Conversation or interrogation?  The case of interactional

(a)symmetry in the institutional context of  Polish call centers


Joanna Pawelczyk (Poznań)


The phenomenon of globalization i.e. " a set of far reaching , transnational, economic, social and cultural changes" (Cameron 2000a: 323) has a significant impact on the patterns of language choice and use. The institution that seems to be particularly influenced by the new, global demands regarding the communication skills of its employees is the call center. It truly embodies the new, global emphasis on the significance of the conscious application of a desirable model of communication. The relatively new institution of the call center constitutes an interesting example of a so called institutional context.  The term 'institutionality' would imply that the language interactions going on there, should be analyzed against a set of institutional discourse features that underline the asymmetry of interaction between participants.  Yet, as Cameron (2000a) suggests, the linguistic performance of the call center operators, in accordance with the demands of the new  work order, should abandon the rigid guidelines of the institutional talk and rather ought to be linked to the ways of speaking that are symbolically coded as feminine: projecting affection, friendliness, intimacy, etc. The reason for this would be  building friendly, symmetrical interaction with customers, thus gaining their trust and loyalty.  In this paper I explore how the call center operators try to, yet sometimes fail, to create interactional symmetry in their professional exchanges with customers.  In doing so they strive to 'consciously' apply the features of the prescribed style that underlines such intimacy and affection which thus resembles an ordinary conversation.  Yet the prescribed (preferred)  style occasionally foregrounds the institutional features of  discourse applied not only by the call center operators, but what is very specific to the Polish call centers, also by the customers. The voice of the institution although occasional, lucidly highlights an interactional asymmetry between the operators and customers which contemporary global communication ideology rejects.



Cameron, Deborah. 2000a. “Styling the worker: Gender and the commodification of language in the globalized service economy”, Journal of Sociolinguistics 4/3: 323-347.


Cameron, Deborah. 2000b. “Good to talk? The cultural politics of ‘communication’”, The European English Messenger IX/1: 38-42.


Cameron, Deborah. 2000c. Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture. London: Sage Publications.


Drew, Paul and John Heritage (eds). 1992. Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. 


Gumperz, John.  1982.  Discourse Strategies.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK.


Hutchby, Ian.  1999.  "Frame Attunement and Footing in the organization of Talk Radio openings", Journal of Sociolinguistics 3/1: 41-63.


Levinson, Stephen.  1983.  Pragmatics.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Thornborrow, Joanna.  2001.  "Questions, control and the organization of talk in calls to a radio phone-in".  Discourse Studies, vol 3(1), pp. 119-143.