Where does workplace talk occur?

In trying to answer this question, two broad sites of workplace interaction can be identified, drawing on Goffman’s (1959) distinction between “front regions” (or “front stage”) and “back regions” (or “back stage”). Front stage workplace encounters are ones where at least one of the participants is acting in a professional or institutional role, thus typically professional-client or service encounters. In back stage encounters, on the other hand, professionals or members of a team/organisation interact with one another in a more “off-record” and unguarded manner, for example in backoffice conversations between co-workers. The dramaturgical metaphor is deliberate, as Goffman states that in front stage encounters “a particular performance is [. . .] in progress”, whereas back stage the action “is related to the performance but inconsistent with the appearance fostered by the performance” (Goffman 1959: 134). Many employees or professionals interact in both these sites; for example, health professionals will engage in “front stage” consultations with patients as well as in “back stage” discussions with other health professionals about patient treatment and operational or administrative issues. This distinction is important for studying language in workplace contexts.

As Goffman’s remark suggests, the different contexts are likely to have an impact on the language used, with more formal and guarded linguistic forms expected in front regions and more relaxed and informal language in back regions. There may also be quite a complex relationship between front stage and back stage encounters within a workplace, for example in terms of how objectives are accomplished and decisions made. For instance, are front stage activities what they seem to be, or is their actual purpose obscured and only apparent to those working in the back stage? (Sarangi and Roberts 1999: 20). A typical example might be internal (back stage) meetings in an organisation which precede and follow an external meeting (front stage) with a client company, and where final decisions might actually be taken outside the formal front stage meeting (Boden 1994; Handford 2010).

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