Telephone talk has been a central communication practice and site of study since Shannon and Weaver developed their fundamental model of communication at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1940s to explain how technological and human channels of communication transmit information. As telephone service spread and ushered in the information age in the latter half of the twentieth century, it acquired the status of an important social indicator. Yet little was known of the social use of the telephone until the 1970s (Pool 1977), when sociologist Harvey Sacks recorded and studied telephone conversations for the access they provided to structures of social action (Atkinson & Heritage 1984). With his colleagues Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson, Sacks developed a method of transcribing and analyzing social interaction within and beyond the context of telephone talk. In the 1980s and 1990s, Robert Hopper adapted conversation analysis to studies of telephone talk across relational and cultural contexts. These scholars established libraries of recordings that provide a valuable resource to researchers of language and social interaction worldwide. The practice and study of telephone talk have since grown, so that it is now considered vital to the construction of identities, relationships, cultural practices, and institutional procedures – as well as to information exchange.
Canonical Openings And Situational Variations
Openings of telephone calls have garnered the most attention from researchers because of their uniformity, complexity, and the trajectory they set for ensuing talk. In openings, callers and answerers are seen to establish their identities and relationships, and initiate the agendas that are integral to the achievement of their telephone talk. Routine features of telephone openings constitute a “canon” for researchers, who draw inferences from circumstantial, technological, relational, institutional, and cultural (i.e. situational) variations on them. The canonical opening is a pattern of ordered tasks achieved through four sequences: a summons–answer sequence (the ring of the phone and answers to it), an identification–recognition sequence (identifying and recognizing parties to the talk, implicitly or explicitly), a greeting sequence (forms of “hello,” sometimes combined with inquiries), and a sequence of initial inquiries, sometimes called the “howareyou” sequence (Schegloff 1986).
Although initially identified in studies of telephone talk in English, the canonical opening and variations on it appear in telephone conversations in Finnish and Swedish (Baker et al. 2005); Arabic, Chinese, French, and Spanish (Hopper 1992); and Danish, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, and Persian (Luke & Pavlidou 2002). The canonical telephone opening serves as a living prototype against which varieties of text and talk in interaction are compared and explained. Its application to various kinds of telephone talk has shown that telephone calls share a “functional similarity,” in spite of structural and situational variations (ten Have 2002). All calls unfold in two phases of action: one primarily relational and phatic, and a second that is more topical, task-, and goal-oriented. In the first phase, telecommunicators establish contact and relationships through summons–answer, identification–recognition, greeting, and some inquiry sequences. In the second phase, usually marked by an inquiries sequence, telecommunicators work toward a first topic and/or reason-for-calling.
Establishing Contact And Relationships
While telephone companies once prescribed ways of answering telephone calls, telecommunicators have developed their own ways of establishing contact that are tailored to their particular relationships and situations. Research on telephone talk shows that call type, relationship type, and participant actions are closely aligned. How people answer phones varies well beyond versions of “hello,” indicating not only that a channel of communication is open, but that contact has been established between parties who are ready (or not) to take action. Answers to telephone summonses range from directives (e.g., “speak, please” and “go ahead” in Greek) to simple acknowledgments of recipient readiness (Italian pronto), to polite invitations or commands to talk (e.g., Czech prosím, Spanish mande; Sifianou 2002).
Researchers classify telephone calls according to the relationship established by telecommunicators through their talk (intimates, acquaintances, or strangers) and characterize the talk as ordinary/interpersonal or institutional according to displayed orientations to reasons-for-calling. Calls among acquaintances typically open in canonical order, while calls between strangers or intimates have reduced and specialized openings. In calls between lay persons and institutional representatives, personalized elements of openings (such as greetings and inquiries) are usually suppressed or replaced with specialized identifications and/or inquiries (e.g., “police desk”; “what is your emergency?”). Yet sales, service, and broadcast callers regularly employ synthetic personalization in their openings to foster interpersonal relations and gain specialized access to the time and interest of called parties.
Telecommunicator relations are shaped by their means of contacting one another. Technological variations on telephone openings – hyperpersonalized identifications and summonses in mobile phone calls, standardized answers and elaborate accounts in voice messages, and depersonalized, disjointed exchanges via voice recognition systems – have relational and power implications because they “afford” variable access to participants in telephone talk (Hutchby 2001). Caller hegemony has changed. Technologically modified telecommunication affords some participants more agency (by enabling them to avoid calls or contact unavailable parties) and others less (by constraining the timing and taking of turns at talk). Expectations of increased availability and reduced privacy fueled by greater telephone access further shape relations between callers and answerers. As the telephone hosts media that broaden access to others – Teletype (TTY) conversation, Internet relay chat (IRC), short and instant messaging services (SMS and IM), and media sharing (photos and videos sent via mobile phones) – telecommunicators acquire the means to achieve perpetual contact, micro-coordinate their activities, and form ‘‘fused” relationships (Katz & Aakhus 2002).
Working Toward A First Topic Or Reason-For-Calling
All telephone talk is driven by reasons-for-calling and requires an investment of temporal, financial, and relational capital. How telecommunicators transition from phatic opening sequences and work toward reasons-for-calling often rests on the design and position of inquiries in the talk. An initial inquiry such as “how are you?” or a request for help can mark a pivotal moment in a call, to which the rest of the conversation is anchored. It is at this moment that telecommunicators move beyond establishing contact and/or relationships (and in some cases, the language or dialect of choice) to get to the matters that occasioned the call. Telephone talk is a means of taking care of business as well as relationships, two avenues of activity that are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced in participants’ efforts to manage both in calls whose primary purpose is supposed to be one or the other (Tracy 1997). Nowhere is this more evident than in calls to help lines, and other telephone services that involve the management of human relations and emotions.
Telecommunicator motivations, as well as relations, are enacted and managed through inquiry sequences. For example, preliminaries and prefaces to questions asked by news interviewers and talk-show callers of public figures instantiate complex asymmetrical relations between them and may display multiple, even contradictory, motivations. Prefatory discourse markers such as kedo (Japanese) or nuntey (Korean) used in initial inquiries can make some calls sound “businesslike” long before reasons-for-calling are addressed (Park 2000). Yet the absence of prefatory utterances can mark calls as routine or topic-less, as when calling to “say hi” or “keep in touch.” Some telecommunicators use initial inquiries such as “how are you?” to address relational and institutional concerns simultaneously, as in calls concerning healthcare issues. Ambiguous inquiries such as “how [or what] are you doing?” are used to manage calls-on-hold, calls-in-a-series, and calls dealing with delicate matters. Inquiries like these placed at calls’ openings may communicate considerable or urgent concern. How inquiries are used and what they accomplish ultimately depends on their situated use. Inquiries into location and ongoing activities, for example, may be taken as breaches of etiquette or privacy in landline calls, yet are standard in emergency service calls and common in mobile phone calls.
Beyond Telephone Talk
The most widely used communication medium that now links others (radio, television, Internet), the telephone is more situated in the lives, loves, and jobs of communicators than ever before, providing researchers with unprecedented access to communication practices in action. Research on telephone talk has spread with mobile telephone use, from its origins in the US, the UK, and the Netherlands to Finland, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Yet as telecommunication grows more universal, remote, and standardized, spontaneous telephone talk carries a higher premium for all who participate in it and study it. Telephone talk is now much more than an efficient means of information transmission; it is, as early researchers proposed, a fundamental site of sociality. As a site of study, it offers insights into communication phenomena such as intimacy-at-a-distance, mediated relationships, interpersonal and institutional crisis management, electronic privacy, social networking, emotional labor, the commodification of interpersonal relations, and citizen participation in public spheres.
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