 
        public institutions and public work places

The formulation “public space” in the question is disconfirmed with a negation, i.e. “not in the public space”, followed by a “but” and an alternative formulation. The politician relates to expectations about what they would support. The formulations in the question and answer are somewhat close, and the politician does not want to avoid the opportunity to confirm something just because of a minor difference. Answers that change the terms of the question are called transformative answers.

The interviewer’s work

The interviewer has to ask questions, but may need to do further work when a politician is not adhering to the concept of the yes-no-round. One way is to strategically interrupt a longer response:

Prime minister duel 1, 2015: Tine Götzsche
01 INT: lars løkke rasmussen er krisen Lars Løkke Rasmussen is the ((financial)) crisis
02 ovre i danmarkover in Denmark 03 (0.6)
04 LLR: ja→ ikk mindst takket være yes not least thanks to
05 de re[former JEG LAVEDE ME- the reforms I made wi-
06 INT: [det er den↘ ↑tak ska du ha↘ it is thanks must you have

Here, the response consists of yes and further talk, even though the yes in itself would be enough. But the interviewer starts to close the sequence at a time when the further talk has not reached a point of possible completion, thus the interviewer attempts to cut the answer short to a yes. A receipt of this type can also contain an interpretation of a response as a yes or no or comment on how “clear” it is:

Mød Partierne 2019: Kåre Quist & Pernille Skipper
01 INT: pernille skipper vi hørte lige din Pernille Skipper we just heard your
02 forgænger johanne schmidt-nielsen sige predecessor Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen say
03 <pisse på> for rullende kameraer i et "piss on" with cameras rolling in a
04 meget ophidset øjeblik- (.) ku du oss very agitated moment could you
05 finde på det ja eller nejalso do so yes or no
06 PS: .mhh jeg tror nærmest jeg er kommet I almost think I have done
07 til det så jait so yes
08 INT: det var klart ja that was a clear "yes"

The interviewer described the response as a “clear yes” despite the response being introduced with something else than a yes including the hedge “I almost think”. There are also cases of interviewers describing responses without any yes or no as a ‘clear’ response. It shows that the yes or no often refers to the action performed by these words, i.e. confiramtion and disconfirmation among others. When interviewers explicitly topicalize the clarity in this way, they are also feeding beliefs about what constituted a “clear” response or not.

The yes-no-round involves the interviewer asking a number of yes-no-questions (or polar interrogatives or requests for confirmation), or at least delivering statements that can be confirmed or disconfirmed with yes or no. The concept is very clear when a question is finished with “yes or no?” as seen in some of the previous instances. But the yes-no-round also forces the interviewer to only ask yes-no-questions which is sometimes easier said than done:

Ja eller Nej 2018: Brian Weichardt & Ida Auken
01 INT: å å og øh: hvornår begynder i på detand and and uh: when do you start doing that
02 (1.1)
03 om jeg så må sigeif I may say so
04 IA: jayes
05 (0.3)
06 INT: ja f nåja det oss rigtigt mdet er yes f oh yeah that's right it is
07 .hhhhhhhhhh lidt svært a bit difficult

The interviewer accidentally asks a when-question requesting a specification of a time. It is a relatively critical question, but the politician avoids answering by following the rules of the yes-no-round by answering yes. Responding to a wh-question with a yes is an established type of non-answering. If the interview does want an answer to a wh-question they are thinking about, they may have to guess though a potentially long sequence of yes-no-questions. In the next excerpt, the interviewer is trying to find out where the politician would place the responsibility for a scandal (the Tibet flag case):

Ja eller Nej 2018: Brian Weichardt & Søren Espersen
01 INT: .hh på ministerniveauon a minister level
02 (2.9)
03 SE: nejno
04 (0.3)
05 INT: nejno
06 (0.3)
07 .hhh så det på topembedsmandsniveau måskeso it's on top civil service level maybe
08 SE: mj[amyeah
09 INT: [m
10 jayes
11 (0.8)
12 INT: .hhhh (.) hva med i statsministerietwhat about in the ministry of the state
13 (0.8)
14 SE: jayes

Line 1, 7 and 12 contains different guesses getting closer to a specific answer. They are part of a longer sequence and because of that not formulated as full clauses, since that was done before the excerpt. It is worth mentioning that the last two cases are from the interviewseries Ja eller Nej with Brian Weichardt, where the yes-no-round was taken quite serious and literal. They are often less strict about it in the election interviews that are often faster in pacing.

Yes-no-rounds in the 2022 elections

Poster from Experimentarium with text: Jaaa!
A sign with a yes text.

The TV-program Mød partierne ‘Meet the parties’ from the Danish Broadcast Corporation is back for the current elections and interviews each party leader for approx. half an hour. As in previous iterations the interview ends with a yes-no-round with both pointed questions and some mostly entertaining ones. It is worth mentioning that the program starts with a round where the politician is supposed to confirm or disconfirm a series of statements, which was also done during previous elections. However, this should in theory be identical to a yes-no-round, just without the yes and no and in the beginning rather than end. But practically, it is taken in a less strict manner and the answers are often more detailed than (dis)confirming one-word-responses. Both this format and the yes-no-round occasionally becomes a minor topic of the discussion.

But I found the relation between the use of comparable rounds in the start and end interesting in relation to the yes-no-rounds used in a party leader debate broadcast the day the election was announced. During these yes-no-rounds, the party leaders were asked a question that they all had to respond to by holding up a sign that had yes on one side and no on the other. We can see this as a multimodal yes-no-round, and some signs were held sideways to not provide one of the two options, or they were held high to illustrate an enthusiastic response. However, these yes-no-rounds were used to introduce new topics for the debate, so not as a closing feature. Instead the responses (also shown on screen) were used as a point of departure for the discussion of the topic, giving politicians the opportunity to elaborate on what went behind a yes or no. This was also used strategically to get screen time. The yes-no-round was thus different from some of the other occasions I have seen, and adapted to the presence of multiple interviewees that each needed to provide a response. I like to see what happens when yes-no-rounds are experimented in this way, in the same way that Brian Weichardt’s interviews took them to the extreme. His interviews were also different in that they had plenty of time and no ongoing election campaign – and interviewed non-party-leaders.

While yes-no-rounds are a pretty restricting format for interviews, there are a number of ways it can differ and ways to fight back against the restrictions they impose. Interviews definitely underline how there are no innocent questions, and yes-no-rounds have been criticized for being conflict seeking and reductive, and some of the examples have shown how. Yes-no-questions often come with built-in premises and presuppositions and restrict the agency of the answerer. Clear answers are not necessarily simple answers, and so-called “clear” information may not be useful information, but discourses connected to specific forms like yes and no exist. Answers are very often about much more than yes and no, and there are ways to work around it when restricted that way. Yes-no-rounds are also adapted into the larger organization of interviews in various ways – both temporarily and in the participant constellation – with consequences for how a topic is treated overall.

Søren Sandager Sørensen is a postdoc on the project Grammar of Everday Life, and has written a PhD on the topic of response tokens such as yes and no in everday conversations in Danish.

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