Defining and describing workplace discourse

What is special about workplace discourse?

Someone approaching the topic of workplace discourse for the first time might well be justified in asking what distinguishes spoken workplace discourse (which, as outlined above, is in itself quite a general category) from spoken discourse in general. Here conversation analysis, within which much foundational work on spoken workplace discourse was carried out, provides a systematic approach to workplace talk and has identified a number of key criteria which distinguish “institutional talk” from informal everyday conversation (Drew and Heritage 1992; Heritage 1997). The most significant of these is “goal orientation” which involves “an orientation by at least one of the participants to some core goal, task or identity. . . conventionally associated with the institution” (Drew and Heritage 1992: 22). Furthermore, institutional or workplace conversations are governed by “constraints on allowable contributions”, which means that what is considered appropriate to say within the context is more restricted than in ordinary conversation. In addition, participants’ interpretation of the discourse is guided by “inferential frameworks” which are particular to the institutional or workplace setting (Drew and Heritage 1992: 21-25). Workplace interactions are also frequently “asymmetrical” (Heritage 1997), with an unequal distribution of institutional power or expert knowledge between the participants. Finally, orientation to the workplace context is also reflected in lexical choice, most obviously when technical or professional jargon is used, but also more subtly, for example by a speaker using we to signal membership of an organization, or through “institutional euphemisms” (Drew and Heritage 1992: 3-65; Heritage 1997).

The following brief extract from a workplace conversation illustrates all the key features of workplace talk outlined above:

Extract 1

1) Meg Before I get going to: onto another computer, here I wanna ask you,

L Ann: Okay. J about things I wasn’t sure about sorting,

[1.5] Bills of larding?

  • 2) Ann Tha:t is... comes with every /??? / an’ it can be thrown away
  • 3) Meg Okay,
  • 4) [Meg shows Ann something]
  • 5) Ann Ф Uh:m... that is for the Restore the Earth stuff, and... I will- it will

eventually probably get thrown awa:y, but... if you haven’t come across a packing Ф list for Restore the Earth products? =

  • 6) Meg = Okay,
  • 7) Ann = hang onto it.
  • 8) Meg Okay.
  • 9) Ann (‘Cause I’m just) I’ll show you what to do with it,
  • 10) Meg Okay,
  • (Author’s data)

Extract 1 shows the beginning of an interaction from the back office of a food retailer (a North American co-operative) between two co-workers: Ann, the bookkeeper, and Meg, her new assistant, whom she is training. Goal orientation is evident from the beginning of the encounter in turn 1, where Meg explicitly states the purpose of the interaction: “I wanna ask you, . . . about things I wasn’t sure about sorting”; and this goal orientation guides and structures the question-answer format in which the turntaking unfolds. What might be considered an “allowable contribution” is narrowly circumscribed by the workplace activity being carried out - instructing the new assistant in sorting various documentation. Also, various “inferential frameworks”, that is, knowledge and assumptions about the processes and documentation involved in orders and deliveries, underpin the participants’ understanding of what they are talking about. In fact, one of the purposes of the training Meg is receiving is to develop her knowledge of these inferential frameworks. The interaction is asymmetrical, with Ann possessing not only more institutional power but also greater expert knowledge than Meg, who is her subordinate as well as a novice in this work. Finally, the workplace context is also reflected in lexical choice with reference to specific types of delivery documentation (bills of lading, packing list) - note that Meg is not familiar with all of these - and names of products (Restore the Earth). Nonetheless, while exemplifying all the distinctive characteristics of workplace discourse, this extract also displays many typical features of spoken dialogic discourse, such as reduced and non-standard forms (wanna for want to and ’cause for because), filled (uh:m) and unfilled (...) pauses, listenership tokens (okay) and seamless turntaking with latching (=) and no pauses between turns (Chafe 1982). These features reflect the interactive nature of spoken discourse and the mutual engagement of the speakers in jointly constructing the discourse. It is important to remember that these are also key characteristics of workplace talk, as they are of everyday conversation.

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