Linguistic Regulation and Interactional Reality: A Sociolinguistic Study of Call Centre Service Transactions

Hultgren, Anna Kristina (2009). Linguistic Regulation and Interactional Reality: A Sociolinguistic Study of Call Centre Service Transactions. PhD thesis University of Oxford.


This thesis aims to contribute to the study of workplace talk, language and gender, and the sociolinguistics of globalization by exploring the phenomenon of ‘linguistic regulation’ in call centres. ‘Linguistic regulation’ refers to the practice, now widespread in the globalized service economy, of codifying and enforcing rules for employees’ use of language in service interactions with customers. Drawing on authentic service interactions from call centres in the UK and Denmark, and interviews and communication material from both those countries as well as Hong Kong and the Philippines, this study shows that linguistic regulation exerts a significant influence on the language used by call centre agents, and suggests that this has implications for all three areas of inquiry. In relation to the study of workplace talk, the findings raise questions about the degree of local management and individual speaker agency that has often been asserted in previous work. In the area of language and gender studies, the finding that female speakers in both countries show a higher degree of compliance with linguistic regulation than male ones is related to ongoing debates about the local variability of gender. It is argued that the field may benefit from
supplementing the currently favoured locally-based methods with one which seeks to link linguistic behaviour with supra-local systems of inequality. Finally, in relation to the sociolinguistics of globalization, this thesis documents the existence of a distinct, globally prescribed, call centre style which is culturally marked as North-American. In practice, this style is locally inflected, with British agents exhibiting greater conformity to the prescriptions than their Danish counterparts. It is argued that this may be because the prescribed style conflicts with the Danish cultural preference for ‘getting to the point’. These findings highlight the importance of considering language in the context of a global system. The thesis concludes by considering what the research it is based on may
contribute, not only to academic debates in sociolinguistics and the sociology of work, but also to professional discussions within the call centre industry.

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