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Within the study of language and occupation, many linguists have carried out research into various aspects of language. An important linguist in the field of phatic talk and banter is Almut Koester, who is known for her research in spoken workplace discourse (written or spoken communication).
This article will look firstly at some key definitions to give us a base understanding of the study. Then we will look at Koester’s 2004 study, Relational sequences in workplace genres1, including what motivated it, how it was carried out, and what was found (with a focus on her findings of phatic talk and banter). To finish off, we’ll then think about how we can apply this study to language and occupation. Throughout, we'll look at some phatic talk examples as well to make sure we can fully understand the topic.
Before we delve straight into Koester’s study, we need to have some understanding of some key terms.
Phatic communication is the sort of interaction often known as small talk.
Phatic communication (or phatic talk) is the talk or communication used purely for social purposes with the intention of establishing and building relationships. This can be seen in the use of greetings, talking about the weather, and talking about the traffic.
In a workplace environment, this relates to any social interaction that is not work-related and has the function of maintaining social relationships. Have a look at the phatic communication example below:
A phatic communication example can be seen in the following interaction between two people (Tom and Julie) who have just arrived at work:
Tom: Morning Julie! Terrible traffic on the way in today.
Julie: Morning! Yes, it was horrendous, how’s the broken window on your car holding up?
Tom: Well, it still won’t go up the rest of the way.
Julie: Deary me, I imagine that was a bit drafty and wet then?
Tom: Yeah I have a bit of a damp arm from the rain coming in. I’m taking it to the garage on Thursday though, so not too much longer of it!
Julie: Hopefully so. Anyway, must get on.
This whole interaction is made up of purely phatic communication where Tom and Julie are interacting for the sake of having a social interaction with no workplace-related motives or goals.
Phatic communication can also be referred to as phatic talk, phatic expressions, or small talk.
Banter falls under the category of phatic communication and refers specifically to good-natured jokes and teasing.
When it comes to phatic communication, there are 12 types or functions of this type of interaction. These are:
Each of these functions can be used to build upon or maintain social relationships, but don't necessarily have a purpose that goes beyond being social.
This is the typical form of interaction within a workplace and is, therefore, the most commonly seen type of communication between work colleagues. Transactional talk refers to interactions that have a purpose such as completing a task or reaching a work-specific goal – below is an example of transactional talk.
Tom: Have you seen the report from Bob?
Julie: Yes, I had a read of it earlier.
Tom: Bob wanted us to arrange a meeting when we could all go through it and decide how we’re going to present it to the client.
Julie: Okay, well I can book a small conference room for 10am on Wednesday so we’d have some time to do anything else before the client meeting on Friday.
Tom: Great, I’ll check my calendar and email you to confirm.
Julie: Fab, I’ll send one over to Bob as well to check he can do it.
Unlike the previous example of an interaction between Tom and Julie, this one is purely interactional, serving the purpose of arranging a meeting. In this instance, the goal is to organise a meeting that is met through the transaction of information for a solution to be concluded.
Within Koester's study, we're going to be looking at the use of both phatic and transactional talk.
Now that we understand what some key concepts are, we can delve into Koester’s study and findings.
By 2004, there was already a large amount of research establishing the existence of workplace-specific communication and a link between language and occupation. Much of this research focussed on the differences between workplace language and ordinary social language. However, it's widely recognised by linguists that social interactions do play a part in workplace language.
Research has already shown that, although completing tasks is the main aim of workplace communication, phatic talk is also present. This phatic talk can be both long and short stretches of talking.
Koester’s study focuses on the shorter units of phatic talk occurring in workplace conversations to see if there were patterns in the type of phatic talk used. We will look at the study as a whole, however, we are then going to focus on the occurrence of phatic communication.
Koester collected data from three types of workplace offices in the UK and the USA. These types of offices were university offices, editorial offices in publishing companies, and editorial offices outside of publishing. These offices are all professional work environments where the language used is expected to be typical of workplace interactions.
Koester collated 30 hours of data which were transcribed into 66 conversations. Most of these conversations occurred between two participants and were task-oriented but in a somewhat informal fashion.
The sorts of tasks being carried out during these conversations were:
There were some exceptions to these task-oriented conversations, such as conversations comprising of small talk, office gossip and banter.
Koester then used conversation analysis to see what was occurring in each interaction.
In the workplace interactions analysed, it was clear that where phatic talk appeared, the participants shared goals. These goals were found at four different levels of interaction, some in a recurring structural pattern in conversations. The four levels of interaction are non-transactional conversations, phatic communion, relational episodes, and relational sequences and turns. Let's look at each level in more detail.
These were the interactions that revolved around office gossip, small talk and banter.
For example: “Did you hear about what Steph did at the weekend? Martin said he saw her out with her ex-husband’s sister and they were…” and so on.
By phatic communion, Koester refers specifically to the small talk occurring at the beginning or end of a transactional interaction. This occurred as both general small talk and as banter and was used to create a sense that the participants value the social relationship they have and are not just using each other for the task at hand.
These are the occurrences of small talk, office gossip and banter during a transactional interaction. For example, while planning a meeting and briefly veering off-topic and then returning to the task being undertaken. The main difference between relational episodes and phatic communion is the positioning in a sentence. Phatic communion happens at the beginning or end of a sentence, whereas relational episodes occur throughout.
Tom: Have you seen the report from Bob?
Julie: Yes, I had a read of it earlier. Did you hear about him having an argument with his wife on the phone the other day?
Tom: Yeah apparently it sounded pretty heated! I wouldn’t want to be him dealing with his wife.
Julie: Yeah she seems to be really uptight about everything, you know she plans Bob’s outfits for him?
Tom: I know! He’s a grown man, he can wear what he likes! Anyway, Bob wanted us to arrange a meeting when we could all go through the report and decide how we’re going to present it to the client.
Julie: Okay, well I can book a small conference room for 10 am on Wednesday so we’d have some time to do anything else before the client meeting on Friday.
This interaction is transactional as it has a purpose but the office gossip in the middle would be classified by Koester as a relational episode.
This relates to a conversation where the main focus is relational (creating relationships), with something like gossip, banter or phatic talk being the topic, but there is a task-related element. This may occur when people are chatting about social plans while working in the office, occasionally talking about the work they are doing but mainly focussing on the social aspect.
Koester’s findings on the types of relational interaction are all important but we want to focus on the use of phatic communication (or phatic communion or small talk) and banter.
The main point to acknowledge from Koester’s research is that in workplace encounters, people simultaneously pursue both transactional and relational goals. This means that relational sequences, phatic talk and banter are key to effective transactional conversations and are woven into the base structures of workplace interactions. For example, starting and ending a transactional conversation with small talk, and sharing a joke or some item of gossip in the middle.
Koester’s findings concluded that there are regularities in the occurrence of relational and phatic talk. These are:
Relational and phatic talk often appear after a task, before the next one is started.
Relational and phatic talk often appear towards the end of a conversation.
Humour and banter are often used as subtle means of phatic talk.
Phatic talk and banter are used to perform functions such as relationship building and getting tasks done.
This study acknowledges the existence and need for phatic talk in the workplace. This is something that is often not covered by other language and occupation theories, such as Drew and Heritage’s theory of institutional talk2, which focus on the language of transactional conversations.
Koester’s findings are directly applicable to the field of language and occupation, especially where we have to carry out our own conversation analysis. These findings can allow us to say why phatic talk and banter are present in workplace conversations, and why it is important to have a social aspect to the working environment.
Phatic talk is communication used purely for social interaction, like small talk. Koester found that phatic talk is key for maintaining social relationships at work and for getting jobs done.
Phatic communication allows relationship building through purely social interaction without an underlying goal of completing a task. This creates better workplace relationships and makes a more effective work environment.
In a workplace, people often use particular ways of talking such as Drew and Heritage's institutional talk. Koester says that phatic and relational talk is important for building and maintaining workplace relationships and for getting jobs done.
Phatic communication can be better understood as the term small talk. Phatic communication includes conversational topics such as greetings, the weather, traffic, social plans and anything else not work-related.
To build and maintain social relationships.
What is Koester known for researching in workplace interactions?
Relational talk and phatic communication
What is phatic communication?
Talk used with the sole intention of creating social interactions with no transactional goals for any participant.
What can phatic communication also be known as?
What is relational talk?
Phatic talk that is embedded into transactional or task-oriented talk.
What are three types of relational talk?
What is transactional talk?
Interactions or conversations that have a purpose such as to complete a task, exchange information or reach a work-specific goal.
What process did Koester use to decipher her data?
Koester found that phatic communication typically occurred in the same position. What was this?
At the beginning or end of a transactional interaction.
According to Koester, what do people simultaneously pursue in workplace interactions?
Transactional and relational goals.
What did Koester find were used as subtle means of relational and phatic talk?
Humour and banter.
Why is phatic talk important in the workplace?
It helps build and maintain social relationships thus creating a good working environment. It also helps people to complete tasks more effectively.
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