Relational Talk in an Institutional Setting: A Case of Mobile Network Provider

Laila Mufidah


Mobile network provider companies offer assistance related to product description and service questions. One of their duties includes registering new customers by recording their contact information for opening a new account. In this paper, the interaction between an assistant manager of a service provider and two potential customers was analyzed taking into account how a relational talk is accomplished in an institutional context. The exchange consists of four types of relational talks: non-transactional conversations, phatic communion, relational episodes, and relational sequences/turns. Although these varieties of relational talks are present in different combinations, which occur naturally during the process of transactional conversation, they do not seem to cause the shifting purpose of the talk. The result of the analysis shows that the assistant manager’s fondness of including language with a relational orientation is seen as a way to build a positive interpersonal relationship. It is therefore expected that the findings from this paper provide possible affirmation in relevance to how individual conveys relational talk interactions particularly in the institutional contexts.



According to Heritage (2005), aside from basic Conversation Analysis(CA), another form of research is institutional CA, which uses basic CA to focus on the activity of social institution. Throughout the process of recording and transcribing institutional talk, a point often overlooked is that institutional talk has the same probability as daily talk to happen anywhere. Having considered this, it is quite predictable that ordinary conversation can also appear in institutional context and vice versa (Heritage & Clayman, 2011). This paper focuses on analysing a conversation about a mobile network provider’s monthly phone plan, which is carried out between an assistant manager of a mobile network provider and two friends. The participants involved in the conversation are a native speaker of English (Aryan) and two non-native speakers of English costumers (Gita & Dewi). The recording was taken at a mobile network provider store and pseudonyms have been assigned to all the participants involved.

Institutional Talk

Drew and Heritage (1992) coined the term ‘institutional talk’ in which they place emphasis on the disparity of the term with ‘ordinary conversation’:

We will address some aspects of interaction which often are cited when analysts seek to distinguish ‘institutional talk’ from ‘ordinary conversation’. We stress that we do not accept that there is necessarily a hard and fast distinction to be made between the two in all instances of interactional events, nor even at all points in a single interactional event. Nor do we intent to offer a definition of ‘institutional talk’, nor to make any attempt at synoptic distinction (p. 21).

In the context of this study, the interaction in institutional talk is a naturally occurring conversation which happens for a reason or task related. It involves people who do not know each other, for instance, a service provider and service receivers. According to Drew and Heritage (in Heritage, 2013: 3) institutional talk has three basic elements:(1) Normally involves the participants in the specific goal orientations that are tied to their institution-relevant identities (2) normally involve special constraints on what will be treated as allowable contributions to the business at hand (3) normally associated with inferential frameworks and procedures that are particular to specific institutional contexts.

Having considered the basic elements suggested by the authors previously mentioned, the extract that presents the aims of the talk was identified and analysed. A transaction that took place in a mobile provider store is seen as a particular social institution. Thus, the particular conversation between the participants in the context of mobile service provider is an example of institutional talk. By having a particular role within this institutional talk, the main objective of the assistant manager in this institutional context could be described as trying to sell the most appropriate service the consumers may be interested in.

Moreover, the characteristic of this study is a face-to-face transactional interaction in which the goal of the costumers is to buy a monthly mobile internet plan. Although institutional talk mostly focuses on completing a specific task, interestingly there is  little work about relational talk occurring within the interaction. According to McCarthy (2000, p. 104), interaction in a service encounter involves different types of talk: (1) phatic exchanges (greetings, partings); (2) transactional talk (requests, enquiries, instructions); (3) transactional-plus-relational talk (non-obligatory task evaluations and other comments) and (4) relational talk (small talk, anecdotes, wider topics of mutual interest).

Koester (2010, p. 97) differentiates types of relational talk within transactional interaction: (1) Phatic communion: small talk at the beginning or end of transactional encounters, (2) relational sequences and turns: non-obligatory task-related talk with a relational focus, (3) relational episodes: small talk or office gossip occurring during the performance of a transactional task and (4) non-transactional conversations: office gossip and small talk.

This paper will present some of extracts selected from the recording and the analysis of the relational talk that are present in the extracts.



Richards (2003) highlights three particular items to be aware of in the process of recording; picking a suitable tool, obtaining authorization from the speakers and choosing appropriate strategy in recording. So, preparing an adequate instrument for the recording is important, especially in making sure that its battery, memory, and microphone are set accordingly. In the case of the conversation, object of analysis, the researcher used the recorder embedded in an iPhone.

Concerning consent and participants’ privacy as ethical issues, they were sought and granted for the participants of the recording. First, to get consent from the mobile network provider’s assistant manager, the researcher decided to ask permission after the data collection was done. The researcher explained to the participant the purpose of the recording and also offered assurances of confidentiality using pseudonyms in the transcription (Liddicoat, 2011). The assistant manager was a little surprised when he was being informed about the recording of the conversation. Thus, after he was given a detailed explanation about the purpose of the recording, he agreed to be part of this research. In the case of the second and third participants, as they were well acquainted with the researcher, their approval was sought in advance, before the recording process. Moreover, it is important to mention that the option of withdrawal was also given to the participants.

Roger (1989) suggests two various data collection methods namely naturalistic and experimental method, where both differ in the motive for the talk. Experimental data collection requires subjects to be requested to get involved in the recording while naturalistic data collection is done of one’s own accord. Nevertheless, gaining naturally occurring data can be problematic as the researcher might overlook the discourse and to some extent naturally occurring information should thereafter be validated experimentally.  Taylor and Cameron (1987) mention that data collected from experimental context does not underwrite any conversation in the real world. Therefore, this result of this study would not incline to be decisive in terms of data being gained.


Transcription System

The transcription system used in this paper is based on Richards (2003). The consideration of choosing the system relies on the basic and straightforward conventions it offers. Therefore, the researcher was able to optimize the transcribing activity and fulfill the needs required for this research. During the transcribing process, the researcher struggled with the transcription, particularly parts where Richards’ transcribing convention did not mention about the issue as appears in line 8:

Extract 1

6   A: °yeyeyeah°

7   ((walking)) ((music in the background))

8   (19.0)

9   ((sitting down))

10   D: so for the contract itself, um: if we feel like

There was a ‘foreign speaker’ who can be heard quite clearly in the recording. Thus, the researcher was unsure whether to treat this as the part of the transcription.  At first, the researcher added a new “SF” symbol which stands for Speaker Female. This was to describe outside voice from the main conversation. However, having found that the foreign speaker did not take part in the conversation, the researcher decided to exclude it from the transcription which was 19 second long (line 8). Moreover, what is needed to be taken into account is the fact that there will always be probabilities and restrictions of each recording tool. The recording device being used was incapable of focusing on certain voices. Consequently, when the device was being carried while walking, it recorded either the background noise or other sounds closest to the speakers.


The extract below shows the beginning part of the conversation between Gita (G) and Aryan (A) about the monthly phone plan of the mobile service. A related point to consider of this extract is the fact that two hours before this conversation happened, the participants had met each other for the first time, having a short talk for detailed information about the service. As the first conversation had happened, when the particular talk of this study took place Aryan, already knowing the purpose of the conversation, manages to lead what Gita wants into agreement with what he can grant.

Extract 2

1   G: a::I want to buy(..)[° yeah  I°  want  to  tAKE  IT]

2   A:                     [° you got your  card on you? °]

Therefore, as shown in line 1, the first phatic exchange has the impression of being very direct. As Gita instantaneously informs the purpose of her second visit by mentioning that she agrees to take the monthly plan provided by the network service.  This first pair of adjacency pair is in form of pre-sequence, as this part of conversation paves the way for and projects what action to come (Schegloff, 1990).

Furthermore, more question-answer adjacency pairs are present in the conversation of transactional talk line 10 to 59 (see appendix). The extract below shows examples of adjacency pairs taken from the conversation:

Extract 3

10   D: so for the contract itself, um: if we feel like

11     we don’t want to continue the contract can we

12      just like stop it (..) fo:r=

13   A: =after the twelve months

14   D: oh after the twelve months=

15   A: =yeah.

16   D: so [i  t ’ s  i  t ’  s]

17   A:    [after eleven months] ↑ if you wanna cancel you

18      can get in there just give in case.((pointing screen))

19   G: after eleven↑

20   A: after eleven.

In line 10 the conversation flows as costumer asks first question and second question follows it. This feature shows a notable sequence of a relational talk in a fixed adjacency format, where a costumer-initiated request was followed by the service provider acquiescence. Notice how in line 16 in Dewi’s (D) attempt to respond to Aryan ‘yeah’ an overlap occurs, as Aryan replies with more detailed explanation of his previous statement (line 13).

Another example of sequence of a relational talk is a question from the costumer followed by another question:

Extract 4

22   A: is the service for the:: EE aa for the:: Three is

23      good? ↑ or::

24   A: we[got nin ]ty-ninety eight percent coverage in the UK

25   G:  [ in the ]the UK? ↑

26   A: yeah

27   G: all over the city in the UK? ↑

28   A: and you get 4G for free as well we [ don’t]

29   G:                                    [4G for]

30      free in all over the city in the UK?

31   A: everywhere yeah=

33   G: =everywhere >°in the UK°<


In line 25 Gita asks for the information related to the service coverage, she then reiterates the same question in line 27 and 29. Although repetition happens, Aryan manages to answer each of the questions accordingly. Thus, the effect of these simple sequences has somewhat built a relationship of the interlocutors, where the costumer has the role of questioner and it is the assistant manager who is being questioned.

Relational sequences and turns

Extract 5

60   A: you single, married?

61   D: a::: (.) si:ngle=

62   G: =ahahaha

63   A: why did you think that for a second?=

64   G: =ahaha[ ha   ha ]

65   D:       [hahahaha ] >i don’t know<

66   A: a:: student?

67   D: yes.

68   A: you hesitated.

In line 60, there is a transactional talk, as Aryan was filling out consumer personal data by asking several questions. This is one example of a request-response adjacency pair, thus Dewi’s utterance in line 61 is a response to line 60. Although she manages to respond accordingly to this question, her stretching and short pause, she alone produces in the beginning and middle of her turn, activates a relational turn which has a relation to the transactional process. Thus, in line 63 a relational turn occurs, where Aryan constructs his turn, thus controls the conversation. Still in the form of questions, then he transfers the discussion to different contexts from the last element in his previous turn.

The response made by Aryan in line 63 is quite relevant to the work they engage in, although it is not in fact needed. Dewi seems to realize that she did not notice the previous answer she made (in line 65) which somehow affects the change in topic. On the other hand, Gita shows her agreement to the changing phenomenon through her laugh (line 62 & 64). This extract can be categorized as relational sequences or turns, consisting of comments that are task-related but do not actually help to get the transactional task done (Koester, 2006). It can be noticed that in line 66, Aryan still manages to get the task done by going back to their transactional talk and so Dewi’s response is in line 67. Furthermore, Aryan connects the topic by using another turn but with playful utterances (line 68), thus the relational topic is maintained.

Relational episodes

Extract 6

69     A: so, what size sim do you,[nano sim ya]

70     G:                          [e r r : :  ]this one

        I don’t know is this micro or nano?

71     A: °nano as [w e l l]°

72     G:          [ahahaha]

73     A: all the iphone is nano=

74     G: hahaha->I don’t really know<-hahaha]

75     A: is: only I think the 4s took a micro, anything after

         the 5 is nano=

76     G: =is nano

77    (2.3)

78     A: where are you guys from?

79     G: Indonesia=

80     A:    =Indonesia

81     G: =ya: haha

82     (1.5)

83     A: studying in Cov ↑ or Warwick?=

84     G: =in Warwick. is good in the Warwick the service right? ↑

85     A: yeyeah also in the Cov is, cause we got a lot of student buying.

Another category of relational talk in transactional interaction is relational episodes. A relational episode is a small talk that breaks the continuity of transactional talk for a short period of time and causing transactional genre to change. This happens as a result of intervention from other people or initiation done by the participants of the talk (Koester, 2006). So, the fact of using concepts such as sequencing and adjacency pair responses, it is possible to argue that it is very easy for the participant who holds the talk to shift into different topics.

In line 69 onwards Aryan utters the first turn construction unit of request-response transactional talk. The talk begins to shift into transactional-plus-relational talk (line 74), although it is not necessary, the same topic is still maintained. In line 77 the response made by Gita explicitly ends the talk, thus a pause occurs. This short pause prompts an episode of a strategic use of relational talk in a transactional genre, thus the conversation shifts into a different topic.

Another evidence is in line 82 where a short pause again happens. As a result, Aryan for the second time initiates a new topic. Therefore, after a completion of a task, where the period of genre is expected to end in an encounter, relational talk is likely to occur (Koester, 2006). With regards to the pauses that contribute to relational talk; it is worth noticing that Aryan, the service provider, always initiates the talk as it appears to be his responsibility to keep the conversation going. This might suggest that the sales assistant was under some obligations to make sure the interaction is as smooth and cordial as it possibly can be. Thus, the nature of the social activity was being constructed. This resembles the function of relational talk itself as a tool to establish a comfortable environment, particularly using solidarity strategies by showing interest about costumers’ personal identity (Koester, 2006).



From this analysis, it can be inferred that within a transactional talk, relational talk can occur at any time and in any type of  interaction. In reference to the nature of a relational talk as a social activity, the analysis also confirms that relational talk is considered significant in the discourse which service providers use. The types of relational talk that is present in this study are non-transactional conversations (office gossip and small talk), phatic communion, relational episodes and relational sequences/turns. Although, relational talk is present in the middle of transactional activity, it gives no significant effect to the purpose of the conversation. Moreover, rather than impacting any process of social interaction, the service provider of this case uses language with a relational orientation as a way to build a positive interpersonal relationship.



Drew, P., & Heritage, J. (1992). Talk at work: Interaction in institutional settings. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Heritage, J. (2005). Conversation analysis and institutional talk. Handbook of language and social interaction. New Jersey: Psychology Press.

Heritage, J. (2013). Language and social institutions: The conversation analytic view. Journal of Foreign Languages36(4), 2-27. Retrieved from URL

Heritage, J., & Clayman, S. (2011). Talk in action: Interactions, identities, and institutions (Vol. 44).  West Sussex, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons.

Koester, A. (2006). Investigating workplace discourse. New York: Routledge.

Koester, A. (2010). Workplace discourse. London: Continuum.

Liddicoat, A. J. (2011). An introduction to conversation analysis 2e. (2nd ed). London: Contiuum.

McCarthy, M. (2000). Mutually captive audiences: Small talk and the genre of close-contact service encounters. Small talk. 84-109. London: Longman Pearson.

Richards, K (2003). Qualitative inquiry in TESOL. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Roger, D. (1989). Experimental studies of dyadic turn-taking behaviour. D. Roger and P. Bull (eds) Conversation: An interdisciplinary perspective, 75-95. Clevedon, Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters LTD.

Schegloff, E. A. (1990). On the organization of sequences as a source of “coherence” in talk-in-interaction. Conversational organization and its development, 38, 51-77.

Taylor, T. J., & Cameron, D. (1987). Language & communication library, Vol. 9. Analysing conversation: Rules and units in the structure of talk. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.



(Laila Mufidah: She is currently doing her MA study in ELT specialising in ICT at the University of Warwick. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Education and decided to pursue her interest in the use of technology in language teaching.)



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