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Business Meetings and the Media

Business Meetings and the Media

Order Description
ACTION ASSIGNMENTS
Action Assignment 1: Post your analysis of the Halbe article and the textbook material to the Moodle discussion forum MEETINGS.
Details: After reading Halbe’s study, case 13-1, and O’Rourke’s chapters 12 & 13, write concise, but well developed, answers to the following questions:
1. Can Halbe’s explanation of definition and purpose of meetings as well as O’Rourke’s discussion of successful and productive meetings help you to prove that meetings affect business performance? Explain your answer!
2. Do Halbe’s findings have any implications for leaders? If so, why? If not, why not?
3. Use a specific example (e.g., your leadership experience) to explain the reasons business meetings affect the performance and competitiveness of an organization you are familiar with.
4. Halbe’s study concludes that medium choice (teleconference, conference call, etc.) affects communication style. Does the choice of media enhance or diminish the success of a meeting? Explain!
5. How should L’Oreal (case study 13-1) handle the negative press surrounding the lawsuit described in the case. What specific communication strategies should the company use when addressing key stakeholders, including the news media, customers, and retailers. Use the textbook, expert opinion, and your own judgment to answer the questions. As always, be audience-oriented and write succinctly, but not skimpily.
Number your responses!
REFERENCES:
Journal Article:
Halbe, D. (2012). “Who’s there?” Differences in the features of telephone and face-to-face conferences. Journal of Business Communication, 49, (1), 48-73.
O’Rourke, J. S. (2013). Management Communication: A Case-Analysis Approach, 5th ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN-13: 9780132671408:
Chapter 12 in O’Rourke textbook: Business Meetings That Work (page 316+).
Chapter 13 in O’Rourke textbook: Dealing with the News Media (page 336+).
Case study 13-1: L’Oreal USA (page 355+)

“WHO’S THERE?”
Differences in the Features of Telephone
and Face-to-Face Conferences
Dorothea Halbe
University of Trier
A significant part of the work in business settings, especially in multinational projects, is done through
talking over the phone in conference calls. The differences in the setting in comparison with face-to-face
meetings create a new dynamic of talk and turn taking because of the lack of body language. This article
analyzes a number of the differences between these two types of meetings, using a corpus of
(International) Business English, in which the multinational participants discuss an information technology
research project. English is used as a lingua franca among participants from different companies and
different nationalities (e.g., Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish). Features studied include self-identification,
the number of turns, interruptions, overlaps, back-channeling behavior, pauses, side comments, small talk,
breaks, distribution of talk, meeting structure, and length of conferences. The findings show that because
of the lack of body language signals, there are differences in most of these features, for example, fewer
interruptions, overlaps, and pauses in concalls than in face-to-face meetings. Small talk is restricted
to the end or beginning of calls if it happens at all, side comments do not happen among the participants
but may occur with people outside the conference. Back channels occur more frequently in
conference calls, as they constitute the only means of communicating attention. The latter highlights
the concerns for politeness to secure good working relationships in business relations.
Keywords: business meetings; discourse analysis; qualitative; workplace interaction
INTRODUCTION
Two factors have greatly influenced the business world: globalization
and technology. Both have opened new vistas as well as created new
challenges for business people.
Dorothea Halbe received her Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from Durham University (UK) in Combined Arts
(English Literature, Philosophy, Modern Languages) in 2001. She completed her Masters in 2005 in
English Studies (Literature and Linguistics), German Studies (Lit and Ling), and Philosophy at
Heidelberg University, Germany. Currently, she is working on her Ph.D. in language use in (inter)
national business discourse and is lecturing at Trier University, Germany. Correspondence concerning
this article should be addressed to Dorothea Halbe, University of Trier, Universitätsring 15, Trier
54296, Germany; e-mail: halbed@uni-trier.de.
Journal of Business Communication, Volume 49, Number 1, January 2012 48-73
DOI: 10.1177/0021943611425238
© 2012 by the Association for Business Communication
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 49
Business meetings have been affected by these changes, in two
ways: the number of multicultural workforces and thus intercultural
meetings has risen dramatically, making the communication situation
more complex because of the multiplicity of communicative styles; and
technology allows meetings to take place over the telephone,1
which
means that such nonverbal signals as gaze and posture are not available to
the participants. Paralanguage remains as the only nonverbal channel.2
Since an extensive amount of work is achieved through talk (see
Reinsch, 2009; Stewart, 1967; Victoria University of Wellington, 2008),
good communication is essential for the outcome of business. Yet both
workplace talk in general and meetings in particular include more than
only task-related talk (see, e.g., Koester, 2006), and it needs to be shown
how politeness and task-orientedness interact (i.e., getting the job done
and paying attention to the respective face needs). Some of the different
ways in which this is achieved in face-to-face (FTF) and audio-only
settings especially with regard to structure, turn taking, and differences in
small talk or side comments is the focus of this article.
Nonverbal signals are used universally (if culture specifically) and play
an important role in communication (see Burgoon & Hoobler, 2002) insofar
as they help us understand and interpret what is said as well as give the
speakers feedback without interrupting them. The questions that pose
themselves are how the presence or lack of certain nonverbal cues affect
the use of language and politeness strategies (according to Brown &
Levinson, 1987) in meetings and conference calls and how the two types of
meetings differ in their overall structure and with regard to turn taking.
Variations in (surface) features have been found to extend from selfidentification
before speaking to differences in the turn-taking system (see,
e.g., Sellen, 1995). This article complements known findings of the
characteristics of telephone conference and FTF meetings with an analysis
of naturally occurring data from two groups that participated in both types
of settings. It takes established definitions of what meetings are as a starting
point, and then draws on the corpus data for a detailed elaboration of
structural elements such as openings, closings, and the organization of
the turn-taking system.
Some of the different ways in which
this is achieved in face-to-face (FTF)
and audio-only settings especially with
regard to structure, turn taking, and
differences in small talk or side
comments is the focus of this article.
50 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
RESEARCH OVERVIEW
Teleconferencing became (more) common in the 1970s, and this led to
an increase in research on the topic. It was early established that lack of
visibility had an effect on communication and turn taking (see Argyle,
Lalljee, & Cook, 1968, Cook & Lalljee, 1972) and that talking was often
more helpful than (only) writing (see Chapanis, Ochsman, Parrish, &
Weeks, 1972, Graetz, Boyle, Kimble, Thompson, & Garloch, 1998).
From the earliest time on, audio conferences were seen as unsatisfactory
for tasks “which are of a complex nature, or which involve interpersonal
factors” (Fowler & Wackerbarth, 1980, p. 247). Cook and Lalljee (1972)
found that there were more interruptions in (casual, role-played) FTF
conversations, a finding that was replicated by subsequent studies (e.g.,
Carey, 1981; Rutter & Stephenson, 1977; Rutter, Stephenson, & Dewey,
1981; Williams, 1978). No conclusive results were found with regard to
length of utterances, which might indicate that other factors such as the
task influenced this variable. Various studies (see Fowler & Wackerbarth,
1980; Rutter, 1987; Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976) found that TC
meetings were shorter than FTF meetings. All of these studies, however,
dealt with dyads rather than groups and were role-plays and not naturally
occurring meetings. Reinsch (1983) pointed out the potential teleconferences
have to ensure that more issues are discussed and decisions reached
democratically (and processes may therefore take longer) but also that
interruptions of quiet work times will become more frequent. Wasson
(2004, 2006) corroborates these hypotheses by showing the amount of
multitasking that goes on today in virtual meetings—but also in FTF
meetings. The latter, of course, today usually include computer-mediated
communicative elements.
Research on FTF versus virtual meetings was continued by O’Conaill,
Whittaker, and Wilbur (1993), who compared FTF and videoconferences,
and Sellen (1995), who did a detailed study on different aspects of turn
taking in FTF, video, and audio-only conferences. Sellen researches
the influence technological mediation (mainly videoconferences but also
telephone conferences) has on participants’ behavior in meetings but
restricts herself mainly to the turn-taking system.3
Camiciottoli (2009)
does not deal with TC characteristics explicitly but notes the high usage
of indirectness in requests for information in audio-only earnings calls.
She gives as a reason for this the desire to be polite, according to Brown
and Levinson’s (1987) theory of negative politeness not only to express
deference but also to portray the speaker in a favorable light. Brown and
Levinson’s positive politeness strategies of creating solidarity play a
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 51
lesser role in this context. How these face needs are paid attention to in
the data discussed here is explained below (in the section “Qualitative and
Quantitative Analysis of Differences in the Turn-Taking System”).
More recently van der Kleij, Schraagen, Werkoven, and De Dreu
(2009) confirm much of the earlier research on turn taking and lower
satisfaction in TC meetings. They also present interesting findings on the
gradual adaptation of participants to the different communicative settings,
so that the differences in turn taking disappear.
A different strand of research concentrated on (naturally occurring)
telephone calls (Sacks, 1992; Schegloff, 1968; Schegloff & Sacks,
1973) and found FTF and telephone calls to be similar with regard to
turn taking in many ways (Hopper, 1992), as indeed much of the
research was based on telephone calls. This was then expanded to an
overview of differences in telephone conversations between members of
different cultures (Luke & Pavlidou, 2002). Characteristics of business
telephone calls were looked at by Wagner (1995) and Firth (1995)
detailing both the overall structure of business calls and the components
of sales negotiations (by telephone) but not turn-taking mechanisms. In
looking at the call structure, Firth (1995) noted the way in which
relational sequences and their duration in the opening sections are
negotiated through pauses between turns. Halmari (1993) detailed
misunderstandings that can arise with respect to casual talk in business
call openings between Americans and Finns on account of different cultural
schemata.
A third strand of literature relevant here deals with meetings. They
are usually characterized as very diverse and difficult to pin down, since
there are many different types, ranging from informal dyadic meetings to
formal multiparty encounters that are rigidly structured (BargielaChiappini
& Harris, 1997; Hodgson & Hodgson, 1992; Holmes & Stubbe,
2003; Schmatzer & Hardt-Mautner, 1989; Victoria University of
Wellington, 2008). This will be discussed in more detail below.
The current article fuses these different approaches and findings. It
points out the similarities and differences that operate in FTF and audioonly
meetings with regard to talk and turn-taking conventions. This
corroborates findings (especially those of Sellen, 1995) on the rules of
turn taking that more turns are taken in FTF settings or that naming is
more frequent in audio-only settings, but it also shows differences, for
example, with regard to back-channeling behavior and points out new
findings in the area of small talk and side comments.
52 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
DATA
The data for the following analysis were compiled from 2007 through
2008 during a project that formed part of the SIETAR (Society for
Intercultural Education, Training and Research) umbrella organization
and was partly funded by the European Union and partly supported by the
companies themselves. The project had already been running for almost a
year and was scheduled to run for a second year. Its purpose was to bring
the benefits of Internet communication to rural areas. This often proved a
challenging task, since a compromise had to be found between the
interests of research and technology and the more conservative mind set
of the rural population.
Because of the heterogeneity of the research locations, participating
companies in the data analyzed here are from various European countries
(Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain) and
from South Africa. This cultural diversity could potentially have an
impact on differences in communication. However, since a similar range
of nationalities were present in both FTF and TC settings and since it has
been found by Poncini (2004), for example, that meetings tend to develop
“their own culture, or at least their own character or sense of ‘groupness,’
not necessarily linked to national cultures” (p. 275), this effect is not
taken to influence the differences in results between FTF and TC. And
these factors are not centrally discussed in this article. The audio data have
been transcribed and form the European Business English Corpus
(EBEC). The specific data looked at here stem mainly (apart from general
statements, which take the whole corpus into consideration) from three
executive members board (EMB) meetings and five living lab (LL)
meetings that took place both FTF and via telephone conferences. The
total amount of data comes to 12 hours (approximately 95,000 words): 3
hours of FTF EMB meetings (approximately 26,000 words), 3 hours of
conference calls with the EMB participants (approximately 21,500
words), 3 hours of telephone conferences with the LL participants
(approximately 26,000 words), and 3 hours of LL meetings held FTF
(approximately 24,500 words).
Most of the participants in the two groups attended both types of
meetings. This allowed the author to control for differences in
communication because of the different medium as opposed to differences
on account of speakers’ personal preferences. Participants with both
senior and junior positions were present. The overall number of participants
is 24: 8 women and 16 men. Most participants were not acquainted prior
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 53
to the project. The key participants—especially in the EMB meetings—
are senior personnel with 10 to 20 years of experience. The juniors are
usually specialized in certain smaller areas of the project. The general tone
of the interactions is one of familiarity, friendly informality, and tolerance
but also of diplomatic criticism. The size of the meetings differed. The
EMB meetings were larger (10-14 participants), whereas the LL
meetings were smaller (7-8 participants), had fewer senior participants,
were less formal, and made more use of humor.
The conference calls usually took place every 2 weeks, the FTF
meetings took place two to four times a year. The purpose of the meetings
was usually twofold: information giving and problem solving. This
usually meant giving updates on the status of the project (whether tasks
have been performed as planned or not and if not, why not), planning of
next steps (taking new developments into account in the adjusting of the
outline), and to a degree the discussion of problematic issues. The FTF
meetings had on the whole the same functions but on a higher level, often
in preparation for a presentation of the project or a review by the European
Commission, which formally evaluates the progress the project has made.
Since the amount of data is limited, the findings can of course only
provide tendencies that further research will need to confirm.
MEETINGS: A DEFINITION
The term meeting, which so far has been used as an unproblematic term
not in need of further specification, should be clarified. No single clear
definition exists to date, as different researchers highlight different aspects
of meetings.
According to Holmes and Stubbe (2003), meetings usually consist of
more than two people; are convened beforehand; have a more or less fixed
agenda, location, and participants; and have a definite function or purpose.
In Boden’s words they are:
A planned gathering . . . in which the participants have some perceived (if
not guaranteed) role, have some forewarning (either longstanding or quite
improvisational) of the event, which has itself some purpose or “reason,” a
time, place, and, in some general sense, an organizational function (Boden
1994, p. 84).
The “reason and organizational function” is further explained by Holmes
and Stubbe (2003) as “interactions which focus, whether directly or
indirectly, on workplace business” (p. 59). This latter rather wide definition
54 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
comprises not only the formal communications during meetings but also
informal meetings, side comments and pre- and postmeeting sequences,
and in fact any work-related talk. This demonstrates well how diverse
meetings can be and how difficult it is to draw a line between meetings
and general talk at work.
Bargiela-Chiappini and Harris (1995) point out that meetings are “taskoriented
and decision-making encounters” (p. 537).4
The (at least
theoretical) purpose of meetings is to resolve open questions and issues
and to agree on a course of action. To do this effectively, however,
meetings also need to be and are where the key personnel meet to be
updated on developments so that, on the basis of these, decisions on future
actions can be reached. It is, furthermore, a place for discussion and
criticism of how tasks will be or are (not) accomplished,
Meetings provide an essential environment in which information can be
transmitted and, in many organizations, critically updated. [. . .] meetings
are necessary to get key personnel all looking at the same problem at the
same time. The simultaneity is important to decision-making and also to
the fine-grained process of negotiating stages of a project or agreement.
(Boden, 1995, p. 88)
Meetings are formally opened and closed. Premeeting and postmeeting
talk (see Boden, 1994)—that is, general conversations between participants,
are almost inevitable as are side comments, which orient both to the
relational aspect in working relations and to actual work processes in
clarifying issues or reaching agreements in smaller groups (see Koester,
2006). The general structure of meetings can be divided into three parts
(Holmes & Stubbe, 2003, p. 65):5
• Opening or introductory section
• Central development section
• Closing section
The chair is instrumental in orchestrating the dynamics of the meetings.
Their role can be more or less visible, depending on the (company’s) cultural
practices (see next paragraph). They will open and close the meeting and
guide through the agenda. They may or may not dominate the discussion and
talk time. In the meetings under discussion here, the chair formally opens and
closes the meeting, but the main part is usually a very general discussion in
which the chair is just a member of the group (see Sponagel, 2001), which
sometimes makes distinctions between chair and group (see BargielaChiappini
& Harris, 1997, Bilbow, 1998) difficult to uphold.
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 55
ANALYSIS
This section starts with a characterization of conference calls based on
the EBEC data. It then compares these characteristics with the characteristics
of FTF meetings in the data and gives a detailed account of the turn-taking
behavior.
Conference Calls
The specific structure of conference calls is important to state in order to
then compare FTF and audio-only meetings. Since these characteristics often
differ depending on the specific nature and task of meetings (see Carey,
1981, who identifies six models of information flow), the characterization
is based on the data under discussion here.
Conference calls can be defined as multiparty meetings over the phone.
They have a similar structure to FTF meetings not only because of the
multiparty setting but also because of the role of the chair, the differences
in rank and seniority, as well as the expertise and task focus of meetings.
All of these factors influence the turn-taking mechanisms as well as the
overall structure. Like all interactions, concalls have a beginning, a middle,
and an end. Turns are—depending on the formality and content of the
meeting—preallocated by the agenda or, especially in discussion phases,
subject to the usual (culture-specific) modes of turn taking (see Sacks,
Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). Depending on the content of the meeting
or the concall, the amount of talk per person varies. In some, the chairperson
talks more than everyone else; in others, the turn distribution is more
equal, at least between the senior participants (see below).
In the data from EBEC, conference calls have two openings: One is the
beginning of the telephone interaction and the other is the actual opening
of the meeting. The two will be distinguished here through this difference
in terminology. The same is true for closings: There is the closing of the
meeting and the ending of the telephone interaction.
Beginnings are characterized by hellos, first from the chairperson then
from the other participants. The chairperson will say something like hello
[3×] or hello, who’s there [4×] or utter a greeting and self-identify (usually
only first names are given, sometimes in conjunction with the company
name) before the participant(s) identify themselves. The participants will
usually answer with a greeting and self-identification (hello, this is X
[23×] also hello everyone [4×] plus a self-identification). In case of only
a greeting, which is rare, the chair or participant will other-identify, by
again greeting the participant and saying his or her (first) name. When
56 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
participants join during the discussion, they are mostly greeted by hello
who joined/has joined/is joining [4×] or hello who’s there [4×], hello who
have [sic] entered [2×]. For the benefit of later participants, all the
participants who are already present are often named by the chair so as to
bring the newcomer up-to-date. A short summary of the topic discussed is
sometimes also given. How extensive this is depends both on the status of
the person and on the point at which she or he joins. When not enough
participants are present, premeeting talk will usually occur, but participants
may also remain silent. The interactions consist both of casual small talk
and of work-related talk.6
Closings and endings are to some extent predictable by the reaching of
the end of the agenda. However, the frequent preclosing query anything
else (to discuss)? sometimes leads to new points being brought up. Only
when this question is answered by nos or silence does the chair close the
meeting with a phrase such as thank you everybody (3×) or a variation of
this (5×), see you + time reference (4×) or enjoy lunch or the like (3×).
Another part of the preclosing sequence is often the arrangement of the
time for the next meeting (see Carey, 1981). The closing is usually
confirmed by the other participants by a round of bye or thank you bye to
indicate the ending of the interaction.
The frequent preclosing query
anything else (to discuss) sometimes
to new points being brought up.
A Comparison of Face-to-Face
Meetings and Telephone Conferences
The comparison of the two types of meetings is split into two parts:
comparison of the similarities and comparison of the differences. Since
the purpose of FTF meetings and telephone conferences is the same,
there are similarities in the features that pertain to meetings as such (e.g.,
multiparty, chair, agenda, structure). However, the features in the various
sections (e.g., openings, closings) differ significantly.
Similarities are these: When enough participants are present, the chair
formally opens the meeting, the participants formally approve the minutes
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 57
in some but not all meetings, and possible additions to the agenda are
noted down (opening section). Then, there is an agenda to be completed.
Within this agenda, the participants discuss developments, problems and
solutions (central development section). Finally, there is a closing phase
in which the chair may but does not have to restate decisions and where
the participants agree on the time for the next meeting (closing section).
In the data, a typical formula for opening the meeting is (I think) we
can start (6×) but a less usual opening is this meeting is for . . . so while
we wait for the others, because I think it have [sic] no sense to have
meeting [sic] longer than one hour . . . I would like to know your opinion
on . . .
Further similarities between the FTF and TC meetings in the analyzed
data are that there is a chair, who guides the meeting through the points of
the agenda, and different participants, who (re)present different areas of
the project as well as comment on the chair’s and each others’ suggestions.
The structure in the analyzed meetings is, as mentioned before, relatively
informal. So, although the chair initiates agenda points, other (highranking)
members comment freely, ask other members questions, and
bring up their own topics and concerns. The rank and seniority of the
participants also play a role in the amount of talk and the number of
interruptions and overlaps. As Holmes and Stubbe (2003) formulate it:
Generally speaking seniority is an important factor in meeting management.
Whether overtly or covertly, those with more status and authority generally
have greatest influence on the content and style of meetings, their general
structure and the direction taken in the discussion. (p. 71)
The overall distribution of talk time is thus comparatively similar
between FTF and TC meetings. The data support earlier findings in that
the chairperson is likely to talk more than everybody else, but senior
participants also take up a large amount of talk time. Junior participants,
in comparison, usually listen and mainly speak when spoken to.
A further comparison of the two types of meetings in the EBEC data
exposes a number of additional differences: On a very basic level, FTF
conferences can last longer than conference calls. The analyzed
teleconferences often last 1 hour and rarely over 2 hours. At the same
time, conference calls lasting less than 30 minutes really only occur when
key participants are missing and the business at hand cannot be conducted
without them. FTF meetings are more flexible, they may last only a few
minutes or may last several hours (see Holmes & Stubbe, 2003, p. 57) and
58 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
need to be interrupted only for a coffee or a lunch break (Holmes &
Stubbe, 2003, p. 71). Because of the length of FTF meetings, breaks are a
common occurrence.7
Since participants in the EBEC data meet only
sporadically, FTF conferences last at least a day.
In the analyzed data, self-identification both in greetings and before
speaking is a feature occurring only in telephone conferences. Selfidentification
usually happens when first joining the concall, apart from
one telco, where the chair informs the newcomer who is present. Selfidentification
before speaking is not the norm. Most speakers expect to be
recognized by their voice once they have made their presence known. This
happens at the beginning of teleconferences (as described above) in the
opening phase. This feature clearly differs from the openings in FTF
meetings, where greetings are more casual (members may have seen each
other before and just acknowledge each other by a smile or a nod) and
there is no necessity of a roll call or of giving members joining later an
update on who is present.
At the beginning of a telephone conference or a meeting, it is often
necessary to wait for other participants. In the analyzed conference calls,
the time is usually either filled by small or casual talk or topics relating
mainly to the participants present, such as confirmations of decisions taken
earlier. In the analyzed meetings, this time is often filled with similar
topics. The difference between the small talk sequences, however, is that
the technical constraints in the teleconferences always only allow one
conversation to take place, whereas in the FTF meetings people can and do
talk in small groups. In the same vein, side comments during the formal
phase of the meetings are also only possible and done in FTF conferences.
In the telephone conferences, the only side talks that happen are between
participants and people in their office—that is, people not in the concall.
In the EBEC data, telephone calls are answered in both environments.
However, in the conference calls, this is noticeable only when the melody
of a call on hold can be heard, which does not happen very often. Usually
the participants will simply mute their microphone while talking to
somebody else.
Closings (and endings) in the FTF meetings are—just as greetings—
less abrupt than in the telephone conferences, as is to be expected, and
thus they are rather more difficult to categorize. In the data, they tend to
simply phase out, switching to postmeeting talk. So even if there is a
formal closing, organizational topics may continue to be discussed. The
latter is not possible in a concall, where clear goodbyes are used before
hanging up and are necessary to conclude the meeting.
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 59
The only type of postmeeting talk in the conference calls is explicitly
stated during the closing phase of the meeting, where some participants
may agree to “stay in the call” to discuss further matters. This function,
however, is only possible when the person who initiated the call (the host)
stays in the call as the lines would otherwise be muted automatically.
Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis
of Differences in the Turn-Taking System
This section deals with the results of the analysis of differences in the
turn-taking system in the EMB and LL meetings analyzed here. Differences
occur in the organization of pauses, speaker selection, turn taking, overlaps,
back channels, and interruptions. These are interpreted in the light of their
expression of politeness where applicable.
Pauses. Pauses can be significantly longer in FTF meetings as participants
are able to see nonverbal activities (e.g., changes in a document being
made), where they may last several minutes at a time, and they do not need
to be introduced but are deducible from the verbal context (. . . change
checking with status [4s] deliverable checking the status. and no okay and
status). The only comparable event that may also happen in telcos occurs
when the participants are sharing files remotely and need to wait for the
right screen to appear, which may take quite some time but is still obvious
from the verbal context (e.g., C: can you see it? D: yep. C: yes? Ca: yes).
In addition, although some turns follow each other without pauses in
concalls, it also happens that the other-selected speaker does not reply
right away, for example, because of technical reasons (a muted microphone
or the like). So the usual dispreference of silence in Western contexts in
general can be found in both settings, but silences are allowed when there
is a known reason for them to occur. The frustration silence engenders if
topics for discussion are not taken up was found in EBEC data not under
discussion here.
So the usual dispreference of silence
in Western contexts in general can be
found in both settings, but silences are
allowed when there is a known reason
for them to occur.
60 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
Speaker selection. As can be seen in Table 1, other-selection or naming
is more frequent in concalls than in FTF meetings (also see Sellen, 1995).
Naming is used 3 times as often in telephone conferences as in FTF
meetings (153 vs. 57 times)—if one disregards the naming that is used to
remote participants (RPs) who are joining the FTF meeting via telephone.
At the same time, the amount of naming used especially toward but also
by RPs is also quite high (41 times). This shows that without nonverbal
cues such as gaze, names are often used to indicate toward whom an
utterance is directed. As can be seen (6 vs. 35 times), depending on the
meeting, RPs may play a greater or smaller role in the interaction. In
the LL meetings the overall group is much smaller and there is a lot more
interaction between the present and remote members also because of the
difference in task (i.e., planning rather than giving instructions as in the EMB
meetings). In a different EMB meeting not under discussion here, much
more interaction takes place between RPs and members who are present,
because of the differences in task.
The greatest amount of naming takes place between the chair and group
members (153 times). The chair is addressed most often (61 times) and is
Table 1. Use of Naming in FTF and TC Settings
Instances
Meetings
Total
TC FTF
EMB LL Total EMB LL Total
Chair to
member
15 44 59 (12.4)a 5 [1]b 6 [21] 11 [33] (2.3/6.9) 92 (9.6)
Member to
chair
32 22 54 (11.4) 4 1 [2] 5 [7] (1/1.4) 61 (6.4)
Member to
member
15 17 32 (6.7) 11 [1] — [14] 11 [26] (2.3/5.4) 58 (6.1)
Participant L 9 NA 9 (1.9) 15 + 16c
[4] NA 31 [35] (6.5/7.3) 44 (4.6)
Naming to/
from RP
NA NA NA [6] [35] 41 (8.6) 41 (4.3)
Total excluding
L
62 83 145 (30.6) 20 [22] NA 27 [66] (5.6/13.8) 211 (22.1)
Total 71 83 153 (32.3) 51 [26] 7 [35] 57 [101] (12/21) 254 (26.7)
Note: FTF = face-to-face; TC = telephone conference; EMB = executive members
board; LL = living lab; RP = remote participant.
a. Numbers in parentheses give the frequencies per 10,000 words.
b. Numbers in square brackets refer to the amount of times remote members are
addressed or address other members.
c. L addresses the chair 16 times and other members 15 times.
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 61
also the person who addresses participants most often (92 times). Group
members address each other comparatively less (58 times). However, one
participant (L) has a strong preference for using names and thus skews the
data a little (that he does not have a greater effect on the data is in part
because of the fact that he did not participate in all meetings), as he uses
names more often than any other member (44 times) and more in FTF
meetings because he is present there more often than in the TC meetings.
He is a senior member, who also sometimes has the role of chair, and is
clearly a very respected participant who often acts as organizer.
Another difference that occurs is that when self-selecting in concalls,
speakers sometimes also identify themselves as X speaking when starting
a turn, a feature not found in FTF meetings as everybody can see who is
speaking.
Table 1 details the amount of naming that is used for all types of
meetings and shows the differences between FTF and TC meetings.
Turn taking. Turns8
in meetings are claimed in the same manner as in
ordinary conversation (for a description of the turn-taking system, see
Sacks et al., 1974),9
but it must be pointed out that, as Sacks et al. already
note, certain differences apply: Just as chairs address other participants
more often, they have also been noted to speak more and for longer than
other members (see Carey, 1981, Poehaker, 1998). The order of speaking
in general is often more fixed than in casual conversation since there
usually is an agenda that needs to be followed (see Larrue & Trognon,
1993),10 but comments and questions on topics are inserted relatively
freely depending on the formality of the meeting (see also BargielaChiappini
& Harris, 1995). Turns are mainly allocated when the topic
requires an expert’s comment or status update. Length of turns depends
to a large degree on the action that is being accomplished (e.g., status
updates, which are often but not only given by the chair, usually entail
long turns).11
Sellen (1995) noted that the number and distribution of turns was not
significantly different in the different settings (same room, videoconferencing,
audio only). Contrary to this, in the EMB and LL data (see Table 2), there
are almost twice as many turns (including back channels) in FTF
meetings as in concalls, although some of the FTF meetings had lengthy
status updates, in which no speaker changes occurred. This indicates that
participants are more comfortable and discussions are livelier and is a
typical sign of a spontaneous and informal speech style (see also, e.g.,
Fowler & Wackerbarth, 1980; Rutter, 1987). It also points toward a higher
62 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
use of positive politeness strategies rather than negative ones.
Table 2 shows the total numbers of words, turns, overlaps, and back
channels and the normalized values per 10,000 words for turns and per
1,000 turns for overlaps and back channels.
Overlaps. The percentage of simultaneous speech and overlaps12
(including back channels) in the data analyzed is also significantly higher
in FTF settings (313 vs. 213 instances/per 10,000 words). This in
conjunction with the higher frequency of speaker changes pointed out
above is an indication of, on the one hand, greater ease of the participants
and the more animated nature of the discussions and, on the other hand,
the greater number of cues that are available to the participants. Body
language can be used and interpreted to gauge whether it is “safe” to take
the floor (even though a colleague has not yet finished). Consequently,
paying attention to participants’ face is achieved through nonverbal
communication (eye contact, head nods, etc.) and through positive politeness
strategies—that is, the typical features of high-involvement speech such
as overlaps and simultaneous speech (Tannen, 1994). Negative politeness
strategies are preferred in TC settings, where participants wait for others
to finish before making a contribution.
Back channels. Back channels13 are used more frequently in conference
calls than in FTF meetings—even if not much more (58.7 vs. 52.7
instances per 10,000 words).14 Lack of back channels in concalls has often
been explained as the reluctance of speakers to overlap or seem to
interrupt when no visual input is available. It is also typical in larger
groups for fewer (audible) back channels to occur. In the light of this, the
comparatively large amount of back channels may at first be surprising.
Yet it quickly becomes evident that since back channels are the only
means to let the speaker know that the other participants are following his
or her train of thought, the back channels often function in this manner in
Table 2. Comparison of Turn Taking Between Face-to-Face
and Telephone Meetings
Meetings
Features
Words
Turns
(per 10,000 Words)
Overlaps
(per 1,000 Turns)
Back Channels
(per 1,000 Turns)
Face-to-face 47,363 3,132 (661) 981 (313) 165 (52.7)
Telephone 47,717 1,840 (385) 393 (213) 108 (58.7)
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 63
a dialogic communication within the meeting—that is, usually the chair
will have asked a question to a particular participant or a participant will
have asked the chair a question. Use of back channels thus focuses
attention on the turn holders, the positive face indicating that the hearer is
listening, following, and valuing the contribution. And this concern for the
positive face is greater than the concern of leaving the speaker unimpeded
in his or her speech. In FTF conversations, back channels are of course
also used, expressing either agreement with or attention to what is being
said, but this can also be done by nonverbal means, so they are not as
central or can be reinforced in other ways. Other functions of these short
feedbacks by the hearer are illustrated in Example 2.
These uses of back channels are illustrated in Example 1, an LL
meeting via teleconference where the chair (H) has asked a participant (T)
to give a status update of how the part of the project that T is responsible
for is developing.
Example 1
1 T: next week after deployment the application will be used as a part of
the regular work process.
2 H: ok
3 T: ah regarding the block one and block two connections. ah we de- ah
we defined some practical aspects ah especially some long-term goals
4 H: aha
5 T: what we needed ah from block one is ah GIS Geographical Information
Systems
6 H: yah
7 T: and from block two this variable data storage
8 H: ok
9 T: ok? Where- where we go to the next ah six months
10 H: mhm
11 T: we would like to finish two main ah. interactions we would like to
xx block one 14 and two so it’s ah some cooperation is needed. Not
especially within the blocks but 15 ah within the work package two
because ah as you know ah we find in several times 16 that we only
received the ah ah. ahm… partners. the actions only from ah two or three
12 H: yah yah ya ya ya
13 T: and the xx partners are very passive, never arriv- arriving any any
comments or or or. Or. reactions or we have to to strengthen in this kind
of cooperation ah with with with the work package partners
14 H: yeah I’ve talked about it last week with PR and as a result I’ve sent
a message
15 yesterday. Have you seen. have you seen? (LL-TC)
64 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
What can be seen here is the way in which T updates H on the progress
of the project, while H back channels that he is following the account.
T then continues to identify the needs of her group for the next steps. At
first, H only back channels in the unmarked next position, that is, in the
short gaps T makes in her speech. However, in line 17, H’s back channels
overlap with T’s speech and become more frequent indicating agreement
(as can be seen from other statements by H) with what is being said rather
than just signaling attention. But at no point does H try to take over
the turn.
Yet participants can also use back channels to subtly manipulate the
speaker to yield a turn to the person back channeling through the frequency
and intonation used in the back channels. An example of this is the
following:
Example 2
1 H: Ah any comments at this point? / . . .
2 P: something, I-I would have just have some question a question for this
topic
3 H: ya ok ya mh ok
4 P: that in the monitoring xx that you sent yesterday
5 H: yah
6 P: ah do we do we have any. instructions or do you want just in
narrative form us to xxx questions or. or
7 H:ya ya ya, it’s a good point ahm mh it is. difficult to use quantitative
8 information, I mean we are talking about changes in in cycles of
3 month so it would be decisions that have been made or technical
results or ah maybe user involvement changes that needs to be
documented in some way. (LL-TC)
In this case, the chair first invites comments, and the request to ask a
question is explicitly accepted. Back channels overlap with the floorholder
but also occur in the unmarked next position. However, shortly
before the point where the turn is taken over, the frequency of the back
channels as well as the intonation suggest that the P’s question has been
understood and can be answered without further explanation by the floorholder.
H, thus, successfully claims the turn. This second use of back
channels was only found in the TC data and not in the FTF data. Similar
situations were handled more directly, through interrupting (in the
instances where it does happen), starting another strand of talk, or naming
to get a participant’s attention and end the speaker’s turn. This does, of
course, not mean that it may not also happen, but it again consolidates the
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 65
findings that TC communication tends more toward the use of negative
politeness strategies or less direct communication, whereas FTF
communication makes use of more direct strategies and also sometimes
pays less attention to politeness, maybe because body language is used to
mitigate the degree of directness. But more data would be needed to draw
firm conclusions.
TC communication tends more toward
the use of negative politeness
strategies or less direct
communication, whereas FTF
communication makes use of more
direct strategies and also sometimes
pays less attention to politeness,
maybe because body language is used
to mitigate the degree of directness.
A detailed analysis of two typical back channels in the analyzed data,
that is, mh and mhm, shows how the choice of the two interjections can
fulfill the same function (i.e., to back channel) but is also often used to
express subtle differences in meaning. Mh is used in a wider range of
functions, it can stand for a request of clarification, and it may preface
negative answers or contradictory opinions (in that case also coupled with
mh I think or a pause), or it can be used as a sentence internal filler. There
is thus no clear form-function relation. Mhm tends to have a more positive
connotation of agreeing and is more often used in conjunction with yes or
okay. In how far mhm alone also signals agreement rather than being a
pure back channel cannot be established with certainty.
Table 3 shows the use of mh and mhm both alone and in conjunction
with whole utterances.
A further study of the use of back channels in conjunction with
intonation (i.e., fall, rise, or fall-rise) would certainly also offer further
insights on the different functions. A falling intonation is the default use,
which when uttered with a rising intonation mh functions as a question, as
pointed out above. An (inadvertent) use of fall-rise intonation can be
understood either as encouragement to continue or when, uttered fast, as
a desire to finish the topic or take over the turn.
66 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
Interruptions. Interruptions15 on the whole occur very rarely and draw
a different picture. Their occurrence depends very much on the participants
and topic. In the LL meetings, there are hardly any interruptions at all
(around four per type of meeting), and the few that occur are floor-taking
interruptions. This is true for both FTF and audio-only settings. However,
it is mainly one person making these interruptions, so generalizations
cannot be drawn at this stage.
In the EMB meetings, in comparison, there are more interruptions
(approximately 15 per type of meeting), and they are floor-taking as well
as disagreement and topic-changing interruptions. This can on the one
hand be attributed to the level of frustration and the heatedness of the
argument, but it also happens mainly toward one participant (A). Another
participant B (mostly toward the participant A), on the other hand, does
all the topic-changing interruptions. So again, there is not sufficient
evidence to draw any firm conclusions. Having said that, the general
difference in the number of interruptions between the LL and EMB
meetings could be due to cultural differences in communicative style and
the acceptability of interruptions, as the LL participants were mainly South
African and Northern European (apart from the person who interrupted,
who was Eastern European), whereas in the EMB meetings there were a
large number of Southern Europeans, and even the Northern Europeans
who were present in part accommodated to the high-involvement style of
communication.
The last point is also an example of how different meetings have their
own character, which has also been found by Poncini (2004; see the Data
section), where participants develop their own “shared cultural practices”
Table 3. Functions of mh and mhm in Speech
Function
Utterance
mh (per 10,000 Words) mhm (per 10,000 Words) Total
Back channel 149 (15.6) 116 (12.2) 265 (27.8)
Agreement 15 (1.6) 73 (7.7) 88 (9.2)
Filler 30 (3.8) 5 (0.5) 35 (3.7)
Softener 15 (1.6) 4 (0.4) 19 (2)
Question 3 (0.3) — 3 (0.3)
Unclassified 3 (0.3) 1 (0.1) 4 (0.4)
Total 215 (22.6) 199 (20.9) 414 (43.5)
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 67
(p. 275). As Bargiela-Chiappini, Bülow-Moller, Nickerson, Poncini, and
Zhu (2003) put it, participants’ roles are fluid, relationships are flexible,
and multiple identities are salient. The transactional discourse is
“characterized by the suspension of fixed expectations and judgment, the
tolerance of ambiguity and the willingness to engage in building new
discursive frames” (Bargiela-Chiappini et al., 2007, p. 26). Another
example would be that in comparison to Boden (1994), the vocabulary
used for opening and closing the different stages is much less formal in
the meetings under discussion here. Whereas in Boden’s data the meeting
is called to order, the meetings here are at their most formal opened with
I think we can start.
One final point is that although senior participants talk more in all
settings, in smaller meetings, such as the LL, more input is expected and
encouraged of more junior participants. In these meetings, there was also
a high use of humor and various relational sequences, that is, nonobligatory
work-related talk (see Holmes, 2000, Koester, 2006), which both showed
and enhanced the good relations between the participants.
CONCLUSION
The study has shown important differences between FTF and telephone
meetings. Although their overall structure and function is very similar, as
both serve to do “workplace business” (Holmes & Stubbe, 2003, p. 59), it
has become clear that the concrete features (e.g., overall duration, use of
small talk and side comments, openings and closings) in the different
settings are influenced by the medium and by related considerations of
politeness.
Although senior participants talk more
in all settings, in smaller meetings, such
as the LL, more input is expected and
encouraged of more junior participants.
The data support earlier findings that multiparty technology-mediated
settings lead to various differences in the turn-taking organization. There
68 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
are fewer overlaps but more other- and self-identification. These
characteristics can be attributed to the lack of body language. They are
also a reason why participants seem to be generally more at ease in FTF
meetings (see also Fowler & Wackerbarth, 1980). Discussions become
more animated (and heated) not least because one is talking to a person
who is in the same room instead of to a microphone or computer.
Considerations of politeness tended toward indirectness negative strategies
in TC meetings, but this tendency was less pronounced or reversed in FTF
meetings, where positive politeness strategies were favoured.
At the same time, the analysis differed in its results on the number of
turns in the different settings, finding that an audio-only setting leads to
fewer turns being taken. In contrast to van der Kleij et al.’s (2009) findings,
these differences in the turn-taking system persisted, even though the
project had started almost a year earlier. The use of back channels also
differs in the two settings. Back channels not only occur more frequently
in concalls but are also the only means of signaling feedback or the desire
to take the floor and thus become more important signals than in FTF
settings.
Although some of the findings may seem intuitive for people who have
attended conference calls, they highlight these differences and thus open
the way to understanding the mechanics of concalls and thereby to a more
conscious usage of paraverbal signals in telephone conferences.
Some important characteristics of telephone conferences have been
pointed out in this article, but much scope for research on further features
remains, such as the influence of intonation on communication. To give
some examples, it was already noticeable in the EBEC corpus data that
a different inflection in a back channel can have wide-reaching effects on
the communication as a whole, but more research should be done on this.
With regard to the study of intonation, the following should be taken
into account: Since in intercultural meetings English is usually the lingua
franca and few participants are native speakers, the correct grammar or
vocabulary items are not the most important factors.16 Rather, it is apart
from the actual content of what is said, intonation and silence that have
the greatest impact on the interactions and thus eventually on the project.
However, the reasons for silence are very difficult to assess (is the other
just not listening or do they disagree?). Intonation, for want of other
nonverbal signals, becomes the main medium through which to read
between the lines. Furthermore, cultural differences in the speech tempo
and intonation or use of silence can also lead to misunderstandings and
ultimately bad performance.
Halbe / “WHO’S THERE?” 69
Practical applications of these findings could include giving conference
call participants a manual of what to expect and how to behave when
attending telephone conferences or even do voice training to maximize the
use of paraverbal signals in their concall communication.
NOTES
1. These have been variously called teleconferences or TCs, audio-only settings,
telephone conferences or telcos, and conference calls or concalls. These terms will be
used interchangeably in this article.
2. In videoconferences, the problem is often that images arrive with a delay, thus making
communication difficult (see, e.g., Ruhleder & Jordan, 2001).
3. An overview of research on other topics such as differences in outcome in different
settings can be found in Fowler and Wackerbarth (1980) and Doherty-Sneddon et al.
(1997).
4. See Holmes and Stubbe (2003, p. 59) for a criticism of Bargiela-Chiappini and
Harris’s (1995) definition.
5. Firth also divides meetings into three parts.
6. See Koester (2002, 2006) who distinguishes between different types of talk at work:
nontransactional and phatic communication as well as relational episodes and sequences.
7. This is typical of formal meetings or conferences rather than regular in-house
meetings.
8. Turns are the single contribution(s) of a speaker to an interaction. The problems of
defining turns will not be dealt with here, but see Duncan (1974), Franck (1984), Goodwin
(1982), Philips (1976), and Schegloff (1992) for discussions.
9. Sacks et al. (1974) note that speaker change occurs, that turn length is variable, and
that usually only one party talks at a time. At transition relevant places (TRPs) a change
of speaker can occur in basically three ways: through overlap (for a definition, see footnote
12), unmarked next position (speakers producing their talk with neither overlap nor pause
in between turns; see Jefferson, 1986), or a pause (their frequency and length are culture
dependent (see, e.g., Nakane, 2007; Scollon & Scollon, 2001; Tannen, 1985, 1997). Turn
allocation at or near TRPs happens through self-selection, other-selection, or continuation of
the speaker. Gaps (i.e., interturn pauses) at non-TRPs do not usually lead to speaker change.
10. However, since Larrue and Trognon’s (1993) findings are based on political meetings,
the details cannot be taken over one-to-one to the business meetings here described. Business
meetings tend to have a less formal turn organization.
11. Du-Babcock found differences in the length of turns and amounts of topics dealt
with by first- and second-language speakers. Clyne (1994), on the other hand, claims that
turn length differs because of cultural background, with Europeans taking longer turns
than Asians. Further analysis of the data will be necessary to establish whether this is also
borne out in the data under discussion here.
12. Overlaps, which occur when two speakers start speaking at the same time, are
usually a syllable or two long and are repaired by one party falling silent (see Sacks et al.,
1974). Apart from collaboratively taking over a turn or overlapping briefly as stated,
simultaneous speech can be cooperative—that is, when the “conversational partner joins
70 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
the speaker’s utterance” (Murata, 1994, p. 387) to supply a word or finish a sentence.
Hopper (1992) gives examples where these kinds of overlaps do not even use the same
words or phrases but are only semantically related. These kinds of simultaneous speech are
here counted as overlaps.
13. Back channeling (e.g., (m)hm, yeah) is a listener response providing the speaker
with feedback that the message has been received and is notoriously difficult to define.
Back-channeling behavior can take place both at TRPs and at certain semantic completion
points even if they are not TRPs (see Jefferson, 1973). It has been defined as not
constituting a turn (see Duncan, 1972), yet often the distinction between the two is
difficult to uphold (see Tottie, 1991), as mhm or yeah may constitute a full turn and
express agreement, disagreement, and promises. In the following analysis, back channels
have been treated as full turns. They often but not always overlap with other speakers’ turns.
14. Sellen (1995) also remarked on the use of back channels, finding no difference
between settings but noting that this might also be because of a lack in audio quality.
Rutter and Stephenson (1977) found the opposite, more “attention signals” in FTF settings,
but these were pair role-plays.
15. Murata (1994) calls them “intrusive interruptions” and notes their disruptive effect
on the conversation (as opposed to overlaps). They can be divided into floor-taking,
topic-changing, and disagreement interruptions (p. 288). To distinguish interruptions
from overlaps, it needs to be made clear that the former can “take place without actual
overlapping [. . .]. interruptions [are] intentional actions of interrupting the conversational
partner’s utterances at non-TRPs, whereas overlaps are regarded as unintentional
infringements” (Murata, 1994, p. 386). For culture-specific interpretations of interruptions,
see Halmari (1993).
16. See Seidlhofer & Jenkins (2003) on the use of English as a lingua franca.
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