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Review of  Calling for Help

Reviewer: Shiv R Upadhyay
Book Title: Calling for Help
Book Author: Carolyn Baker Michael Emmison Alan Firth
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.3279

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EDITORS: Baker, Carolyn; Emmison, Michael; Firth, Alan
TITLE: Calling for Help
SUBTITLE: Language and social interaction in telephone helplines
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 143
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2005
Announced at:

Shiv R. Upadhyay, York University, Toronto, Canada

Edited by Carolyn Baker, Michael Emmison, and Alan Firth, ''Calling for
Help'' is a collection of thirteen chapters in which the authors examine
talk in five different domains of institutional language use. These authors
take the approach of conversation analysis to analyze helpline talk, a
growing area of human interaction that has been largely a terra incognita
for discourse analysts. In this sense, this collection can be viewed as a
pioneering and foundational contribution to conversation analysis.


Chapter One, 'Calling for help: An introduction,' by Alan Firth, Michael
Emmison, and Carolyn Baker, begins with an overview. The authors define
helpline as ''a 'dedicated' service that provides help in a single,
particularised area'' of individual problems through 'expert advice and
specialized knowledge' (p. 1). They view the act of seeking and providing
help as constituting social action that is ''interactionally negotiable and
socially accomplished'' (p. 2). An important goal of this book is to
''develop how, through language and social interaction, helping, assisting,
and supporting are made manifest, situationally defined, contextually
configured, and socially accomplished within helpline calls'' (p. 2). The
chapter also provides a background of telephone helpline in order to show
how enormous the interactional phenomenon of calling for help has become
and how a lot still remains to be known about this human interaction. The
chapter finally provides an overview of each of the five sections in which
the chapters are organized.

Chapter Two, 'Calibrating for competence in calls to technical support,' is
the first of the three chapters in the technical assistance section and is
written by the same authors as those of Chapter One. Through the analysis
of actual caller-call-taker (CT) conversational data, the authors claim
that the CT orients him/herself to and accommodates for the technical
competence demonstrated by the caller and that both of them show their
'social-interactional' competence to understand and adjust to what each
says about the problem to the other and about their understanding of the

Chapter Three, 'Collaborative problem description in help desk calls,' is
authored by Hanneke Houtkoop, Frank Jansen, and Anja Walstock. This chapter
looks at a particular activity in caller-CT interaction, namely the making
by the CT of ''computer-assisted tickets'' (p. 74) in the process of
providing the caller with the help they need, as collaboratively
constructed. The authors identify the use by CTs of and-prefacing
incomplete statements with rising intonation at the end as questions. Such
incomplete questions are meant to invite the caller to supply the missing
information by completing them, thereby making the task of filling out the
ticket a collaborative act. Similarly, collaboration is shown to be
involved when the CT reads out to the caller what he is typing following
the information provided by the latter. While callers generally accept what
they are read out to by the CT, the former can sometimes add to CT's
problem description or even correct what they are read out to so that the
problem description becomes collaboratively completed act.

In Chapter Four, 'The metaphoric use of space in expert-lay interaction
about computing systems,' Wilbert Kraan claims that computer users produce
talk in which their computer-related actions are accounted for in terms of
space images or metaphors. He examines three metaphoric conceptual models,
namely the agent-trajectory model, the direct interface model, and the
personification model, and claims the agent-trajectory model to be the best
in terms of accounting for various discursive devices that speakers employ
in order to structure and regulate talk and achieve interactional goals.

Chapter Five, 'The mitigation of advice: Interactional dilemmas of peers on
a telephone support service,' is authored by Christopher Pudlinski. The
focus of analysis in this chapter is the talk that takes place in telephone
support service known as warm lines. Warm lines are supposed to be
different from help lines in that 'their main objective is listening and
supporting, not referring and advising' (p. 110). However, the author's
analysis questions the 'listening and supporting' function of warm line
talk and argues that warm line support providers engage in giving advice
for the purpose of fostering ''client decision-making through a web of
contrary themes: connectedness, nondirectiveness, and problem solving'' (p.
126). These contrary expectations lead the warm line support provider to
offer the caller advice in the form of ''safe, uncontroversial'' (p. 126),
and mitigated options.

In Chapter Six, 'Four Observations on opening in calls to Kids Help Line,'
Susan Danby, Carolyn Baker and Michael Emmison claim that the opening of
phone conversations by children's counselors is functionally different from
the opening of standard help lines and that it serves the functions of a
help-providing organization. These claims are based on four observations on
the opening of Kids Help Line. They are: 1) the counselor does not provide
his/her name; 2) the counselor does not make a substantive contribution to
the conversation even when interactional spaces are created by the caller's
frequent pauses but allows the caller to continue talking; 3) the counselor
participates in the conversation to encourage the caller to talk in the way
he/she wants to be heard; and 4) the counselor searches the reason for the

Authored by Hedwig te Molder, Chapter Seven, ''I just want to hear somebody
right now:' Managing identities on a telephone helpline,' examines
telephone helpline interactions and uncovers how callers and call receivers
identify themselves and each other and how their interaction is carried out
based on ''these identity ascriptions'' (p. 153).

Chapter Eight, 'Callers' presentations of problems in telephone calls to
Swedish primary care,' by Vesa Leppänen, is the first chapter in the
healthcare provision section. The focus of this chapter is ''to describe and
analyse a number of features of routine calls to Swedish primary care'' (p.
177). The author reports that callers presented their problems in three
formats, namely as requests to see a doctor, as questions, and as
narratives, and discusses the interactional consequences of each format.
Leppänen observes that callers are faced with the questions of how to
communicate their concerns in a way that would get attention from the
medical institution and of how to present themselves as trustworthy
presenters of the problem they are reporting.

In Chapter Nine, 'Constructing and negotiating advice in calls to a poison
information center,' Häkan Landqvist explores various ways in which
advice-giving is carried out in calls made to a poison information centre
in Sweden. Through the analysis of many calls to the center, the author
shows that advice-giving is a ''complex activity'' (p. 216), that the caller
is not just an advice taker but someone who contributes to the construction
of advice, and that advice given varies in terms of its linguistic
formulations and the sequencing of its occurrence in the call according to
the assessed risk of poisoning.

Chapter Ten, 'Opportunities for negotiation at the interface of phone calls
and service-encounter interaction,' by Denise Chappell, demonstrates how
customers' requirements are met through the interactional resources of
formulations, which are the summarized versions of an informant's
statements, and accounts, which are explanations for contextually unwanted
occurrences. What is of interest about these resources is that they occur
at strategic moments in the interaction.

In Chapter Eleven, 'Institutionality at issue: The helpline call as a
'language game,'' Brian Torode looks at a telephone complaint made to the
Office of Consumer Affairs in Dublin and argues that the institutionality
of talk is best characterized in terms of ''language games.'' The author
shows that, in playing these language games, the caller and the consumer
affairs advisor create everyday and institutional forms of talk,
respectively, involving feelings, entitlements, rights, and redress.

In Chapter Twelve, 'Some initial reflections on conversational structures
for instruction giving,' Ged M. Murtagh, following Jo Ann Goldberg's
analytic framework, examines the properties of instruction adjacency pairs
in the interactional data produced in calls made to a British mobile phone
call center by callers seeking help. The analysis contributes to the
reader's understanding that instruction and receipt pairs in helpline calls
constitute a minimal conversational unit as questions and answers, for
example, do in normal conversations and that instructional sequences are
constructed mutually by the caller and advisor. The analysis also reveals
repairs and formulations as possible features of instructional structure
that commonly obtains in telephone calls for help.

Chapter Thirteen, 'Working a call: Multiparty management and interactional
infrastructure in calls for help,' by Jack Whalen and Don Zimmerman, argues
that teamwork in emergency call centers involves both 'the structure and
interdependency of institutional roles and responsibilities' and 'the
social relationships and interactional practices that develop among the
participants…' (p. 313).


''Calling for help'' explores an area of human interaction that is becoming
very common in today's world but still remains understudied by discourse
analysts. The authors of the articles in this collection bring out a wealth
of understanding of what happens in telephone conversations between
help-seekers and help-providers.

While this collection is definitely a solid contribution to the study of
helpline talk, I think that the analysis of certain conversational moves in
some chapters could perhaps be more insightful and generalizable. For
example, in section four of Chapter Two, it is claimed that technical
assistance talks ''are analysable as pedagogical interaction'' (p. 59) in
which the instructor uses encouraging receipts such as ''excellent,'' ''that's
no problem at all,'' and ''sure'' (p. 59) to get the caller to the resolution
of the problem. While these responses by the CT do resemble an instructor's
encouraging responses to his/her students' performance, such positive
feedback could alternatively and on a more generalized level be viewed as
indicating that the CT is using a strategy of positive politeness, in Brown
and Levinson's (1987) sense, which likely makes the caller feel good about
his/her call. Similarly, the authors treat the use by the CT of responses
such as ''for me'' (as in ''Do x for me'' or ''Can you do x for me?'') and ''if
you could'' (as in ''Tell me/do x for me if you could'') as ''a ploy that
teachers use to get students to do things that they might otherwise not be
interested in doing...'' (p. 60). Once again, one could alternatively argue
that technical assistance talk involves callers who intend to be
cooperative with the CT in order to resolve their problem and CTs whose
verbal behavior is guided by, besides other things, the need to be friendly
with the caller so that they can carry out their task of helping the caller
successfully. Thus, within the setting of technical assistance interaction,
in which a CT's synthesized friendly behavior (following Fairclough, 2001)
can become effective in achieving the goal of helping the caller by making
him/her cooperative, CT responses such as ''for me'' and ''if you could'' can
arguably be viewed as instrumental tokens of verbal politeness.

In Chapter Five, the finding about mitigated advice giving by warm line
support providers is attributed to a comparative understanding of what they
are trained to do and what they actually do. While the latter understanding
is aptly described as ethnographic, in order to further understand the
actions of warm line help providers, it is important, I believe, to explore
to what extent, if at all, their ''safe, uncontroversial'' and mitigated
options for callers are constrained by socio-cultural and
socio-psychological considerations as well. Similarly, the author talks,
rightly I think, about the need to carry out further studies in which both
peers and professionals are involved in offering advice to the same client
in order to see if advice giving varies according to caller-help provider
relationship, symmetrical or asymmetrical. Any generalizations coming out
of such studies should also be based on similar studies in other languages
since culture-specific factors may determine the outcome of peer and
professional advice giving.

In Chapter Seven, the author rightly points out that the expression ''I
know, yes, you have to do on your own'' is ''hearable as a disappointment''
(p. 159) on the part of the caller; but it could also be viewed as a
challenge (or perhaps, a conflict) if one considers the possibility that
the call taker could turn out to be just like the help provider the caller
was seeing in person as evident in such utterances as ''but it doesn't help''
and ''I know you have to do it on your own.'' By challenging the call taker,
the caller, is challenging, by extension, the usefulness of the institution
as well. This situation makes for a conflict between the caller and call
taker: The caller presents himself as a normal person who does not need
help whereas the call taker rejects that identity by citing that the caller
decided to make the call; the caller reversed his role by asking the call
taker questions and expecting answers whereas the call taker delayed her
answers to the caller's questions. This conflict however gets resolved
through a negotiation, as the author points out, whereby the call taker,
through various formulations and reformulations, re-establishes the
identity of the caller as a help seeker. Finally, it would perhaps be
helpful if the collection had provided a list of transcription symbols and
their meanings, particularly for the benefit of those who may not be
familiar with them all.

To conclude, ''Calling for help'' brings out various aspects of institutional
talk that have been scantly studied by discourse analysts. In this respect,
this book has opened a new frontier in conversation analysis. Because of
its approach to language as a means of social interaction, the book can
offer a great deal to those interested in studying language in society.


Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen (1987). Politeness: Some universals
in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fairclough, Norman (2001). Language and power (2nd edition). London: Longman.

Shiv R. Upadhyay is a faculty member in the Department of Languages,
Literatures, and Linguistics at York University in Toronto, Canada. He
teaches content-based ESL, Sociolinguistics, and Discourse Analysis. His
main research interests are in discourse analysis, sociolinguistics,
pragmatics, and second language acquisition.