Telephone conversations by landline and mobile

How the medium affects the message:

When people speak on the telephone, they normally cannot see each other. This means that much of the non-verbal communication is lost.

In studying telephone conversations, consider whether a pragmatic analysis suggests that speakers do things differently from their practice in face to face conversations - do they observe the conversational maxims listed by Paul Grice, or do they employ face and politeness strategies to a greater degree than when the parties can see each other?

Do speakers have shared knowledge, and does one assume the other shares his or her knowledge, so that they refer to things elliptically? Do specific conversations allude to other conversations or events or the common culture of the speakers?

In exploring how the technology may influence language as it mediates conversation, then pragmatic analysis is likely to be a fruitful area of study. In commenting on texts you are seeing for the first time, you will need to make use of some pragmatic concepts, as in this example:

"We know from the question that Text F is a sales script. The pragmatic consideration of this text makes us look for features, which are designed to reassure the potential customer rather than to inform them. Particularly, in this case, where the script is for a telephone conversation and one of the objects from the sales-person's viewpoint is to keep the other person talking. This means that the text will try to close off as many potential exits as possible and therefore be similar to some of the normal co-operative principles of spoken language."


Do people generally vary their grammatical usage in spoken English, when they speak on the telephone, as compared to face-to-face speaking? It is possible that use of the technology might alter one's sense of formality, and attentiveness to supposed "correct" forms.

For most people there is considerable difference between the grammar of their writing and their speaking. Are there further differences within speech used in different contexts?

Discourse features

Voice telephony has produced some conventions that help us construct a discourse, in terms of beginning, middle and end. These often give information that is redundant for users of newer forms of telephony (such as answering a call by stating your phone number). But they may survive as a kind of traditional courtesy.

You might consider questions such as the following:

  • Does the person who receives the call speak first?
  • How does the person who receives a call reply? Does he or she give a number, utter a greeting, or do something else?
  • Does the person making the call explain in summary form the reason for calling?
  • While one person is speaking, does the other listen silently or give positive feedback and supportive overlapping (things like "mmm" and "yes")?
  • Does the person who made the call or the one who receives it usually bring the conversation to an end?
  • What conventional expressions do we use to close the conversation?
  • How long is the series of interactions that marks the ending of the talk, before one or other puts down the telephone?

Consider also Schegloff’s ideas about usual telephone talk patterns:

Summons-answer: the caller summons the called person, and the called person picks up the phone.

Identification-recognition: each person identifies him/herself and recognises the other.

Greetings-greetings: people exchange mutual greetings.

Initial (how are you?) enquiries and move to first topic: there’s a certain amount of phatic language while people enquire in very general terms about each other’s health etc., before the caller initiates the first topic.


Do we use different speech sounds when we use certain technologies? Can we account for what we find in answering this question? (For example, does the general tendency towards accommodation become stronger when we use a telephone?)

  • Are we more or less comfortable with pauses and silence than in face-to-face conversation?
  • Do we try to fill silences or even ask the other person questions about them? ("Are you still there/all right?") 
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