The regulation of language in call centre service transactions

Hultgren, Anna Kristina (2005). The regulation of language in call centre service transactions. In: University of Oxford Postgraduate Conference in Linguistics, 23-24 Sep 2005, Oxford, UK.


If you have ever called your bank or your mobile phone company, it is highly likely that you have spoken to an agent in a call centre. Call centres are workplaces whose employees have as their primary task to interact with customers using integrated telephone and IT technology. They build on the principles of Taylorism (Knights and McCabe 1998) which involve developing strict rules for how the work is to be conducted and then deploying tight managerial control to make sure that the rules are abided by. The idea is that this will increase efficiency and secure a uniform service. The principles of Taylorism extend also to the language used by the agent in service transactions, causing part or total regulation across several linguistic levels including discourse, lexis, prosody and paralinguistic features (Cameron 2000).

Furthermore, in order to compensate for the en masse-service that is the result of removing the provision of service from face-to-face interaction, call centre agents are instructed to insert discourse particles into the service transaction that are designed to simulate a personal relationship with the customer, a concept dubbed ‘synthetic personalisation’ (Fairclough 1989). The ideal is to make the service transaction resemble more a ‘conversation between friends’ than a business transaction.

In my talk, drawing on interviews, training material, customer service manuals and assessment criteria used for performance reviews collected from a British call centre, I will show that agents are instructed to use particular questions, minimal responses, terms of address, words and greetings and argue that this is a reflection of Tayloristic regulation and ‘synthetic personalisation’. I will briefly discuss possible consequences of regulation and ‘synthetic personalisation’, more specifically what can happen when the responsibility for linguistic interaction is placed, not only on the conversational participants, but on players that are not taking part in the actual interaction.


Cameron, Deborah. 2000. Good to talk?: living and working in a communication culture. London, Sage.

Fairclough, Norman. 1989. Language and power. London, Longman.

Knights, David and Darren McCabe. 1998. What happens when the phone goes wild?: staff, stress and spaces for escape in a BPR regime? Journal of Management Studies 35(2):163-194.

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