Telephone conversation openings across languages, cultures and settings

Márquez Reiter, Rosina and Luke, Kang-kwong (2010). Telephone conversation openings across languages, cultures and settings. In: Trosborg, Anna ed. Pragmatics across languages and cultures. Handbooks of Pragmatics [HOPS] (7). De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 103–138.



The organization of telephone conversation has received much scholarly attention since Schegloff’s pioneering work in the 1960s and 1970s (Schegloff 1968, 1979). There are several reasons why researchers have been fascinated by telephone conversations in spite of their “apparently perfunctory character” (Schegloff 1986: 113). First, telephone calls are arguably the second most important site of speech interaction after face-to-face conversation. For tens of thousands of years face-to-face conversation was the only mode of speech interaction that humans had for communication. However, with the invention of the telephone in 1876 and its subsequent popularization, a new mode of communication was born. In today’s rapidly shrinking world of telecommunications, many people, particularly in the urban areas, are spending as much, if not more, time on telephone conversation than face-to-face interaction. Telephone conversation has thus gained a special status for students of language and social interaction. Second, for those interested in naturally occurring talk, the telephone offers a source of good quality data, unlike face-to-face conversations which often come with noise and other disturbances and complications. It is true that telephone calls are subject to a much more restrictive set of ‘ecological constraints’ than face-to-face conversations; for example, participants have no access to visual cues such as facial expressions and gestures. However, this turns out to be both a limitation and an advantage. From the analyst’s point of view, one of the attractions of telephone conversational data lies precisely in its absence of visual information. With telephone data, ‘what you hear is what you get’, which means that the same amount of speech information available to the participants is also available to the analyst. This contrasts significantly with recordings of face-to-face talk, where the analyst may not have access to visual cues, unless he also has a video recording. Yet another reason for the appeal of telephone conversations -- perhaps the most attractive one for many -- is the possibility of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural generalisations. As a type of speech event, telephone conversations the world over can in principle be defined and delimited by a set of organizational tasks, including such elements as making contact, establishing identity, exchanging preliminaries, presenting reason-for-call, managing topics, moving into closing, terminating calls, etc. With reference to these parameters researchers can chart variations in how these organizational tasks are handled in different linguistic, social and cultural settings. Thus, it has been suggested that “when it comes to making comparisons across linguistic and cultural settings, telephone conversations provide us with as close a situation as we could get to controlled experimental conditions.” (Luke and Pavlidou 2002: 6)

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