Review of Telephone Calls
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 2003 16:15:28 +0200
From: Anne Barron
Subject: Telephone Calls: Unity and Diversity in Conversational Structure
Luke, Kang Kwong and Pavlidou, Theodossia-Soula, ed. (2002) Telephone
Calls: Unity and Diversity in Conversational Structure Across Languages
and Cultures, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Pragmatics and
Beyond New Series 101.
Anne Barron, University of Bonn (Germany)
The present volume is devoted to the study of language use in telephone
calls across cultures. It has its beginnings in a panel of the same title
organised by the editors, Kang Kwong Luke and Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou,
at the 6th International Pragmatics Conference held in Reims in July
1998. Complementing those papers presented on this occasion are three
further papers written by Emanuel A. Schegloff, Paul ten Have and
Yong-Yae Park. The main aim of the volume is, as the editors also state
(p. 18), to "bring together studies of telephone conversations in
different languages and cultures in order to facilitate comparisons
across both linguistic and cultural boundaries". In so doing, they wish
to highlight areas of cultural variation and also to arrive at reliable
generalisations regarding telephone interaction across cultures.
The volume comprises an introduction, three main sections consisting of a
total of nine papers written by an international group of ten researchers
from three continents, and a subject and name index. While Cantonese,
Greek, Japanese, Korean, and Persian are the primary languages under
investigation, data from American English, Danish, Dutch, Ecuadorian
Spanish and German is also discussed. The approaches employed vary, and
include research from a conversational analytical and ethnographical,
discourse analytical framework but the conversational analytical work
conducted by Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff forms the starting point
for most of the empirical papers. Finally, it should be noted that the
majority of papers concentrate on the description of naturally-occurring
telephone call data in one particular culture although Rasmussen and
Wagner investigate aspects of international telephone calls.
The book begins with a comprehensive introduction by the editors in which
they outline the aims and focus of interest of different approaches
(sociological, methodological and intercultural) which have been taken to
the study of telephone calls. A short overview is also given of previous
research on telephone calls, particularly in view of universal and
culture-specific aspects of such interactions. Gaps in the research are
also highlighted and the agenda for the edited volume set.
Section one is the longest of the three sections, encompassing 106 pages
and four papers. It is devoted to the opening phases of telephone calls,
the most comprehensively researched aspect of telephone conversations to
date. The first contribution in section one is entitled "Recognition and
identification in Japanese and Korean telephone conversation openings."
Here, in an analysis of 120 Japanese and 120 Korean telephone openings,
Yong-Yae Park focuses on the identification/recognition sequence, one of
four sequences found by Emanuel Schegloff to occur in the opening section
of telephone calls. Park's particular focus is on self-identification but
she notes that contrary to prescriptive work in Japanese, and also
contrary to Korean folk-etiquette, other-recognition does also occur in
both languages when the relationship between the caller and recipient is
very close. Self-identification is, however, strongly preferred,
particularly in Japanese. Park identifies two types of
self-identification in Japanese and Korean. The first type involves the
use of "nuntey" or "kedo", linguistic particles in Korean and Japanese
respectively, which mark a projected subsequent action. This type of
self-identification is found to give an interaction a business-like tone
since the use of "nuntey" or "kedo" marks self-identification as a
preliminary action to an action to a subsequent action (i.e. giving the
reason for the call or performing a switchboard request). In the second
type of self-identification, on the other hand, "kedo" or "nuntey" are
not present. Consequently, it is the self-identification itself which is
portrayed as the primary activity in such cases. In this way, the
interaction achieves the status of an informal, "just to say hi",
The starting point of Maria Sifianou's paper, "On the telephone again!
Telephone conversation openings in Greek", is also Schegloff's research
on American telephone calls. Her analysis is based on 121 telephone
openings in Greek recorded from five adults and 675 recordings collected
by students of their own interactions. This data base consists
predominantly of personal or familiar conversations. Unlike Park's
analysis, Sifianou analyses her data in terms of all four core sequences
of the canonical opening identified by Schegloff (summons-answer,
identification or recognition, greeting and lastly, initial inquiries and
responses to these). She finds that while all four sequences can occur,
they do so only rarely in Greek telephone calls and only in cases of
social distance. Moreover, in such situations the sequences tend to be
organised in an interlocking manner rather than according to the
principle of serial organisation -- in other words, a number of sequences
may be compressed into one turn. Sifianou also shows that the most common
sequence between close interlocutors in her data is a two-sequence
canonical pattern, consisting of a summons-answer and a how-are-you.
Preemptive/ situation-specific moves which introduce the first topic
prior to the end of the opening phases are also a feature of her data. In
conclusion, Sifianou argues that it is not possible to identify the same
order in Greek telephone openings as in North American openings given a
large degree of situation-specificity in the canonical structure in Greek
which she finds linked to a high level of spontaneity and verbal play.
These findings are suggested to relate to the strong interpersonal role
of telephone calls in Greece (cf. also Antonopoulou/Sifianou 2003 on
humour in Greek telephone calls).
The third contribution in this section, "Telephone conversation openings
in Persian" is written by Carmen Taleghani-Nikazm. Her data is drawn from
a total of 87 telephone interactions from seven individuals located in
Iran, and includes both formal (characterised by social distance and
social dominance) and informal (close relationship between interlocutors)
conversations. Similar to Sifianou, Taleghani-Nikazm employs Schegloff's
framework to structure her analysis. She focuses on the differences
between formal and informal interactions from the point of view of
"taarof", a politeness behaviour in Persian according to which each
participant employs verbal and non-verbal means to indicate their own
lower status relative to that of their interlocutor and to show their
interlocutor's relative higher status. Differences motivated by "taarof"
are found to exist between formal and informal telephone interactions on
the level of the identification/ recognition, greeting and how-are-you
sequences, as, e.g., in the choice of linguistic routines. In addition,
lengthy, ritualised how-are-you sequences directed towards the
co-participant and his/her family are found to be a feature of both
formal and informal interactions.
The fourth and last paper in this section on openings, "Language choice
in international telephone conversations" by Gitte Rasmussen and Johannes
Wagner, differs somewhat from the previous three in that it concerns
language choice in telephone openings in an international business
context. Data is drawn from telephone conversations made by employees in
a Danish company to employees of various other companies in Belgium,
France, Germany, Iceland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The choice of
language is found to be made quickly and very early on in the call. Most
frequently, it is the language of the answerer which dictates the
language of the call. However, in cases where the caller's language
competence is insufficient, e.g., s/he may reject the answerer's choice
and instead switch to his/her preferred language of communication, hoping
that his/her interlocutor will recognise and be competent in it. Another
possibility is when participants communicate a wish to draw on a previous
language choice by simply identifying themselves. The authors rightly
caution that these results may not apply to telephone interactions
initiated by native speakers of major languages, such as English or
German. Further research is required.
Section two concentrates on problem solving, topic management and closing
phases in telephone interactions. Yotsukura's chapter, "Reporting
problems and offering assistance in Japanese business telephone
conversations", is the first contribution in this section. The paper
provides an analysis of the reporting of service-related problems by two
employees in Japan, experienced in institutional interactions. Openings
are addressed and indeed, complement Park's paper in this volume, but
Yotsukura's main focus is on the way in which problems are reported in
her data and the manner in which solutions are offered. Yotsukura finds
that there is a tendency for her callers to avoid producing an FTA bald
on the record when reporting problems. Instead callers engage in
linguistic framing of important details relating to the problem at hand
in order to guide the service provider to infer the nature of the problem
him/ herself. Yotsukura comments that such linguistic behaviour is also
in line with the Japanese notion of "enryo-sasshi" according to which the
direct expression of thoughts and feelings is dispreferred in favour of
anticipation of such thoughts and feelings by others. Despite previous
experience of institutional calls, misalignments are, however, found to
occur between the participants due, in Jefferson/Lee's (1981) terms, to
"interactional asymmetry" in the expectations of the participants.
The second paper in this section, "The initiation and introduction of
first topics in Hong Kong telephone calls" by Kang Kwong Luke, shows
topic organisation in telephone conversations in Hong Kong (105 calls
between family and friends + 28 business calls) to be strikingly similar
to previous descriptions of American English. Kang Kwong Luke finds,
namely, that the reason for the call is usually the first topic in his
Cantonese data and that this is also introduced at the anchor position.
In addition, in most cases, it is the caller who introduces the reason
for the call although the recipient may also be involved in this process,
i.e. either in topic initiation ("dim aa?" (what's up?)) or introduction
(e.g. when returning a call). Preemptions and deferrals of the reason for
call are, however, also found possible in both cultures but these are of
an exceptional nature. Finally, Luke notes that the topic markers
employed in Cantonese and American English are semantically and
"Moving towards closing. Greek telephone calls between familiars" is the
final paper in the second section. Here, Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou
addresses the need for research on the closing phases of telephone calls
with an investigation of the transition from last topic to closing
section in Greek. She analyses 65 naturally occurring informal calls
between friends and relatives recorded at home by nine young adults
(undergraduate or postgraduate students of hers). Pavlidou finds that
while the canonical closings identified by Schegloff, which show a
clear-cut distinction between the closing part and the last topic, do
occur in Greek telephone interactions, they represent the marked case,
only occurring in exceptional situations where there is a demand for an
"interactionally economical solution". Such situations include those
characterised by urgency or by situational constraints (e.g. a
non-work-related conversation in the office). Rather, the unmarked case
in Greek telephone conversations is to "move towards the closing"
gradually. This is done, Pavlidou finds, by employing a wide variety of
devices which focus on interactional aspects. Interactants are found,
e.g., to highlight any agreement existing between them, and also to use
possible pre-closings along with other conversational features, such as
latching, simultaneity, or particles of familiarity -- all strategies to
prepare the closing and to assure the co-participant that termination of
the call is not a sign of rejection. While the findings here echo
previous research on the importance of building relationships and showing
solidarity in Greek language use and also point to a contrast between
telephone language use in Greek and Ecuadorian Spanish on the one hand
and Finnish or German on the other, Pavlidou warns of the dangers of
forming premature generalisations and instead underlines the need for
further research in different cultures with similar informants.
The last section, section three, is the shortest of the three sections,
encompassing only two papers and covering a total of 48 pages. It is
concerned with theoretical and methodological considerations of the
analysis of telephone calls. In the first contribution here, "Comparing
telephone call openings: Theoretical and methodological reflections",
Paul ten Have, taking the case of telephone openings, cautions against
comparing research undertaken within different frameworks and under
differing assumptions. Specifically, and with direct reference to a
number of papers in the volume under discussion, he criticises a tendency
to take Schegloff's canonical descriptions at face value. In this
context, ten Have, with reference to previous research findings on Dutch,
in particular, suggests that the current focus on structural issues of
telephone calls should be replaced by a functional perspective according
to which the analysis of telephone openings would focus on three
functions, also identified by Schegloff, namely connection work, relation
work and topic work. Ten Have argues that while there will be variation
in forms across culture and time, these functions will remain constant.
Similar to the contribution by Paul ten Have, the final paper in the
volume, "Reflections on research on telephone conversation: Issues of
cross-cultural scope and scholarly exchange, interactional import and
consequences" by Emanuel A. Schegloff, presents a critical assessment of
the empirical papers in the present volume and indeed of recent research
in the analysis of telephone calls. Schegloff first stresses the value of
a template, such as the canonical opening, in guiding analyses of
telephone interactions in different cultures, arguing that the literature
to date, while revealing variation across culture, also points to the
existence of a common underlying structure. Indeed, the function of
presenting the canonical opening in Schegloff (1986) was, he explains,
not to claim universality but rather to guide further analysis by
highlighting the default option, and in so doing alerting analysts to the
importance of departures from this structure in particular interactions.
Recent research has, however, Schegloff notes, ignored the importance of
analysing single phases of a telephone conversation, e.g. openings, with
regard to their function in the particular interaction as a whole and
instead tended to engage in contrastive analyses of openings or closings
in their own right with the sole intention of highlighting national
characteristics or cultural differences. An appeal is made for further
research to concentrate on the role of particular forms (or the absence
thereof) in the particular interaction and cultural context under
analysis. Only when such research exists for a number of cultural
contexts, can comparisons be made. Finally, Schegloff addresses aspects
of presentation in research articles concerned with languages other than
the language of the article. He argues that while translations and
glosses are necessary, caution should be exercised in the choice of
equivalent and research on language use consulted.
Telephone communication has been the subject of much research to date,
with an increase in contrastive analyses since the late 1980s,
concentrating in particular on telephone openings. The volume at hand
continues this trend towards cross-cultural analyses by contrasting
findings for one culture with those of other investigations in the same
volume and also with previous research findings for other languages and
cultures. Although the research prejudice towards openings is clearly
seen (four of the seven empirical papers dealing with opening sequences),
closings and topic organisation, both areas which have only received
limited attention to date, are also addressed in the present volume. This
contribution to the existing knowledge of differing conversational
structures in different cultures is of particularly invaluable benefit in
today's world in the light of the recent growth in communication between
different cultures in Europe and indeed internationally since although it
may not be necessary or even desirable for a particular party to adopt a
native-speaker norm in communication with interactants of other cultures
(cf. Enomoto/Marriott 1994:155f, House/Kasper 2000:113f, Kasper
1998:200), an awareness of differences is a valuable aid to avoiding
potential misunderstandings. Indeed, it is also suggested that foreign
language teaching materials should embrace such descriptions and
contrastive findings particularly in the light of the sparse attention
paid to pragmatics in foreign language teaching to date (cf. Judd 1999),
the imprecision found in the representation of pragmatic issues in
teaching materials (cf. Bardovi-Harlig 2001, Bardovi-Harlig et al. 1991,
Hassall 1997:154ff), and importantly in the light of research revealing
the general teachability of pragmatics (cf. Kasper 1997, 2000:388f,
Not only do its contrastive focus, the wide applicability of its findings
or the wide coverage of languages analysed make this volume a worthwhile
collection of papers. Rather, the particularly unique aspect of the book
is the breath of perspectives which it offers on telephone communication.
Particularly admirable and noteworthy in this regard is the editors'
inclusion of a criticism of the volume's empirical papers by Paul ten
Have and Emanuel Schegloff, both eminent researchers in the field of
conversational analysis. These researchers pose important questions
regarding the assumptions and methodology employed in the empirical
papers of the volume and in previous telephone research, and propose
suggestions for approaching further research. There is no doubt but that
telephone research can only benefit from such an exchange of perspectives
and the interesting discussion which results.
Some issues I would like to comment on:
Firstly, it is disappointing that none of the papers take the effect of
recent developments in telephone technology, such as caller number
display (or caller name display), into account. Such developments, it is
suggested, will increasingly influence the structure of telephone calls
since caller display, e.g., will make the identification/ recognition
sequence superfluous at times and also possibly change the nature of the
summons-answer sequence. Further research is required on this issue.
Related to this matter is the volume's somewhat narrow concentration on
traditional telephone interactions despite the fact that the editors note
in the introduction to the volume that "More recently the cellular
telephone has become widely available and is taking over many countries
by storm" (p. 4), suggesting subsequently that this fact contributes to
the claim that "telephone calls have become another primordial site of
speech communication and fully deserve to be studied extensively and in
depth." Indeed, caution should be advised in equating mobile/ cellular
phone communication with traditional telephoning since the high cost per
minute, the frequent lower quality reception and the variable location
may, e.g., trigger changes in conversational structure. An opening phase
may, e.g., involve routine requests for information (e.g. "Where are
you?") and reports on actions (e.g. I'm in a traffic jam). In addition,
lack of speaker identification is a further frequent feature
given the caller display function, as Bodomo has found for mobile phone
interactions in Cantonese (cf. Bodomo 2001).
A further drawback of the volume, in my opinion, is the lack of
information or discussion concerning how recordings were actually carried
out -- in the interest of replicability this would have been welcomed
(cf., e.g., references such as Engdahl 2001). Papers either make no
mention of the technology employed or reference is only made in passing,
as is the case in Yotsukura's paper ("? tape recorders were connected
directly to the incoming telephone line with a special adapter?) and
Park's paper ("The recording device I used recorded both outgoing and
incoming calls automatically"). No further information is given on such
Finally, with the exception of the paper by Maria Sifianou, the
conversational structure of telephone conversations in a particular
culture is largely viewed in a vacuum without reference to the structure
of face-to-face communication in that culture (cf. e.g., research by
Aston 1995, House 1982, Laver 1981, Lüger 1993 on, e.g., openings and
closings in everyday communication). This is understandable given the
focus of the present volume on cross-cultural issues. However, it is
suggested that such a comparison would aid in highlighting the
specificities of telephone communication.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, this is a first-class volume,
representing an important contribution to the study of language in use,
and to the contrastive study of telephone calls in particular. The
editors should be credited for a very well edited volume not only on the
level of style and format, but also of content, the overall coherence
achieved by a commendable focus and extensive cross-referencing between
papers. All contributions are well-written and comparatively easy to
read, making the volume accessible to a wide range of audiences. The book
is of particular interest to those students and researchers of language
use across culture, but its findings may be applied to the foreign
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| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Anne Barron is Assistant Professor in the English Department of the University of Bonn, Germany. Her main research interests include interlanguage pragmatics, cross-cultural pragmatics (particularly pragmatic variation within English), sociolinguistics and language in the media. She has recently published the monograph "Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics. Learning how to do things with words in a study abroad context" with Benjamins (2003).