Spoken workplace discourse

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Defining and describing workplace discourse
  • 3. Theoretical and methodological approaches: Institutional order versus interaction order
  • 4. Linguistic approaches: Genre analysis, corpus analysis and CA
  • 5. Conclusion


A chapter dealing with spoken workplace discourse in a book on business communication first needs to address two questions:

  • - How can “workplace discourse” be distinguished from “business discourse” or “business communication”?
  • - Why focus on spoken workplace communication?

To begin with the first question, “workplace discourse” refers to a broader range of communicative contexts, and can be seen as including contexts in which business communication occurs. So while business discourse occurs within and between commercial organisations (Bargiela-Chiappini et al. 2007: 3), workplace discourse occurs in all workplace contexts, including factories, hospitals and the voluntary sector (as well as, of course, in commercial organisations). However, the distinction between these two terms appears less clear-cut if we consider that communication in commercial organisations includes both company-to-company and company-internal communication. Such internal communication between colleagues in business organisations is not clearly distinguishable from communication between co-workers in non-commercial organisations, thus blurring the boundaries between specific “business discourse” and more general “workplace discourse” (Koester 2010: 5-6). Nevertheless, the notion of workplace discourse as a more general term that includes business discourse is useful, and underpins this chapter. Thus, while business discourse will be treated as part of workplace discourse, somewhat more emphasis will be placed on communication in non-commercial organisations in order to broaden the scope in relation to the main topic of this volume. Other terms sometimes used interchangeably with “workplace” discourse or communication are “institutional” and “professional” communication; therefore reference will also be made in this chapter to studies investigating institutional and professional communication (e.g., Drew and Heritage 1992; Candlin 2002; Gunnarson 2009; Schnurr 2013). More restricted

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-026

definitions for both these terms have also been put forward (see Sarangi and Roberts 1999:15-19; Koester 2010: 6-7), but will not be elaborated on here.

Turning to the second question (Why focus on spoken workplace communication?), the most obvious answer is that a substantial body of research into spoken workplace interaction already exists, so that it is worth devoting a separate chapter to this area of research. Considering the challenges faced by researchers in obtaining permission to record and transcribe spoken interactions in businesses and organisations, this is a rather impressive and fortunate state of affairs. Pioneering work on workplace talk was carried out by conversation analysts (Drew and Heritage 1992), and since then there has been a growing body of research into spoken workplace interaction using conversation analysis, as well as other approaches such as sociolinguistics, corpus analysis and genre analysis. In recent years, a number of medium to large-scale projects involving the compilation of databases and corpora of spoken workplace and business interactions have been conducted. Two notable examples are 1) the Wellington Language in the Workplace Project, consisting of approximately 2,000 spoken interactions from across a range of workplaces in New Zealand, both public and private, including government departments, commercial organisations, small businesses and factories (see Holmes and Stubbe 2003), and 2) the Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Business English (CANBEC), consisting of one million words of (mainly UK-based) spoken business interactions from a range of commercial organisations (see Handford 2010). The literature also abounds with a variety of individual case studies on different forms of spoken workplace discourse, a number of which will be referred to and discussed in this chapter. Given the extent of this research, it is impossible to do justice to the large number of studies already carried out on spoken workplace discourse in one chapter; rather, an attempt will be made to highlight some of the key areas of investigation and types of interaction investigated, as well as the approaches and methodologies used, and the topics and issues explored.

A further point worth highlighting is the fact that spoken language is largely dialogic and interactive, and thus substantially different from written language, as attested by a large body of linguistic and applied linguistic research (e.g., Biber 1988; Carter and McCarthy 2006; McCarthy 1998). While this fact is largely taken for granted within applied linguistics, it is far from recognised within businesses and organisations, notably by those responsible for communications-based training. Recent research on call centre communication has highlighted this discrepancy, pointing out that language training within the industry focuses largely on discrete, decontextualized grammatical items, ignoring the discursive features of dialogic speech (Lockwood 2010; Forey 2014). Indeed, much research on spoken workplace communication is carried out with the explicit aim of contributing insights of practical relevance to the community of practice studied. Devoting a separate chapter to this area of research thus also has the aim of highlighting the distinctive features of spoken workplace communication and the need to reflect these in work-based language and communication training and in teaching languages for specific purposes.

While recognising the distinctiveness of spoken workplace discourse, it is important to point out that spoken and written forms of communication in the workplace are obviously not entirely separate. Rather, they are linked and interact with one another (Koester 2010: 41-43). Accomplishing a workplace task frequently involves both spoken and written genres (Cook-Gumperz and Messerman 1999; Louhiala- Salminen 2002); Louhiala-Salminen, for example, has shown how email communication and phone calls are “totally intertwined” (2002: 217) in the daily routine of a manager.

The aim of this chapter is to provide an overview of research carried out on spoken workplace discourse so far. However, given the space limitations of a single chapter, some areas of research can only be glossed over, while the topics covered and works cited will necessarily be selective. The chapter begins by outlining some of the key characteristics of (spoken) workplace discourse, and then provides an overview of types of workplaces, activities and key topics that have been the subject of research (Section 2). The next section (3) then reviews the main theoretical and methodological approaches that have been adopted to investigate spoken workplace discourse. The final section (4) is devoted to three approaches to examining spoken workplace discourse, which, it is argued, adopt a specifically “linguistic” approach in line with the main focus of the present volume: genre analysis, corpus analysis and conversation analysis. Here, examples of case studies illustrating these approaches will be presented and some key findings highlighted.

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