LINGUIST List 26.4640

Mon Oct 19 2015

Review: Discourse; Pragmatics: Félix-Brasdefer (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 19-Jul-2015
From: Laura Callahan <>
Subject: The Language of Service Encounters
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: J. César Félix-Brasdefer
TITLE: The Language of Service Encounters
SUBTITLE: A Pragmatic-Discursive Approach
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Laura Michele Callahan, City College of New York (CUNY)

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The Language of Service Encounters, by J. César Félix-Brasdefer, contains an introduction, nine chapters, an appendix, references, and an index. It reports on data collected in the United States and Mexico, with sites in Indiana and Ohio for the former, and in Mérida, Mexico City, and Guanajuato for the latter. The settings are small stores, open-air markets, delicatessens, and a university campus visitor information center.

In the Introduction the author defines what a service encounter is and delineates the scope of this volume. He then reviews notions that are essential to understanding the study of service encounters and that form the basis for his approach. Such notions include language use, social action, and context. Post-modern views of (im)politeness also inform this work, “[i]n particular, […] Spencer-Oatey’s (2000) notion of rapport management […] in the analysis of transactional and non-transactional talk” (p. 5). In short, Félix-Brasdefer emphasizes the dynamic and collaborative nature of human interaction. Referencing Kasper (2006), he specifies his use of “a revised version of the term ‘discursive pragmatics’ to refer to the analysis of social action through joint actions that are co-constructed and negotiated according to sociocultural norms dictated by the members of specific communities of practice” (p. 3).

The first two chapters offer a review of the literature from two different angles. The exposition in Chapter 1, “Approaches to service encounters: a pragmatic-discursive analysis of social action”, is organized by the theoretical paradigms that have been used, while Chapter 2, “Service encounters in commercial and non-commercial settings”, provides an overview of existing research organized by type of service encounter setting. This includes a nine-page table listing previous studies. Over the course of these two chapters Félix-Brasdefer carefully assembles the pieces for the approach he will apply to his own corpus.

The remaining chapters focus on Félix-Brasdefer’s data. Chapter 3, “Cross-cultural service encounters: negotiating service in the United States and Mexico”, compares service encounters in supermarket delicatessens in the United States and Mexico via independent variables such as customer and server gender and dependent variables such as the presence or absence of greetings and relational talk, the type and duration of closing sequences, forms of address, and internal modification to soften requests. As in all of the author’s analyses for the current book, the ones in this chapter presuppose a community of practice in place at each of the data collection sites, and pragmatic variation is examined at the actional, interactional, and organizational levels.

Chapter 4, “Intra-lingual pragmatic variation in service encounters”, examines service encounters conducted in two regional varieties of American English and two regional varieties of Mexican Spanish. Gender of both the customer and vendor was found to have an effect on request variants in all four of the settings. In a similar vein, Chapter 5, “Negotiating service in Mexican markets”, calls on speech accommodation theory to account for, among other phenomena, different types of request formulae used by men and women with servers of the opposite gender.

In Chapter 6, “Intracultural service encounters at a US visitor information center”, the focus shifts to non-commercial service encounters, wherein the transaction is an exchange of information rather than goods or products. The encounters in this subsection of the corpus were conducted in English by native speakers of English, although not everyone was a speaker of the same variety. The lack of ambient noise in comparison to other settings in which data was collected made it possible to examine “prosodic resources […] especially low and rising terminals (pitch), duration, and loudness of the request” (p. 181).

Chapter 7, “Relational talk and the negotiation of face in service encounters”, offers an in-depth view of non-transactional talk, using data from two corpus subsections within the U.S. data, one commercial (a delicatessen) and one non-commercial (the campus visitor information center). The author makes the point that relational talk can be most thoroughly analyzed “at the discourse level (e.g. interactional and organizational), rather than through an investigation of isolated speech acts (e.g. a request, a greeting, an apology)” (p. 202). Although relational talk may occur in discrete turns, it is also found mixed in with transactional talk, “(e.g. off-topic comments often combined with transaction-related information)” (p. 203).

In Chapter 8, “Forms of address and politeness in service encounters”, the pragmatic variation manifested in the use of vocatives and pronominal forms is examined. A comparison of Mexican and U.S. data is followed by an in-depth look at forms of address recorded at a single open-air market in Mérida (Yucatán, Mexico). The author argues that service encounters in Mexico are more person-oriented while those in the United States are more task-oriented.

In Chapter 9, “Conclusions”, the author reviews characteristics of service encounters, such as their organizational structure and formulaic language use. Discussing pragmatic/discourse variation and the pragmatic variable, Félix-Brasdefer underlines the fact that pragmatic variables cannot be treated in the same manner as other linguistic variables. Referencing studies such as Pichler (2013), Schneider (2010), Jucker & Taavitsainen (2012), Terkourafi (2011, 2012), and Cameron & Schwenter (2013), he argues: “Instead of the one form-one function criterion, the pragmatic variable should be defined in terms of functional equivalence […]. The proposed model of pragmatic variation adopted in this book takes into account the options available to the speakers of a speech community by means of joint actions in complete interactions” (p. 235).

Finally, the Appendix contains the complete transcript of a total of twenty service encounters, representative of each of the corpus subsections.


The Language of Service Encounters: A Pragmatic-Discursive Approach will without question become a must-have reference for researchers working on service encounters. It could also be used in doctoral seminars on pragmatics and discourse analysis. In addition to the analyses of his own extensive corpus and exposition of the methodologies used, Félix-Brasdefer offers a comprehensive review of the literature on service encounters, the theoretical approaches used, and the foundations of those theories. The thorough cross-referencing in all chapters will be useful to readers less familiar with the subject matter. This feature also makes it possible to read chapters out of order or in isolation, although in the latter case one would surely be left wishing to read the rest of the book.

Whatever weaknesses this volume may have will depend on individual users’ preferences and personal reading style. As mentioned above, there are copious cross-references. Parenthetical notes at frequent intervals refer the reader to a particular section or chapter. In addition, chapters begin and end with a summary of what is to be or has been discussed. Several sections within chapters begin with or contain statements of what will be covered in the next few paragraphs, even when this information can be deduced from a subtitle or else has already been stated in a recent paragraph. Although such a highly explicit style can add to a book’s coherence, especially one so dense with information as the present volume, for some readers the repetition may prove to be a distraction.

This minor criticism notwithstanding, The Language of Service Encounters represents a high-quality addition to the literature. As noted above, consultation of this book will become indispensable for investigators of service encounters, and it will be of great interest as well for those working on discourse analysis and pragmatic variation. The book’s major contribution lies in its meticulous presentation of the data and its assemblage of a wealth of both theoretical and empirical content within a single volume. Just one example are the two sections in Chapter 9 on methodological issues and future directions, respectively, which contain information and ideas that could serve as a veritable guide for aspiring researchers of service encounters.


Cameron, Richard & Scott Schwenter. 2013. Pragmatics and variationist sociolinguistics. In Robert Bayley, Richard Cameron, and Ceil Lucas, eds. The Oxford handbook of sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 464-483.

Jucker, Andreas & Irma Taavitsainen. 2012. Pragmatic variables. In Juan Manuel Hernández-Campoy & J. Camilo Conde-Silvestre, eds. Blackwell handbooks in linguistics: Handbook of historical sociolinguistics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons: 293-306.

Kasper, Gabriele. 2006. Speech acts in interaction. In Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig, César Félix-Brasdefer & Alwiya Omar, eds. Pragmatics and language learning, Vol. XI. University of Hawai’i at Manoa: National Foreign Language Resource Center: 281-314.

Pichler, Heike. 2013. The structure of discourse-pragmatic variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Schneider, Klaus. 2010. Variational pragmatics. In Mirjam Fried, ed. Variation and change: Pragmatic perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins: 239-267.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen. 2000. A problematic Chinese business visit to Britain: Issues of face. In Helen Spencer-Oatey, ed. Culturally speaking: Managing rapport through talk across cultures. London: Continuum: 272-288.

Terkourafi, Marina. 2011. The pragmatic variable: Toward a procedural interpretation. Language in Society 40 (4). 343-372.

Terkourafi, Marina. 2012. Between pragmatics and sociolinguistics: Where does pragmatic variation fit in? In J. César Félix-Brasdefer & Dale A. Koike, eds. Pragmatic variation in first and second language contexts: Methodological issues. Amsterdam: John Benjamins: 295-318.


Laura Callahan is Professor of Hispanic Linguistics in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at The City College, City University of New York (CUNY) and a member of the doctoral faculty in the Ph.D. Program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures & Languages at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is author of the books Spanish and English in U.S. Service Encounters (2009) and Spanish/English Codeswitching in a Written Corpus (2004), and editor of Spanish and Portuguese Across Time, Place, and Borders (2014). Her articles have appeared in various journals, including Intercultural Pragmatics, Language & Intercultural Communication, and Spanish in Context.

Page Updated: 19-Oct-2015