Linguistic approaches: Genre analysis, corpus analysis and conversation analysis

This section aims to demonstrate how each of the approaches discussed has been used to investigate and provide insights into spoken workplace discourse. After a brief discussion of the theories and methodologies underpinning each approach, some key findings and various illustrative case studies will be presented. The main focus is on research carried out in English. Yet, wherever possible, case studies are also presented from non-English-speaking countries and from international and multilingual workplace contexts, with the aim of broadening the scope of the research discussed while reflecting the increasingly international and intercultural nature of spoken workplace communication.

Genre analysis

As genre analysis examines “typified communicative action invoked in response to a recurrent situation” (Yates and Orkilowski’s 1992: 301), it provides a powerful tool for analyzing and characterizing different “types” of workplace texts and interactions which are generally marked by a high degree of standardisation and regularity. Nevertheless, “genre” is not a straightforward category to operationalise, not least because the different approaches to genre analysis (mentioned in Section 3) define genre in different ways. Genre analysis in the English for Specific/Academic Purposes tradition has viewed common communicative purpose as the defining criterion for identifying texts or interactions as belonging to the same genre (Swales 1990; Bhatia 1993), whereas in the Hallidayan tradition, or “Sydney School”, common structural features have been key (Hasan 1985; Martin and Rose 2008). Admittedly, as communicative purpose “shapes the schematic structure of the discourse” (Swales 1990: 58), the description of individual genres in both schools can be quite similar, despite the different definitions, as both genre schools generally elaborate a “move structure” (English for Specific Purposes School) or “schematic structure” (Sydney School). However, as Bhatia (1993) has shown, communicative purpose and structure may not always coincide; for example, he argues that both sales promotional letters and letters of application belong to the category of promotion genres, despite having different textual structures.

Turning specifically to spoken workplace genres, this problem of definition applies particularly to the genre of workplace meetings. If one takes a goal-based definition of genre, meetings cannot be defined as a genre, as meetings can have a variety of purposes, for example planning, problem-solving, reporting (Holmes and Stubbe 2003; Koester 2010). Nevertheless, business meetings have been extensively analysed using genre analysis, from Bargiela-Chiappini and Harris’ (1997) work comparing British and Italian corporate meetings to Handford’s (2010) proposal for a generic structure for such interactions based on a corpus of 64 meetings. Starting with a definition of genre as “staged practice”, Handford describes the genre of meetings in terms of structural features in combination with particular practices and strategies. Clearly, despite their varying purposes, workplace meetings, particularly more formal ones, have a recognizable structure with at least three stages: an opening stage, a discussion stage, and a closing stage) (Bargiela-Chiappini and Harris1997; Holmes and Stubbe 2003). Moreover, they are recognized as a special “type” of workplace interaction by the discourse communities that use them.

Another issue in defining genres is the level of specificity of the description. Yates and Orlikowski (1992) suggest that more general genres can be viewed as having sub-genres at various levels of specificity; for example, the genre of business meetings could comprise more specific sub-genres, as shown in Figure 26.2.

This means that it is possible to take either a more broad-brush approach, where genre is viewed at a more general level of abstraction, or a more narrow focus on specialised genres which may be specific to particular professions or even to particular workplaces (Koester 2010: 23). In attempting to compare genres across a range of workplace contexts, the former approach is necessary. For example, Koester (2006)

Genres and sub-genres (from Koester and Handford 2012

Figure 26.2: Genres and sub-genres (from Koester and Handford 2012: 255)

and Muller (2006a, 2006b) have both identified frequently occurring spoken genres across different workplaces:

Muller (2006b: 279):

  • 1) private conversations 5) evaluation (appraisal) conversations
  • 2) contact conversations 6) planning conversations
  • 3) presentation talks 7) crisis conversations
  • 4) training talks 8) analysis talks

Koester (2006: 32-34):

  • 1) procedural and directive discourse 6) decision-making
  • 2) briefing 7) arrangements
  • 3) service encounters 8) discussing and evaluating
  • 4) reporting 9) small talk
  • 5) requesting 10) office gossip

As the two lists above show, the genre labels are fairly general, in fact, many of them, such as decision making or evaluation, also occur in contexts outside the workplace. What is also noticeable is that, while the lists are not identical, there is a substantial overlap in the genres identified, for example:

  • - “private conversations” (Muller) and “small talk” (Koester);
  • - “evaluation (appraisal) conversations” (Muller) and “discussing and evaluating” (Koester);
  • - “planning conversations” (Muller) and “decision-making” (Koester).

This is all the more striking as the data were collected in different countries (Koester’s from the UK and US, and Muller’s from Germany, France and Spain), and in quite different workplace environments (Koester’s from offices, and Muller’s from factories), which seems to indicate that many of these genres are very widespread indeed in spoken workplace communication (see also Koester 2010: 23-25). A genre that has emerged as key in workplace discourse is decision-making. It makes up 25% of the corpus of American and British Office Talk (ABOT) (Koester 2006) and constitutes one of the main discursive practices in meetings represented in the Cambridge and Nottingham Business English Corpus (CANBEC), particularly those between peers (Handford 2010).

While a number of more specialised written professional genres have been analysed, for example business reports (Yeung 2007), tax computation letters (Flowerdew and Wan 2006) and business negotiation letters (dos Santos 2002), there are far fewer descriptions of specialised spoken workplace genres. This is perhaps the result of the more emergent nature of much spoken workplace communication, which means it is often not amenable to a description in terms of schematic structures. One notable exception is the highly specialised business genre of corporate earnings calls (Crawford Camiciottoli 2006, 2010; Cho and Yoon 2013), which are teleconferences in which a company reports its financial results to prospective investors or potential business partners. This is an interesting example of a relatively new spoken business genre that has emerged as a result of developments in information technology and the globalisation of business (Choo and Yoon 2013).

Another spoken genre that is less specialized, being common across all professions, but specific to the workplace and also highly complex, is that of job interviews. These have been widely studied, albeit largely within the framework of interactional sociolinguistics (e.g., Roberts and Campbell 2005, 2006). A recent genre analytical study of job interviews was carried out by Choi (2014) using a Swalesian move-and- step structure. This study is of particular interest, as the job interviews were conducted in the global maritime industry where all the participants (both interviewers and interviewees) were using English as a lingua franca and had a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Choi identified four “macro-moves” in the genre of job interviews, each of which consist of a number of more delicate “micro-moves” which can be realized through a range of “steps”. For example, the central macromove of the genre is the “probing stage”, and one of the micro-moves occurring during this stage is talking about “work experience”, which may, in turn, include the step of discussing “remarkable achievements”.

Choi compared the moves used by a group of 20 successful and 20 unsuccessful job applicants and identified some remarkable differences. Not only did the successful applicants use more moves overall, but they also used certain moves and steps more frequently, and with higher volumes of talk, than the unsuccessful candidates. Moves and steps in which candidates were able to “promote” themselves, such as demonstrating relevant skills and knowledge, or showing self-motivation and a positive attitude, seemed to be key for a successful interview. Successful candidates were also able to build a relationship with the interviewers through small talk, an optional move in the initial “welcoming” macro-move. Another interesting finding of the study was that successful candidates were not necessarily the most proficient in English.

As the studies discussed show, genre analysis is a methodology that lends itself to the identification of common genres across different workplaces, as well as providing tools for a structural analysis of highly specialised genres within specific professions or workplaces. Moreover, as genre analysis tends to adopt a multi-layered approach, from lexical-grammatical and move structure analysis to a study of the institutional context (Bhatia 1993: 22-36 and 2004:18-22), it is a method that links the institutional to the interaction order.

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