Good to Talk?: Living and Working in a Communication Culture


Deborah Cameron

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    ‘It's how we plan and organize our lives. It's how we build friendshps and get close to people. It's how we get to understand how other people feel – and sometimes discover important things about ourselves. It's how we influence people and allow them to influence us. It's how we sort out problems, co-operate with each other and create new opportunities’

    – TalkWorks: How to Get More Out of Life through Better Conversations, British Telecom, 1997.

    The quotation above comes from an advice booklet produced on behalf of the UK's largest phone company, British Telecommunications plc (BT, 1997); the ‘it’ that begins each sentence is ‘communication’, or more exactly, talk.1 TalkWorks is a registered trademark, the name of ‘a major BT initiative to help people become more effective communicators, by providing a range of publications and learning materials’. This particular publication, available free of charge to any UK resident, announces itself on page one as ‘a book that can help change your life’. The text explains: ‘a lot of the anxiety, frustration and “people problems” we encounter as we go through life have their roots in poor communication. By getting better at how we understand and deal with other people, life can improve in many different ways’.

    Also on my desk as I write is a book whose title is Family Violence from a Communication Perspective (Cahn and Lloyd, l996). This is a very different kind of text, addressed to researchers and professional practitioners in the fields of health and social services. It is considerably less bright and breezy in tone than the BT booklet, for after all it is dealing with the darker side of human relationships: prominent among its concerns are date rape, wife beating and child abuse. Its starting point, however, is very similar to BT's. According to the jacket blurb, ‘the chapters examine…emotional, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse and show how they all stem from basic communication problems’.

    These texts, one upbeat and popular, the other soberly academic, are striking examples of the phenomenon I set out to investigate in this book, and they are by no means isolated cases. In recent years it has become commonplace to find all sorts of problems being described as ‘communication problems’ – problems arising from the ways in which people talk, or do not talk, to one another. The perception that ‘poor communication’ is at the root of many problems prompts various interventions aimed at getting people to communicate better. Programmes of education and training have been instituted with the goal of improving ‘communication skills’; in workplaces, schools and colleges, more and more people are receiving formal instruction in how to talk to one another, and in some cases their performance is being formally assessed. Some of the most spectacular publishing successes of the 1990s were popular psychology and self-help books concerned with issues of communication, including Deborah Tannen's You just Don't Understand (1991), John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (1992), and Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence (1995). Communication is one of the themes of Britain's national celebrations to mark the year 2000: the centrepiece of those celebrations, the ‘Millennium Experience’, a sort of exposition-cum-theme park housed in a purpose-built dome in Greenwich, features an entire ‘zone’ dedicated to ‘the importance of communication in our lives’. These examples illustrate that we live in what might be called a ‘communication culture’. By that I do not mean merely a culture that communicates, nor one that regulates communicative behaviour (all cultures do both those things). Rather I mean a culture that is particularly self-conscious and reflexive about communication, and that generates large quantities of metadiscourse about it. For the members of such a culture it is axiomatically ‘good to talk’ – but at the same time it is natural to make judgements about which kinds of talk are good and which are less good. People aspire, or think they ought to aspire, to communicate ‘better’; and they are highly receptive to expert advice. The TalkWorks booklet was requested by two million people in the first 18 months of its existence; evaluations carried out on behalf of BT were almost embarrassingly positive; many people whose opinions were not solicited contacted the company independently to express appreciation and ask for more. The booklet's author, evidently surprised as well as pleased by the extent of the demand, told me: ‘we're pushing at an open door’.2

    Practices like teaching and assessing communication skills or offering advice on ‘better conversations’ fall into the category of what I have elsewhere labelled ‘verbal hygiene’ (Cameron, l995), meaning attempts to ‘clean up’ language-use so it conforms to particular standards of correctness, clarity, efficiency, beauty or morality. Verbal hygiene harnesses our propensity for making value-judgements on language to our more general desire for order and meaning; setting language to rights becomes a surrogate for setting the world to rights. Thus complaints about the misuse of the apostrophe or the ubiquity of profane language on television may express deeper, more amorphous anxieties about the loss of standards in an increasingly permissive society, while efforts to keep a language ‘pure’ may spring not only from concern about the language itself, but also from a feeling that its speakers' distinctive racial, ethnic or national identity is under threat. Whenever some aspect of language becomes a matter of widespread concern, and new regimes of verbal hygiene spring up to deal with it, it is always pertinent to ask: what else might lie behind this?

    In the chapters that follow I consider what might lie behind the current obsession with ‘communication’. I examine the discourse and the practices in which concerns about communication are manifested in contemporary English-speaking societies; and I argue that many of these concerns can be linked to the economic, social and cultural changes that are often discussed under the heading of ‘globalization’.3 Those developments have implications for our experience and understanding of ourselves as workers, as consumers, as citizens of nation states, as members of communities and actors in the wider world. They also have implications for the way we talk, and the way we perceive the significance of talk. As the linguistic anthropologist Susan Gal has observed, ideas about what is desirable in the sphere of language-using are always ‘systematically related to other areas of cultural discourse such as the nature of persons, of power, and of a desirable moral order’ (Gal, 1995: 171). Regimes of verbal hygiene that centre on ‘communication’ are inseparable from changing concepts of identity, agency and society. They are both a reflex of cultural change and one means for bringing it about. It is with that in mind that I set out in this book to discover their motivations, describe their mechanisms and assess their implications. In what ways and for what purposes is it believed to be ‘good to talk’?


    This list of acknowledgements would be considerably longer had not the majority of those who helped me preferred not to be identified by name. Although I regret this, since it means I must withhold from readers information which, they might well think, has a bearing on their ability to assess what I say in these pages, I owe a great debt to my anonymous informants and I acknowledge it here with thanks. It is also my pleasure to thank Emmanuel Akele, Andrew Bailey, the Bank of Scotland, BIFU, Raymond Bell, BT, Dianne Butterworth, Gordon Graham, Samantha Houten, Johanna Jameson, Karen MacGowan, Mark Sims and USDAW.

    For supplying additional references, data, contacts and/or expert advice, I am grateful to Kristina Bennert, Kristine Fitch, Karen Grainger, Roxy Harris, Caroline Henton, Scott Kiesling, Bethan Marshall, David Meaden, Keith Nightenhelser, Hermine Scheeres, Stuart Tannock, Steve Taylor, Jack Whalen, Mel Wininger, Anne Witz and Anne-Marie Cullen. Also and especially, I am grateful to Simon Frith and Don Kulick, whose intelligent criticism has done so much to improve the finished text.

    I thank Strathclyde University, which granted me research leave, and New York University's international visiting scholar program, which enabled me to spend some of it in the US (many thanks to John Singler and Bambi Schieffelin). Warmest thanks, too, to my editor Julia Hall for her support, and to Meryl Altman, Tom and Beryl Markus for their friendship and hospitality. Since the completion of this project coincides with my departure from Strathclyde, I will end by acknowledging the professional and personal debt I owe to my closest colleagues there: Nigel Fabb, Martin Montgomery and Margaret Philips.

  • Epilogue

    In New York City in the spring of 1999, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police chief Howard Safir made a well-publicized visit to a Harlem police station. The officers who had assembled for roll-call were presented with wallet-sized ‘politeness cards’ reminding them to address members of the public as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma'am’, and to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. Mayor Giuliani explained to the officers: ‘we want you to go the extra mile to act nicer; we want you to go the extra mile to act more respectful’ (New York Times, 8 April, 1999).

    The timing of this initiative was not coincidental. In February 1999, NYPD officers had shot dead an unarmed West African immigrant named Amadou Diallo; they claimed that he looked like a rape suspect they were seeking, and that he appeared to be reaching for a weapon. Critics challenged this account, charging that Diallo was a victim of police racism and brutality. During March 1999, more than 1,000 people were arrested during daily protests at Police Plaza. Against this background, Giuliani and Safir followed the example of countless businesspeople, politicians and self-help pundits, by defining the problem as a ‘communication problem’, a question of the way officers interacted with the public. They then addressed this supposed problem using the ‘customer care’ approach. Specifically, they adopted the verbal hygiene strategy I have labelled ‘styling’, instructing officers to ‘act nicer…act more respectful’ and prescribing linguistic markers (‘Sir’, ‘Ma'am’, ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and so on) to function as tokens of niceness and respect. Officers in Harlem appeared unimpressed. One told the Times's reporter, ‘Anybody who has got to carry a card to deal with the public shouldn't be on the job’. Another commented sarcastically, ‘You mean I can't say “hey, mope, get over here!” any more?’

    The NYPD politeness initiative exemplifies two tendencies that we have encountered repeatedly in this book. The first is the tendency to treat all sorts of problems as being caused by poor communication and/or resolvable through better communication, even when – as in the Diallo case – this is patently a superficial analysis. The second is the resort to scripting, styling and other forms of linguistic regulation which assume that every speaker in every situation should follow the same procedures, and that speakers cannot be trusted to communicate without exhaustive guidance on even the most elementary points. This approach does not produce ‘better communication’, nor does it produce more ‘skilled’ and ‘empowered’ communicators. It cannot produce those things, because it negates the single most important ability of a truly skilled communicator: the ability to assess what is going on in a situation and choose strategies that are likely to be effective in that situation. Let me expand on that argument by briefly revisiting two of the keywords of enterprise culture and its discourse on communication: empowerment and skill.

    Empowerment Revisited

    A central argument in favour of ‘better communication’ and the verbal hygiene practices intended to produce it is that the ability to talk in certain ways empowers people. Developing their communication skills enables them to realize their goals and take charge of their own destinies. In principle this is an argument calculated to appeal not only to enthusiasts of the new capitalism but also to many of its critics. Liberation movements of all kinds have long affirmed the importance of language and communication, both in collective struggles and for the individuals involved in them. But what is called ‘empowerment’ in the discourse I have examined has little to do with liberating people from existing constraints on their agency or freedom. In many cases it has more to do with teaching them to discipline themselves so they can operate more easily within those constraints: become more flexible, more team-oriented, better at resolving the conflicts and controlling the emotions that threaten to disrupt business as usual.

    I have remarked on the narrowing of the term ‘communication’ so that in both expert and popular usage it is frequently equated with just those speech genres that foreground self-disclosure and collaborative problem-solving. Communication training tends to valorize the speech styles that facilitate those activities (egalitarian, co-operative, nonjudgemental) and to teach the associated discourse strategies (for instance ‘mirroring’, asking open questions, giving verbal reinforcement). It would be wrong to suggest that those styles and strategies have no value, but it might well be argued that their value is most limited in the contexts and activity types where the connection between language and power is most obvious. They are not calculated to ‘empower’ speakers in a legal contest or political debate, for instance, or in any kind of confrontation with authority. These are cases in which the goal of using language is not to produce self-knowledge and intimacy (real or simulated) with others, but to influence others, and thus to shape the course of events in the world. To realize that goal requires forensic or rhetorical skills – the ability to argue, to challenge, to persuade – which are, as we have seen, neglected in most texts and training courses. If power is, as some theorists have suggested, the ability to get things done, then one might have concerns about what cannot be done using only the techniques that receive most attention from today's communication experts.

    Skill Revisited

    It could also be argued that communication training does not empower people on the grounds that people are never empowered by being denied the opportunity to exercise choice and judgement. That is in effect what many regimes of communication training do, even as they claim to be developing ‘communication skills’ – a paradox that arises because the prevailing notion of ‘skill’ is mechanical and decontextualized. To appreciate the point, it is instructive to compare ‘communication skills’ with what sociolinguists and ethnographers of speaking, following Dell Hymes (1972), call ‘communicative competence’. ‘Competence’ in Hymes's sense involves more than just mastering a set of mechanical rules for speaking in this or that situation: it means understanding what choices you have and being able to assess their implications. As Carol Myers Scotton observes, language-using has ‘a grammar of consequences. Speakers are free to make any choices, but how their choices will be interpreted is not free’ (1988: 155).1 A ‘competent’ speaker is one who understands the ‘grammar of consequences’ and can judge which of the available choices will come closest to producing the desired interpretation in a particular set of circumstances.

    In the ‘skills’ approach by contrast, the term competence is often equated with the demonstration of discrete ‘competencies’ of the kind that can be ticked off on a checklist: ‘does the member of staff answer the phone with a smile?’ ‘Does s/he greet customers whenever they come within 10 feet?’ This approach does not require the communicator to make judgements about the contextual meaning and appropriateness of smiling or greeting, only to perform the relevant action ‘correctly’. It belongs to the rationalizing tendency that ‘allows individuals little choice of means to ends’ (Ritzer, 1996: 19). The ability to choose means to ends (and to choose between ends) is the essence of Hymesian communicative competence. When that ability is negated, the outcome is unlikely to be ‘better communication’: recall Safeway's apparent belief that the best communicators are those who greet customers every time the opportunity presents itself, whereas those who use their judgement get ‘written up’ for poor service.

    If on one hand the skills approach may be criticized for ‘dumbing down’ the communicatively competent speakers to whom it is applied, on the other it is open to more serious objections. Our choices about speaking are one important aspect of our self-presentation, of the identities we construct for public display. But some of the more restrictive practices described in this book deny individuals the freedom to make choices about how they present themselves, while obliging them to deal with the interpersonal consequences of choices made for them by others. Supermarket workers and flight attendants, for instance, may be well aware that in the local ‘grammar of consequences’ their behaviour is likely to be interpreted as signalling sexual availability, but they are not free to choose an alternative way of communicating which does not have that consequence. Practices of this kind are more than just restrictive: they are oppressive.

    Communication Inflation?

    Nothing I have written in these pages is meant to imply that communication does not matter. However, as I suggested in relation to Mayor Giuliani's politeness initiative, there is a problematic cultural tendency to inflate problems of language and communication to the point where the larger social landscape is completely obscured. Communication matters, but it does not always matter in the same way or to the same extent; and it is almost never the only thing that matters. The case of Amadou Diallo provides an obvious illustration. It is probably true that a prompt apology from the NYPD would have improved matters, and conversely that the department's failure to communicate regret or self-criticism made things worse. But ‘better communication’ would not have placated the department's critics, who would rightly have pointed out that an innocent man was still dead. Apologizing does not bring the officers responsible to justice nor ensure that other officers behave differently in future.2

    One could cite many other instances of the same obsession with ‘communication problems’ when other and arguably more pressing problems cry out for attention. Proposals to address various kinds of anti-social behaviour through communication skills training often seem to suggest that lack of communication skills ‘causes’ the problem: that domestic violence, for instance, or disruptive behaviour at school, occur because people cannot express their feelings and resolve their problems verbally. This is problematic to the degree that it elides the question of what gives rise to the feelings themselves. Would it not be pertinent to ask, for instance, what is making a child angry enough to throw classroom furniture, and try to do something about that? Obviously, ‘communication’ has some part to play here: you cannot help a child with a problem if s/he is unable or unwilling to tell you what it is. I do not dispute, either, what is frequently attested by people suffering various kinds of distress – that talking can make you feel better. Talking on its own, however, will not solve the problems of children suffering abuse, neglect or economic deprivation. What troubles me is not the suggestion that such children could benefit from talking about their problems, it is the emphasis placed on improving their communication skills as opposed to ameliorating their life circumstances. ‘Communication problems’ need to be kept in proportion, which means seeing them as part of a bigger picture rather than inflating them so they take up the whole frame.

    Another kind of ‘inflation’ occurs when the everyday activity of talking is imbued by experts with an air of extraordinary difficulty, paving the way for language-users to be (mis)represented as extraordinarily incompetent. (One advice text, titled Difficult Conversations (Patton and Stone, 1999), reportedly emerged from 15 years' research by a Harvard think-tank; this might prompt the question, how difficult could a conversation be?) In previous chapters I have quoted assertions that suggest a massive communication skills deficit affecting great swathes of the population. We are told, for instance, that the average person listens at only a quarter of the optimum capacity, and that anything up to a fifth of the school population cannot learn because their communication skills are so poor. Here we see the ‘falling standards’ argument, so familiar in relation to reading, grammar and spelling, being extended to spoken discourse as well.

    Liberating Communication

    I would like to see the subject of communication ‘liberated’ from the rationalizing apparatus of scripts and checklists, and from the inflationary discourse that represents it as the cause and the remedy for all the world's problems. I would also like to see the subjects of communication – individual language-users – given more opportunities to study and to practise ways of using spoken discourse that are ‘liberating’ rather than limiting and oppressive.

    This requires, among other things, that the teaching of spoken language must go beyond narrowly utilitarian definitions of ‘skill’, embracing a much wider range of discourse functions, genres and styles. Once upon a time, even the most earnest of advice writers did not regard talking only as a way to transact life's business and solve life's problems. Conversation was an ‘art’; like music, dancing and good food, good talk was counted among life's pleasures. The aesthetic and ludic qualities of spoken discourse are particularly neglected in most current approaches to communication. Why should schoolchildren not study – and practise – the oral performance arts of storytelling, stand-up comedy, advocacy and oratory? Why should less attention be given to formal and public speech than to quasi-therapeutic small group discussion?

    I am arguing, in sum, that a more positive approach to ‘communication’ would celebrate the rich variety of spoken discourse, and acknowledge the complexity of the skills it demands. The discourse and practice I have examined in this book does not celebrate variety and complexity; in some cases it does not even tolerate them. Is it not ironic that a culture so overtly concerned about communication, so willing to expend thought, time and money on the subject, should have such limited and limiting ideas about what makes it good to talk?

    Appendix: Research Methods and Research Ethics

    In this project I used a combination of textual analysis, interviewing and observation to investigate normative practices relating to ‘communication’ in a number of different social domains. Here I want to provide an overview of the data collection process (more detailed information appears in the notes to individual chapters) and to discuss some of the general issues and problems raised by it.

    The ultimate object of investigation in this case was spoken language; but as I suggested in Chapter 2, the institutional regulation of spoken discourse is quite strikingly a literate practice, which could not be carried on in the forms this book describes without the aid of writing. For that reason, a significant proportion of the information I collected and analysed came from written texts. Sources I used included workplace communication training materials, employee manuals and appraisal checklists, educational policy documents, examination syllabi and assessment criteria, and self-help and advice literature. Much of this textual material is in the public domain and is readily available to anyone; some of it, however, is not publicly accessible, and I will explain below how I came by it.

    I did examine some texts in media other than (just) writing. An example is the BT TalkWorks materials discussed in Chapter 6, which combine written text with recorded speech accessed via the telephone (there is also a TalkWorks website). In some settings videotape is an important adjunct to communication training, and some self-help materials are now available in audiotape form (typically they are intended to be listened to while driving). In general, however, I found that the most important and/or most detailed prescriptions appeared in written form.

    In addition to analysing texts, where possible I observed and interviewed people engaged in the practices under investigation. Obviously, it cannot be assumed that the everyday reality of work or schooling is an exact reflection of what is written in the company manual or the examination syllabus. Interviewing and observation are methods for building up a more detailed picture of practice. Interviewing is also a method for investigating the important question of how particular practices are experienced, understood and evaluated by practitioners.

    I should point out that my opportunities to observe normal routines, and more particularly to record them, were restricted. I had decided to concentrate my fieldwork efforts on ‘new’ (restructured, service-oriented) workplaces, since it seemed to me that far less was known about them from a sociolinguistic point of view than was known about, say, classroom discourse. I was especially interested in call centres, because of the extent to which communication is foregrounded in operators' work. But gaining access on acceptable terms was not easy. At the time of my research there had recently been a number of critical press reports about working conditions in British call centres, and some managers were wary of my approaches. Often they were eager to show me their centres, which they felt had been unfairly criticized, but reluctant to let me talk to their staff unchaperoned, and insistent on approving what I wrote in advance of publication (a condition I was not prepared to consider). The call centre from which I received most assistance (where I was able to observe, interview, gather written materials and listen in on, though not record, calls) had a fairly ‘relaxed’ work regime, with little of the petty regulation I found to be common elsewhere. That is unlikely to be a coincidence: in general, it has to be remembered that companies prepared to co-operate with an independent researcher may well be an unrepresentative sample, in the sense of being more open and more ‘enlightened’ than those which refuse co-operation.

    Because of constraints on access, this study cannot match either the quantity or the quality of the observational data presented in the work of Robin Leidner (1993), Paul du Gay (1996), Stuart Tannock (1997), Joyce et al. (1995) and Whalen and Vinkhuyzen (in press). All these researchers spent extended periods in a single workplace or a small number of them, with the blessing of the organizations concerned. Then again, it was never my intention to focus exclusively on a small number of individual cases. Case studies are extremely valuable, but they require a serious investment of time to negotiate terms, build rapport and maintain relations of mutual trust, and this inevitably limits the number of sites a single researcher can hope to investigate during a finite period of fieldwork. Since my aim was to map practices relating to ‘communication’ across a range of institutions and domains, I needed a larger and more varied sample.

    The case study approach has another potential drawback, assuming that the researcher obtains formal permission from the institution(s) concerned. In hierarchical institutions, that means enlisting the co-operation of people near the top of the hierarchy, and this may affect what you can learn from and about those lower down. Even where you are free to approach staff, their knowledge that you are there by courtesy of the management may influence what they say to you. Given the ‘critical’ nature of my interest in ‘new’ workplaces, this was a particular concern for me, which I addressed by making not only ‘official’ approaches to companies through their management, but also ‘unofficial’ approaches directly to employees, who were contacted and subsequently interviewed outside their places of work. I recruited these informants initially through mutual acquaintances: many university students work in service occupations, and I was able to ask students I knew to put me in touch with colleagues who might be willing to help me. Later on, some informants approached me after hearing about my work or reading a piece I wrote about ‘smiley talk’ (the language of customer care) for the [Glasgow] Herald newspaper in 1998.

    Obviously, the organizations I approached ‘officially’ could not be the same ones whose staff I recruited ‘unofficially’. The whole point of the dual approach was to be able to talk to employees in a context where I had no relationship with the organization they worked for, and no personal contact with their superiors. But the consequence was that I ended up with different kinds of information about different workplaces. For instance, I could only carry out on-site observations in workplaces accessed through ‘official’ contacts; ordinary employees were not in a position to facilitate access. Both kinds of contacts provided opportunities to interview individuals, but since in practice it was easier to interview people when they were not trying to do their jobs at the same time, I collected more interview data from ‘unofficial’ than ‘official’ sources. (In all cases I asked permission to tape-record interviews, and if the informant refused I made written notes; I did no clandestine recording. For more details on interviewing procedures, see the notes to Chapter 4.) Perhaps surprisingly, ‘unofficial’ contacts were my best source for textual materials not in the public domain, such as the manuals that set out standard operating procedures, the materials given out during training and the performance criteria used in appraisal. Managers sometimes showed me these materials, but they were seldom willing to let me reproduce them. The reason they usually gave was that scripts, training materials and appraisal procedures are among a company's commercial assets, and that reproducing them publicly threatens ‘competitive advantage’ by giving inside information to the company's competitors.

    Whatever their reasons, many companies are obviously very anxious to keep details of workplace routine confidential. (An early pilot study I tried to conduct collapsed instantly because the workers I had chosen to approach were strictly forbidden to talk to outsiders about any aspect of their work. The rule was to refer all inquirers to the public relations office, which suggests the motive was to avoid bad publicity.) Almost all the employees who supplied me with material told me they knew, or strongly suspected, that they could face disciplinary action or even dismissal if their employers found out. As I noted in my acknowledgements, the vast majority of these informants asked me to withhold their names, conceal or disguise the identity of the organizations they worked for, and alter small details of the texts I reproduced where their content might make the source recognizable. I have complied with all such requests. Where I reproduce ‘confidential’ materials I usually identify the source in generic terms only, and most of the company names I do use are pseudonyms. Real names of organizations (like Wal-Mart, Safeway or McDonald's) occur only in the context of discussions based on information that is already in the public domain.

    Some of the data I draw on in discussing workplace practices was collected by other people. A team of sociologists researching aesthetic labour in service industries generously allowed me to see transcripts of focus group discussions they had conducted, and I have made occasional use of this material. I have drawn more extensively on data collected by four of my own students at Strathclyde University, who carried out participant observation in their own workplaces while preparing written assignments for a course I was then teaching (they chose the assignment topic themselves). The students collected written materials – including noting down the contents of texts such as notices that could not be physically removed from the workplace – described the training and work routines they participated in (as well as the forms of resistance that were part of employees' culture) and in two cases interviewed a sample of their co-workers. I use their work with their permission; specific acknowledgement is made at the relevant point in the text or notes.

    Obviously it could be asked whether it was ethical for me to encourage employees (including the students) to reveal information they were not supposed to reveal, especially when this exposed them to the risk of disciplinary sanctions. Ethical issues – both the issue of personal risk and the issue of betrayal of an employer's trust – were discussed in some detail with all individuals who offered me information. Though most, as I noted above, were concerned to secure guarantees of anonymity in order to protect themselves, they were less concerned about betrayal of trust. They felt that it would be unethical to breach the duty of confidentiality enjoined on professionals such as doctors and lawyers, but passing a researcher your customer care manual or telephone sales script was not seen to have the same implications, since the duty of confidentiality was motivated by purely commercial considerations. The question is whether the commercial interests of capitalist organizations should override any public interest in scrutinizing workplace practices. It will be evident that I believe they should not, and fortunately this view was shared by my informants.

    That said, I should make clear that few of my informants (including those who approached me themselves) fell into the category of ‘disgruntled employees’. Though my sampling methods do not permit me to treat them as a ‘representative’ group, they did represent some range of experience and opinion. With only one or two exceptions they were keen to impress on me that their jobs had positive features as well as negative ones; some explicitly expressed a desire to be ‘fair’ to their employers. I should also say that some employers were unmoved by the prospect of a researcher scrutinizing their practices critically. One of the students mentioned above told his boss in general terms what he was doing: not only did this man have no objection to the student collecting internal documents and interviewing people ‘for college’, he offered to be interviewed himself. Confident that he knew what was best for his company, he regarded academic analysis not as a threat, but as an irrelevance.

    That observation brings me to a point that should always be considered in relation to research: who benefits, and how? In this case, not the capitalist organizations I had dealings with: I think I can say that I left my research sites exactly as I found them. This had at least as much to do with my informants' attitudes to me as with mine to them. As the anthropologist Penelope Harvey (1992) has pointed out, discussing the relationship of Western ethnographers to the people they study, it is foolish to think of yourself as either exploiting or empowering people who privately regard you as a naive, incompetent child. That seems to be how many businesspeople regard the inhabitants of the ‘ivory tower’, a place they contrast unfavourably with their own ‘real world’. Unlike some of the researchers cited above (Joyce et al.; Whalen and Vinkhuyzen), I did not take on the role of a consultant, paid to help a company or an industry develop better training or more efficient procedures. Occasionally such a role was proposed to me (I declined), but far more often the assumption I encountered was that I had nothing useful to offer.

    My ‘unofficial’ informants sometimes told me, by contrast, that they had found our discussions useful as well as interesting. I took them to be endorsing the widespread belief that verbalizing your experiences to a sympathetic listener promotes self-awareness and reflection – in other words, ‘it's good to talk’. While the irony of that response is not lost on me, given my view that too much attention is paid to the quasi-therapeutic functions of verbal interaction, I certainly do not wish to deny its validity altogether. Social research using interactive methods may indeed have some of the benefits that are claimed for ‘communication’ in general (see Cameron et al., 1992). If people did not enjoy talking about themselves, and if they did not find the experience in some way illuminating, it would be far more difficult to recruit unpaid informants for research projects. That said, however, I think the value of the research reported here – if it has any – will ultimately lie less in the immediate effects on those who took part in it, and more in the discussions which I hope this book will generate.


    1 In the discourse that is my subject in this book, the word communication almost invariably refers exclusively or primarily to talk, rather than to writing, mass media or the use of new electronic communication technologies. These are also salient cultural concerns, but they are usually discussed under other headings (such as ‘literacy’, ‘media literacy’, ‘computer literacy’/ ‘IT skills’). The point is discussed further in Chapter 1. See also Mattelart and Mattelart (1998) for an account of how ‘communication’ in its various senses has been theorized.

    2 The source is an interview conducted in 1998 with Andrew Bailey, a freelance consultant who was responsible for the BT booklet and supporting materials.

    3 Readers may perceive a problem or a contradiction here: I am concerned with globalization, which by definition is an international, cross-cultural and cross-linguistic phenomenon, but I focus exclusively on English-speaking societies (mainly, in fact, on the UK and the US). Certainly it is a serious limitation that I have not been able to consider the questions raised by the diffusion (less neutrally, the imposition) of communication styles and verbal hygiene regimes from the heartlands of consumer capitalism to other parts of the world (such as Eastern Europe and Asia). This process has implications for the status of English vis-a-vis local languages (as Sharon Goodman (1996) observes, ‘Market Forces Speak English’), as well as for the texture of interaction in various contexts. I have neither the space nor the research evidence to discuss those implications in detail here, but I hope people who are interested in taking up the subject will find insights they can bring to bear on that task.

    1 British Telecom was originally part of Britain's General Post Office (GPO), and as such was a publicly-owned monopoly. It was separated from other GPO functions such as the Royal Mail, and eventually privatized, since when it has become a major player in the global telecommunications industry (for that reason it now prefers to be known by the acronym ‘BT’).

    2 Statistics are taken from Listening to the Nation: Executive Summary; the quote is taken from Communication at the Heart of the Nation: Implications for Building a Communicating Society. These documents, available from BT, are unattributed, undated and unpaginated. The full report on the National Communication Survey is Smith and Turner, 1997.

    3 At this point, a caveat is necessary. Anyone familiar with recent management theory will recognize the account offered below of ‘new ways of managing’ as one in which differing approaches, originated by different people at different times, and in some cases contradicting one another, are blended together and presented under the umbrella of ‘new managerial approaches’ or simply ‘enterprise’, as if they were a single thing. This theoretical simplification may not be good scholarly practice, but it does reflect the way the ideas in question are often used in real organizations. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge (1997) point out, the most important change in managerial approaches over the last decade is not the adoption of any one model, but the more general willingness of organizations to continually remake themselves using new ‘management tools’ developed by theorists and applied by consultants. However, according to Micklethwait and Wooldridge, organizations' response to management theory tends to be ad hoc and uncritical. This produces ‘contradictory organizations’, committed simultaneously to ideas that do not go together (for instance, that a successful organization streamlines its workforce to minimize costs, and at the same time seeks to maximize the loyalty and trust of its employees). What follows, then, is a brief account of some key ideas that have influenced many organizations today, but it should not be taken as a rigorous account of management theory itself (on the history and status of this discourse, see Micklethwait and Wooldridge (1997), also Jacques (1996)).

    4 This vision statement is written as if it were a collective utterance by all the company's employees: the pronoun in ‘our work environment will value our ideas and our entire life experience’ can only mean ‘the workforce's’. My source confirmed that the statement was in fact written by senior managers with some assistance from an outside consultant; employees were not consulted.

    1 ‘Speech communication’ is a disciplinary label more commonly found in the US than Britain. It denotes a multi-disciplinary social science approach, which may draw on, for example, psychology, linguistics and semiotics. ‘Communication studies’ is a commoner label in Britain, and there is some tendency for it to refer in particular to the study of mass communication media.

    2 A comparative survey covering several ancient rhetorical traditions, Eastern (for example, India and China) as well as Western (for example, Greece and Rome) is Kennedy, 1998. Ethnographic discussions of metalinguistic discourse and instruction in speaking skills among traditional indigenous peoples include Stross, 1974 and Sherzer, 1987.

    3 I owe this point to Mel Wininger (p.c.), who is currently doing archival research on the literacy practices of one midwestern college.

    4 ‘Politeness’ and its French analogue politesse had a particular and complex meaning during this period, related but not exactly equivalent to the meaning of politeness in present-day English. Writers on the subject of politeness often defined it in terms of the ability to be at ease in company and to make oneself agreeable to others. It also implied ‘polish’ or refinement. Something of the flavour of the concept, as well as the difficulty of pinning it down precisely, is conveyed by the words of Lord Chesterfield in his Letters to his Son (written between 1737 and 1768): ‘The look, the tone of voice, the manner of speaking, the gestures, must all conspire to form that Je ne sais quoi that everybody feels, though nobody can exactly describe’ (quoted in Cohen, 1996: 45).

    5 I am aware that talking about ‘psychology and therapy’ in this way might be considered imprecise and misleading, so let me attempt to be more specific. First, they are not the same thing (therapists need have very little background in academic psychology; psychologists need not engage in therapeutic or clinical enterprises). Second, each term is an umbrella for a wide range of differing concerns. In the case of psychology, the academic discipline should be distinguished from the genre known as ‘popular psychology’; though it should be noted that popular psychology may draw on academic psychology. The subfields of academic psychology that are most often invoked (for example, their empirical findings are cited or their prominent figures mentioned) in literature about communication (pop psychological or otherwise) are: clinical; social; organizational. In the case of ‘therapy’, Anthony Giddens (1991) has warned against treating it as an ‘expert system’ on the grounds that it takes a bewildering number of different forms, none of which commands universal respect or even acceptance. In the literature of communication it is clear that certain therapeutic practices are the ultimate source of many specific recommendations, though the immediate source may be a work of popular psychology. Therapeutic paradigms that are influential in this regard include transactional analysis, the theory and practice of ‘assertiveness’ and approaches that have developed out of 12-step programs on the model of AA and the associated ‘recovery movement’. I discuss the relationship between communication training and ‘therapy’ in more detail in Chapter 6.

    6 The exact provenance of the materials is difficult to determine. The copy in my possession was obtained in the mid-1980s by responding to a newspaper advertisement. The advertisement was placed and the material supplied by a publishing company based in northwest England. However, the copyright notice suggests that this company had merely purchased the right to republish material produced almost three decades previously, probably in the USA. The notice reads: ‘©1951 Career Institute, Inc.’, and then ‘1978 Career Institute, Inc (English Edition).’ Whether significant revisions were made for a British readership is not clear, though it is evident that some additional material has been added in the form of a preface to each lesson headed ‘a personal chat with your tutor’. These ‘chats’ are signed by an individual who is identified in the introduction to the course as the ‘Director of Studies’ for the UK company. It is not specified who will answer any letters students might write in search of tutorial guidance, but one assumes it will not be the people named as authors of the 12 lessons, most of whom must be retired or dead by now.

    7 Again I am indebted to Mel Wininger, historian of literacy practices and assiduous frequenter of junk shops, for unearthing A New Self-Teaching Course and allowing me to examine it. Obviously my observations on this text as a product of its time, and similar observations made about Effective Speaking and Writing, must be treated with some caution. Although I have no reason to doubt the two texts are ‘representative’, generalizations about the genre they belong to would ideally be based on analysis of a much larger corpus of examples, and on proper historical investigation of their production and reception.

    8 I will be returning to the items included in this sample throughout the book, but I should make clear that my overall corpus contains other materials as well, which I have excluded from consideration in this particular discussion. Here I focus on what I am calling ‘instructional materials’, i.e. materials supplied to participants in a training course or made available commercially for purposes of self-study. Typically such materials are quite voluminous, and are presented in the form of books, loose-leaf binders or folders, or in the case of some self-study materials, audiocassettes. Later on I will consider other kinds of materials, such as the scripts and prompt-sheets used to regulate workplace performance, the checklists used to appraise it, memos advising of changes in policy and practice, etc. These documents are not produced for training purposes, they are not comprehensive in their coverage, and they do not aim to disseminate knowledge about communication, though some (for example, appraisal checklists) may be regarded as a supplementary tool for developing skills. They are therefore less relevant to the present discussion.

    9 What is said about body language in communication training materials also seems to owe a (usually unacknowledged) debt to the work of Edward T. Hall, a pioneer in the field of intercultural communication and author of The Silent Language (1959). Hall was a member of the ‘Palo Alto School’ of communication scholars, an interdisciplinary grouping that came together in California in the 1940s and also included Erving Goffman and Gregory Bateson. The group opposed itself to then-current orthodoxies based on mathematical information theory and social scientific behaviourism. As will be noted below, however, communication training materials today remain strikingly indebted to these mid-century orthodoxies, even though they also make use of insights intended to refute them.

    10 Inferential models, such as Gricean pragmatics or its development in relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986), assume that any instance of communicative behaviour is treated by the recipient, not as containing the producer's meaning, but as one source of evidence for the producer's meaning. The recipient must infer what is meant by putting that evidence together with other relevant knowledge. The weight given to any particular piece of evidence (such as body language as opposed to words) will depend on the whole configuration of circumstances in a given case. In any event, since the meaning is not ‘in’ the message, but emerges from what the recipient does with the message, it makes no sense in an inferential framework to claim that this or that constituent carries n% of the meaning.

    11 In 1999 the trade journal Training conducted a survey on the subject of the evaluation of training by UK businesses. It found that 37% of organizations carried out no evaluation, and only 11% had ever produced a detailed case that training represented a good return on investment. (This survey was reported in the Management Plus section of The Times, June 24 1999.)

    12 This charge was made in an editorial in the New York Times of April 27 1999, which criticized city and state authorities for wasting money on ineffective or unproven prevention programs.

    1 Wal-Mart is a chain of US out-of-town hypermarkets founded by Sam Walton – hence ‘so help me Sam’ – and in 1997 the Wall Street Journal reported it had taken over from General Motors as the largest private employer in the US. The ‘oath’ is cited by Micklethwait and Wooldridge (1997), who say that new employees are made to raise their right hand and recite it, as if taking the oath in court (see further, Ortega, 1998).

    2 The Open University offers degree courses to adults by distance learning (or as the OU calls it, ‘supported open learning’). Originally conceived as a ‘university of the air’, it makes extensive use of BBC radio and television broadcasts. The programme to which this section refers is titled ‘Empowerment’, and forms part of a course module on ‘Managing in Organizations’.

    3 This information comes from transcripts of focus group discussions conducted by Dennis Nickson, Chris Warhurst and Anne Witz with the assistance of Anne-Marie Cullen. Participants worked in banks, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants, and were recruited as part of a sociological study of ‘aesthetic labour’. All references below to focus group discussions are based on these materials; I am extremely grateful to Anne Witz and her colleagues for making them available to me.

    4 These materials were obtained ‘unofficially’ from employees of the relevant organizations, among which I refer in particular to a non-profit arts organization (‘City Arts’), a chain of shops selling electrical goods (‘John Stephenson Ltd’), and two major supermarket chains. In all these cases I have participant-observation data as well as documentary materials, and in two cases I have interview data (my thanks to Raymond Bell, Gordon Graham, Samantha Houten and Karen MacGowan). I will also draw on information given in newspapers and on the internet about Safeway supermarkets in the USA.

    5 I cannot resist quoting another, less felicitous example from the same materials: it is attributed to a manager from the British Harvester restaurant chain, who allegedly remarked: ‘it's amazing how much better our meal tastes to the customer when the toilets are clean’.

    6 ‘Caring, co-operating and communicating’ appears to be a standard formula. It reappears in several different sets of training materials in my corpus, including the John Stephenson materials discussed in detail below.

    7 The ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel used to set his students tasks designed to illustrate the complexity of ordinary social behaviour. For instance, he would instruct them to respond to utterances in casual conversation by asking ‘what do you mean?’ This was meant to demonstrate that there never comes a point when the meaning of an utterance has been exhausted: asked what they mean, people can always come up with a further layer of explanation. Students carrying out such ‘Garfinkel experiments’ very frequently found that they provoked a hostile response, until they explained to their baffled and furious interlocutors that they were only doing an assignment for college.

    8 The source is an internet discussion group, ‘Forced Smiles at Safeway’. For drawing my attention to the Washington Post report I am grateful to Scott Kiesling, and for additional assistance I thank Keith Nightenhelser.

    9 The offence here may arise from two very different sources. On one hand there is a longstanding tradition of snobbish anti-Americanism in Britain, according to which American expressions are simply ‘vulgar’ and represent the ‘corruption’ of a language that originally belongs to ‘us’. In complete ideological contrast, however, there is a critique of ‘coca-colonialism’ which is more concerned to preserve the distinctive linguistic and cultural traditions of other nations in the face of the global dominance of the USA.

    10 For the examples given in this paragraph I thank Don Kulick (Swedish), Erika Solyom (Hungarian), and two delegates to the 44th Annual Meeting of the International Linguistic Association in New York in April 1999, who made comments from the floor regarding post-apartheid South Africa and contemporary Japan.

    11 I thank Amanda Harris for this anecdote. Although the issue did not come up in research I did in Britain, while visiting the US I was told more than once by workers in certain sectors (for example, clothes, cosmetics and toiletries retailing, waiting in upmarket restaurants) that male employees perceived the way they had to act as ‘effeminate’. One woman reported men in her workplace receiving comments from other men present in the store to the effect that they were ‘faggots’. Service scripts and style-rules are officially ‘unisex’, imposed without regard to the employee's gender, but it can be argued in many cases that they are more consonant with femininity as conventionally understood than with conventional (heterosexual) masculinity (this argument is made in detail in Cameron, 1999b).

    12 From a feminist point of view, the same analysis could be made of most heterosexual partnerships: although these relationships are intimate, solidary and in theory egalitarian rather than hierarchical, emotional labour is not equally shared between women and men, but is disproportionately performed by women for men.

    1 For information relevant to this chapter I am grateful to the Bank of Scotland, BIFU (Banking, Insurance and Finance Union), USDAW (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers), and to those who provided data on several call centres, as follows. Centre A dealt with technical enquiries relating to telecommunications. Centre B belonged to a bank and Centre C to an insurance company. Centre D provided directory assistance to the subscribers of several telephone companies. Centre E belonged to a utility company and Centre F to a financial services (credit) company. Centres G and H belonged respectively to a cable/satellite TV company and a railway company. The types of data I obtained from these sources were reports and policy documents, employee manuals, training and performance appraisal materials, transcripts of interviews with managers, supervisors and operators, and notes from on-site observation. However, for reasons explained further in the Appendix, different centres provided different combinations of data-types.

    2 Many call centres are open 24 hours, which means employees work a variety of shift patterns. For full-timers in the centres I discuss, shift lengths ranged between 7.5 hours and 12 hours. Overtime working was common.

    3 One manager I interviewed insisted that her organization, a large clearing bank, had not ‘downsized’ as a result of the shift to call centres. Instead she explained that the shift reflected a change in what branch staff were seen to be there for: not dealing with routine enquiries but selling additional services. ‘Today’, she told me, ‘your branch is more of a shop’. A report compiled for the financial services union BIFU concedes that banks and insurance companies are not promoting telephone banking specifically in order to reduce the size of their workforce but ‘because it is the easiest way to centralize more information in a form that can be retrieved from anywhere’. However, the report notes that 3000 bank and building society branches closed between 1990 and 1996 (Reardon, 1996).

    4 A special call centres supplement to the [Glasgow] Herald newspaper (March 9 1999) advertised a large number of jobs for operators: the basic rate on offer in most cases was about £10,000 a year (around US $15,000), rising to about £15,000 for supervisory positions.

    5 It could be pointed out that other clerical jobs are just as repetitious – for example, working in a traditional typing pool or a contemporary data processing centre – while other service jobs equally impose on workers an externally dictated and relentless pace of work (for example, operating a supermarket checkout). In the supermarket case, however, there is usually more variation in pace over the course of a shift. No shop has a constant and unrelenting flow of customers. The data processing case is a better analogy (data processors also often have targets based on number of keystrokes, which are enforced, like call-handling targets in call centres, by hi-tech surveillance). Data processing is another kind of clerical production line; but I will explain later on what additional demands are made on call centre operators in virtue of the fact that their work involves primarily spoken language-use.

    6 800 is a high number and 32 seconds an unusually short duration. These figures reflect the nature of the business of this particular centre – providing directory assistance. Other kinds of business are generally expected to take longer. For instance, an informant who sold rail tickets reported a target of four minutes (around 120 calls per eight-hour shift). Whalen and Vinkhuyzen report that customer service representatives logging faults in photocopying machines were expected to process 120–200 calls per shift. The lowest number I found was in Centre A, the telecom enquiries centre, where operators might process 80 calls.

    7 The use of speech synthesis itself raises some interesting issues. According to the phonetician and speech synthesis expert Caroline Henton (p.c.), clients often want synthesized speech to simulate the same qualities (for example, ‘warmth’, ‘softness’) which are typically demanded of human operators in service environments. That this is an area of growing interest is confirmed by a New York Times report on the development of synthetic ‘touchy-feely voices’ (Eisenberg, 1999). See also note 9 below.

    8 On 16 April 1999, a ‘Lost and Found Sound’ feature on US National Public Radio's news magazine programme All Things Considered focused on material from the archives of the phone company AT&T, and broadcast some examples of the early routines operators had to follow. One was a directory assistance call quite similar to the 1990s example reproduced below.

    9 Eliza is an early instance of what is now known as a ‘chatterbot’, a machine that engages humans in ‘conversation’ with some degree of plausibility (something scientists have sought to achieve because indistinguishability from a human in conversation is the ‘Turing Test’ for artificial intelligence). It is predicted that chat-terbots (the most recent models of which parrot less and ‘understand’ more) may in future be able to carry out customer service tasks that currently require human labour (Pescovitz, 1999).

    10 Many call centres have guidelines which allow operators to terminate a call under extreme provocation, for example, if the caller uses obscene and abusive language. The manager who talked about ‘being an Aunt Sally’ ran a centre where this was not the case. His customers were usually calling about malfunctions in vital and extremely expensive equipment, and it was considered reasonable for them to express high levels of anxiety. Operators at this centre were expected to be able to cope with being sworn at, and the manager took account of this when recruiting staff.

    11 Some call centres do require their employees to wear a uniform, despite the fact that the customer cannot see them. This is held to enhance performance by promoting the worker's identification with the corporate culture and image.

    12 This survey was carried out by the Henley Centre on behalf of two corporate clients, and reported in The Scottish Banker (May 1998). Script-reading employees were not the top pet hate: what respondents disliked most was being greeted by an automated menu containing multiple options (‘if you want to pay your bill, press 1’, etc.). They also disliked systems that placed callers on hold but gave no indication of how long the wait time would be. Overall, the survey responses suggest that what most customers want is prompt attention from a person who will attend to their individual query. The more ‘machine-like’ an aspect of the service is, the more customers express dissatisfaction with it. But since in spite of their rhetoric managers have other aims besides delighting each individual customer (for example, processing the maximum number of calls in the minimum amount of time), this probably will not deter them from going further down the road of automation as better and cheaper technology becomes available.

    13 A related consideration in call centres is that operators are not just talking, but typically also using a computer keyboard and mouse. Moves are often prompted by the computer, and it can take time for the next field to come up on the screen or for a search to be completed. The consequence is an accountably long pause, which the operator has to manage so that the caller knows the channel is still open and that something is happening. This is particularly difficult when, as one manager put it, ‘you don't want your customers to think your computer equipment is crap’.

    14 A similar effect is produced by scripted public announcements such as the ones that are now regularly made on British trains. A good example is: ‘For customers wishing to smoke during the journey, smoking accommodation has been provided. Smoking accommodation is available in coach M for first-class ticket holders, which is located towards the front of the train, and in coach B for standard-class ticket holders, which is located towards the rear of the train. For the safety and comfort of all passengers, smoking is not permitted on any other part of the train’. For length, syntactic complexity, consistent preference for formal over everyday lexis, and needless repetition of noun phrases, this would be hard to beat.

    15 The only scripts I have seen where this is seriously attempted are sales-talk scripts, which also have the peculiarity that they tend to script the customer's dialogue as well as the salesperson's. Sharon Goodman (1996) reproduces a pension-selling script which indicates the preferred manner of speech using ‘stage directions’ such as [pause] and [softly]. On sales routines see also Clark et al., 1994; Leidner, 1993.

    16 My own contact with BIFU confirmed this: the union has taken a particular interest in the issue of occupational voice loss (and associated conditions of the vocal apparatus). Problems arise mainly from the working conditions of the call centre, in which it is not uncommon for operators to be speaking continuously without a break for five hours; since people all around them are doing the same, the environment is noisy and they may have to raise their voices. One occupational health researcher has noted that the voice most vulnerable to damage is ‘the projected voice: the voice used with the deliberate intention of exercising an influence on others: appealing, commanding, trying to persuade, to win over the audience’ (Dejonckere, quoted in BIFU, 1997). The same researcher notes that ‘mental tenseness, stress and anxiety’ (which as BIFU notes are common among call centre workers) promote ‘functional disorder of the vocal apparatus’.

    17 All references to interview data in this section come from a set of interviews conducted between May and December 1998. I interviewed four call centre managers, two supervisors and six operators, employed in different centres, located in central Scotland, northern England and London. All interviews were conducted individually, in most cases face to face but in two cases on the phone. They were ‘semi-structured’ – I had a schedule of questions, but I encouraged informants to respond at length where they had more to say, and did not demur when they introduced additional concerns. Each interview lasted at least 30 minutes. My main purpose in interviewing was to elicit facts about call centre regimes to supplement documentary information in my corpus. With one exception the managers had themselves been operators and they were also asked about their experiences on the phones. About half of all interviewees had worked in more than one centre and they were asked about the regimes operating in all centres they had worked in. I was thus able to elicit quite a lot of factual information from a small number of people. The data used in this section, however, come mainly from responses to a question dealing with the good and bad things about working in a call centre. Here I was trying to elicit perceptions rather than facts, so it is important to bear in mind that my sample was small. Then again, although they did not know one another and were not interviewed together, these informants' reported perceptions were strikingly similar (for example, they all mentioned the same things as stressful).

    18 I asked informants to say what kind of people they worked with (or employed, if they were managers). The categories most frequently mentioned were parents [meaning mainly mothers] of school-age children, students, young people taking a year out before university, and recent graduates. This is a typical profile for a form of so-called ‘flexible’ work, which is often done by people just joining the labour market or by those who have other commitments like studying, childcare or a second paid job (Dex and McCulloch, 1997). Graduates predominated in my own sample, almost certainly because they were more willing to give up time to be interviewed. In most centres the majority of operators were women, but subjects with some experience added that the gender imbalance was far less pronounced than it had been a few years before. Call centre work was also perceived as something done mainly by younger people. There are some workers over 40 whose experience has been in more traditional office and clerical jobs, but most are between 20 and 35. Many do not see their present job as permanent or as part of any long-term career plan. The graduate operators I interviewed had typically ‘drifted into’ call centre work after trying and failing to find jobs which required a degree. (According to one recent study (Shavit and Muller, 1998), about a quarter of UK graduates fail to find occupations of a status commensurate with their educational qualifications when they leave university.)

    19 Some did not understand ‘remote location’ either: one of my Scottish informants reported that (English) callers sometimes reacted to her accent with astonishment: ‘what are you doing in Scotland? This must be costing me a fortune!’. (In fact calls to most centres, regardless of distance, are charged at a special rate.)

    20 The Chairperson of the Telecom Users' Association told the Independent on Sunday that in the association's view, many or most call centres are too understaffed to provide adequate customer service. The telephone systems in use at call centres typically have more lines than there are operators, so that queuing is common; but calls are charged from the moment the system picks up, not from when an operator takes the call. Both queuing itself and the cost callers incur because of it are the subject of many complaints.

    21 For instance, the Communication Workers' Union has negotiated agreements with some employers covering the conditions under which calls will be monitored and in which tapes will be kept.

    22 Stuart Tannock (1997) also cites a case where cannery workers have developed a sign language.

    23 On workers' negative experiences of sex-line work see Danquah, 1993, and for an argument that the psychological effects of telephone sex work make it ‘comparable to, if not more insidious than, being a flesh and blood prostitute’, see Goldstein, 1991.

    1 A useful source on the history of oracy from the 1960s to the 1990s is Norman, 1992.

    2 I call the approach ‘enterprising’ because there is a clear parallel between this model of education and the ‘empowerment’ model in management, which also concentrates on specifying outcomes rather than giving employees step-by-step instructions (see Chapter 1).

    3 In Britain, for example, competence-based National Vocational Qualifications were introduced in the late 1980s. A good explanatory (and critical) account of the NVQ competence-based model is given by Karen Evans (1995). A key skills curriculum which is intended to be followed by 16–18 year olds in addition to their academic studies is currently in preparation.

    4 In fact it cannot be assumed that ‘communication skills’ are wholly unrelated to more traditional notions of ‘correctness’ and ‘well-spokenness’, i.e. competence in a high-status linguistic variety. Though in principle there is no necessary connection, in practice it appears that many employers who specify that their recruits should have ‘good communication skills’ are at least as concerned about accent and dialect as they are about things like active listening. In the course of research I was told a number of stories about employers, managers and examiners for vocational qualifications labelling people poor communicators because they used nonstandard grammar or had ‘broad’ accents. At present it appears that communication skills are supplementing rather than superseding more traditional forms of ‘linguistic capital’.

    5 A discourse marker is a syntactically detachable element used to ‘bracket’ a unit of talk. Examples are oh, well, y'know, I mean. An item of this type will mean something different as a discourse marker from its dictionary definition as an ordinary word. Well in ‘well, I don't know about that’ does not mean the same as well in ‘are you well?’ and y‘know’ in ‘it's difficult, y'know’ does not mean the same as ‘you know’ in ‘If you know the city you won't have trouble finding the place’. Because their meaning is typically vague and only tenuously connected to the non-marker meaning, discourse markers are often disparaged in folk terms as ‘meaningless’ or ‘fillers’. In fact, their function is to indicate something about the status of the preceding or following information and/or the attitude of the speaker to that information. For example, y'know marks what is being said as information the speaker assumes the hearer shares. Well often marks what the speaker is about to say as possibly not the ‘right’ answer from the hearer's point of view. So these apparently redundant, detachable items do important work in interaction, providing evidence for the state of each party's knowledge and their shifting orientations to that knowledge. (A detailed analysis of some common discourse markers in English is presented in Schiffrin, 1987.)

    6 Here it should in fairness be acknowledged that the emphasis on ‘cleaning up mallspeak’ may well be more prominent in the Globe report than it is in the actual programmes being reported. Just as most college composition courses do not focus exclusively or primarily on mechanical errors in grammar or spelling, so their spoken language analogues probably have more, and more sophisticated, aims than just eliminating like, y'know and whatever. The interesting thing, however, is that features like these, which belong not merely to spoken rather than written language, but specifically to informal and interactive modes of speech, are being treated as educationally significant at all.

    7 Angela Phillips (1998: 9) notes that in Britain, school-based initiatives of the ‘life skills’ variety are mostly undertaken by ‘small voluntary projects or by inspired teachers in individual schools or LEAs [local education authorities]’. Many of the US projects discussed by Daniel Goleman are collaborations between schools and university education or psychology departments, which have underwritten programmes using research grants. Obstacles to putting the approach into practice more widely include a shortage of suitably trained teachers, problems fitting it into an already full school timetable and in some quarters, resistance to what one source quoted by Phillips (1998: 9) called ‘mess[ing] with children's emotions’.

    8 This body develops guidance for schools on promoting pupils' spiritual, moral, cultural and social development; it also takes up issues of specific concern to the government such as teenage pregnancy and parenthood. The Forum has been described to me as representing some range of views and interests, and as having a ‘mixed’ ideological agenda, neither straightforwardly conservative or traditionalist nor particularly radical.

    9 Goleman's follow-up book Working With Emotional Intelligence (1998) is based on an explicit recognition of the resemblance between his notion of a ‘socially competent’ or ‘emotionally intelligent’ person and current definitions of an enterprising worker. He presents as a felicitous discovery the ‘fact’ that the most valuable workers in any company are not the smartest, best informed and most technically accomplished individuals but those with the best-developed ‘character’. The discovery looks less remarkable, however, if Goleman's notion of character/ competence/intelligence drew (consciously or unconciously) on an ideal constructed by capitalist institutions in the first place.

    10 This anxiety plays out differently in Britain and the US, as was pointed out to me by a contributor from the floor at the Berkeley Women and Language conference in 1998, whom I thank. The difference reflects the much more pronounced concern with race, as opposed to social class, in the US: fears of a proliferating ‘underclass’ are strongly racialized. The conference participant who raised this issue suggested that young African-American men are not stereotyped as ‘inarticulate’ in the same way as white working-class men in the UK; their cultural milieu is thought to be a highly verbal one (though they are often stereotyped as verbally ‘aggressive’). Where Black economic disadvantage is linked to some linguistic ‘deficit’ the argument is more likely to be couched in terms of low literacy levels or the use of a stigmatized language variety, AAVE, than in terms of ‘inadequate communication skills’.

    11 Limitations of space prevent me from rehearsing the many qualifications that need to be made to this generalization. A particularly important caveat is that statistics simply comparing ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ do not reveal significant differences between girls or boys of different classes and ethnicities, though more delicate analysis shows that such differences exist. For more detailed discussion of what the statistics show and how they might be explained, see Epstein et al., 1998; Marshall, 1998; on the (long) history of male underachievement, see Cohen, 1998.

    12 Here it might be noted that the resort to pharmaceutical methods for controlling behaviour problems in children and young people is more common than either emotional literacy programmes or therapy. (This does not make criticism of the latter approaches otiose, but it does put it into a slightly different perspective.) It has been suggested to me informally that there is a class/race dimension to this issue (i.e. privileged kids get therapy while others get Ritalin). Philomena Mariani reports however that the majority of the children in the clinical populations used for the ‘conduct disorder’ studies she examined were white and middle class. The key demographic indicator for a CD diagnosis was gender, with boys outnumbering girls by four to one.

    13 One book-length treatment of language behaviour from the perspective of evolutionary theory, which discusses sex/gender differences at length, is Dunbar, 1996.

    14 PET and MRI stand for ‘Positron Emission Tomography’ and ‘Magnetic Resonance Imaging’. Both are essentially techniques for making brain activity (its location and intensity) visible.

    15 That not only arguing, but also accusing and name-calling, are valued as skills in some traditions will be illustrated in Chapter 6 below.

    1 It also contrasts with a newer ‘tabloid’ format, also issue-based but featuring more guests, shorter segments, and a more ‘sensationalist’ approach (see further Gamson, 1998).

    2 Mel Wininger points out to me that on some of the newer ‘tabloid’ shows, private/intimate encounters are publicly staged, for example, warring couples reconcile on camera.

    3 Here I should make clear that although I dispute that there is something uniquely ‘American’ about the cultural patterns described by Carbaugh, Katriel and Philipsen, I am not claiming that these patterns are universal or even consistent across advanced capitalist societies. I do not have sufficient evidence to make such claims (for I take it that the extent to which certain ideas are diffused across cultures, and the kind of influence they exert in different settings, is a question requiring empirical investigation). When discussing the meaning of the term communication it obviously needs to be remembered that we are dealing with an English word. It cannot be assumed that the equivalents which appear in bilingual dictionaries are used with the same range of meanings – though conversely I would not want to assume that the meanings of words in one language cannot be influenced by their usage in others. In sum, the observations made here are meant to apply primarily to societies in which English is the language of mainstream discourse, though without foreclosing on the possibility that they may apply more widely.

    4 The ‘recovery movement’ is associated with the ‘12-step program’ approach to addiction and dependency, pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. However, many groups today support people ‘in recovery’ from a wider range of afflictions, such as eating disorders, co-dependency, ‘loving too much’, and so on. A fuller account is given by Rapping, 1996.

    5 This parenthetical comment is prompted by a minor scandal that took place in Britain in early 1999. The BBC launched an investigation and eventually disciplined researchers on a daytime TV talk show when it was revealed that they had been booking professional actors to appear as guests because they were unable to find suitable ‘ordinary’ people. One response made by media commentators to this revelation was that it had been bound to happen, because the talk show was an imported, American genre, which Britain was ill-equipped to imitate. Talk shows depended on a steady supply of ordinary people able and willing to talk about themselves in particular ways. In America, the argument went, large numbers of people had learned this ‘skill’ by being in therapy; in Britain on the other hand, almost no one had experienced therapy and so the supply of suitable talk-show guests for home-grown TV programmes had long since been exhausted.

    6 The expert literature on this subject is full of abstract and euphemistic or misleading terms like ‘family violence’: usually it is only one person within a family who engages in violence (and usually this is an adult male). In a moment we will encounter the phrase ‘violent dating episode’, a piece of jargon which renders it unclear what (and whose) behaviour is being talked about.

    7 The community studied by Kulick is not unique in this respect. Ethnographers in a number of cultures have reported instances where speech genres involving or consisting of inventive verbal abuse have high value, and where certain individuals are recognized as particularly skilled in the abusive arts. One example is discussed in Labov's well-known article on ritual insults among young African-American men in New York City (Labov, 1972).

    8 At the time of writing the numbers are still in operation (0800 700 921–32), but new TalkWorks materials are in preparation and the original tapes are unlikely to be available much longer. Supplies of the original booklet have already been exhausted. I thank consultant Andrew Bailey for answering questions on this and many other aspects of the TalkWorks initiative.

    9 Here I should clarify that the tapes include monologues (11 sequences, most of which also deal with problems) as well as dialogues (15 sequences). There are no sequences where more than two participants engage in talk – probably because this would be hard to follow on the telephone.

    10 A more extended version of this discussion can be found in Cameron, 1999a.

    11 Received pronunciation (RP) is an accent of British English that is not associated with any region of the country but is purely a marker of social class – it marks upper or upper middle-class status. RP is itself not entirely homogeneous, and some analysts use the designation ‘advanced’ for the kind of RP characteristically used by upper-class or aristocratic speakers. In tests designed to uncover the social evaluations people make on the basis of accent, RP speakers score highly on traits like authority and competence (but not friendliness or warmth). BT's choice of an advanced RP-speaker for the framing voice thus reinforces the authority that is already implied by the content and positioning of her scripted remarks.

    12 Here it should be borne in mind that the tape records a spoken performance of a written script, and furthermore a rather artificial performance designed to meet callers' need for immediate intelligibility (thus there are no false starts, redundant repetitions, overlaps or simultaneous speech). With that in mind, I judged it unnecessary (and potentially distracting) to render features of the performance in detail. I have simply ‘chunked’ the scripted dialogue to reflect the prosodic organization actors gave it; in the case of the framing voice's comments I have not even done that much, since whereas the dialogue shows some concern to simulate ‘ordinary’ talk, the framing voice makes no attempt whatever to disguise the fact she is reading a formal, written text aloud. The analysis I offer below does not depend on anything that is not actually in the script.

    1 Scotton's observation is made in the context of a discussion of code-switching, but her point applies more generally.

    2 I should point out here that the officers involved in the Diallo shooting had been indicted on second-degree murder charges shortly before Giuliani and Safir's visit to Harlem. They are still awaiting trial as I write.


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