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Language and power in the workplace

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  •  Benjamins (2004, as cited in Administration Guide, 2010) suggests that there are different levels of power at a workplace. “Power is a concept which is of obvious relevance to the analysis of workplace data, as power relationships exist between people employed at different levels within an organisation” (cited in Administration Guide, 2010, p. 18). Spencer-Oatey (1993) backs that statement up by stating that “power due to position has been referred to as ‘legitimate power’”.
  • The workplace setting that I will be providing examples of text from is from event cinemas in lower hutt, wellington where I am currently employed as a supervisor. I have gathered several exchanges from my workplace that, to begin with, provide proof on the existence of power relationships, specifically positional power relationships, in workplace demonstrated through the use of language.So before I introduce my texts, I would like to talk you through the different power levels within event cinemas. There are several key aspects within these levels that I find affect the use of language between the employees. Starting from the bottom we have Cinema Attendant or CA, age ranging from 15 to 20, mainly secondary school students with a few tertiary students. Next we have Supervisors, age ranging from 20 to 35, mainly secondary or tertiary school graduates with a few tertiary students. Last at the very top we have Managers, age ranging from 25 to 45, all tertiary school graduates that have been in the work force for many years. In my position as supervisor, there is a definite trend in the manner in which I converse with CA’s and Managers and vice versa. Although there appears to be a definite trend in the age of the employees with respect to their power levels, at times the ages overlap. For example we have a thirty five year old supervisor who is in the same age range as many of our managers. Despite this fact, the power relationships appear to be definite in interactions.
  • There are also several key concepts that we need to be aware of before we analyse the texts. One of these concepts is the use of small talk. Holmes (2000) states that “the management of small talk could be regarded as one example of subterranean power construction” (p. 30). Small talk is generally optional. Holmes also states:“The senior participant generally determines how much small talk there will be at the beginning and end of an interaction. The extent to which the discourse of work may be de-institutionalised, the extent to which the world of leisure will be permitted to encroach on the world of work is largely in the hands of the superior” (p. 30).Another concept to be mindful of is the use of politeness. Yule (1996, p. 60) states that “politeness in an interaction can be defined as the means employed to show awareness of another person’s face. In this sense politeness can be accomplished in situations of social distance or closeness. Showing awareness for another person’s face when the other seems socially distant is often described in terms of respect or deference. Showing the equivalent aware when the other is socially close is often described in terms of friendliness, camaraderie, or solidarity”.The last concept of importance to this topic is the use of humour. Humour can be used in many ways in a workplace. For example, Holmes (2000b) states that “humour can be used to achieve the speaker’s instrumental goal while apparently de-emphasizing the power differential”.
  • The first text I have is a conversation between myself and Sarah, a CA at event cinemas who is of my age, and this is our first interaction for the evening. K: Hey Sarah.S: Whats up brother?K: Not much. Been upto much?S: Went to watch the Phoenix play in the weekend.K: Awesome. Hey what do you want to clean tonight?S: I bags the warmer.K: I busted out the stopwatch on Brooke last night and he took under 10.S: Karan, you don’t think I can beat that? This is me you are talking to.K: (laughs) only time will tell.S: (laughs) Please, I got this.
  • There are several key factors to mention in order to adequately explain why this conversation went and worked the way it did. Sarah has worked at event cinemas longer than I have. We are friends outside of work. I have a lot of respect for her as a CA therefore I never feel the need to give her orders. The language we use is fairly informal, which builds on the idea of a friendly relationship even in a work atmosphere. As stated by Holmes with regards to small talk, as the senior participant in this conversation, I determine how much small talk there will be. Between me and her, for the first interaction of the day, small talk is generally guaranteed. In terms of politeness, with respect to Yule’s statement, this conversation could be seen as a situation of social closeness. This can be seen from the fact that I ask Sarah what she would like to clean at the end of the night as opposed to telling her what I want her to clean, which would possibly be the case if I was talking to a much younger CA, so the age plays a factor. Furthermore, it’s my personal awareness of the social closeness that makes me use a statement about the stopwatch instead of simply stating that she needs to be a faster cleaner. Humour is also employed in this conversation. As I mentioned just before, in order to get Sarah to clean the warmer faster, I joke about how brooke, a younger CA, took under 10 minutes to do so. In terms of Holmes’ statement on humour, I manage to achieve my instrumental goal which is to transfer the message across to Sarah that she needs to be a faster cleaner while being aware of our social closeness, thereby de-emphasizing the power differential.
  • The second text is a conversation between one of my duty managers, Jason, who is in the late fourties and myself. J: How are you doing Karan?K: Good Jase, you?J: Im good. I have the poster sheet ready for you.K: Oh good. J: You shouldn’t have too much to change which is great because I want you to help with stocktake.K: That won’t be an issue. Theres the Airbender standee, I will make that up as well tonight.J: If you can. Well you know what you are doing anyways. Also make sure that seat H-5 in cinema 6 doesn’t get sold.K: Wet seat?J: Yeah. What a nightmare.K: (laughs) done.
  • This conversation goes a little differently than the first one. Jason and I share a work relationship. The language is formal throughout. For starters, theres is minimal small talk. The superior in the conversation, Jason, determines how much small talk there is and it doesn’t extend past exchanging pleasantries. It also reinforces Holmes statement the subordinates have a greater vested interest in developing small talk with their superiors than vice versa wherein in the first text Sarah has a greater interest in developing small talk with me than Jason does in text 2. In terms of politeness, this conversation can be seen as a situation of social distance. Jason and I have no social interaction outside of work and the age difference does not provide much common ground for small talk. Therefore the conversation remains almost entirely about business where he gives me orders and I respond accordingly. However, his acknowledgement of my knowledge where he states that I know what I am doing shows Yule’s point where he states that a situation of social distance can be described in terms of respect or deference. In this scenario, Jason shows respect for me from a professional standpoint. Humour is also minimal where Jason remarks on the wet seat in the cinema being a nightmare which I can only acknowledge by laughing.
  • In conclusion, I find that the power relationship between people in different power levels is an established and existent factor in workplace and it can be seen through the use of language by employees in everyday discourse. You will find a reduction in formality and a process of “conversationalising” in text one. However, age plays a vital role in the discourse that occurs between people in these power levels. For example, two people from different power levels such as a CA and a Supervisor can employ small talk, politeness and humour outside of characteristic trends when the two are fairly close in terms of age. Without introducing too many ideas in the conclusion, I find that even with people in the same power level, this rule applies. I would have a different way of using discourse with Supervisors close to my age than those much older than me.  
  • Transcript

    • 1. Language and Power in the Workplace
      By Karan Prakash08579342
    • 2. Definition of Power
      . “Power is a concept which is of obvious relevance to the analysis of workplace data, as power relationships exist between people employed at different levels within an organisation” (cited in Administration Guide, 2010, p. 18).
      “Power due to position has been referred to as ‘legitimate power’”.
    • 3. Introduction
      Workplace – Event Cinemas, Lower Hutt.
      Position – Supervisor
      Power Levels –
      Cinema Attendant (CA)Age range – 15-20
      SupervisorAge range – 20-35
      ManagerAge range – 25-45
    • 4. Key Concepts
      Small Talk – “the management of small talk could be regarded as one example of subterranean power construction” (Holmes, 2000, p. 30).“The senior participant generally determines how much small talk there will be at the beginning and end of an interaction. The extent to which the discourse of work may be de-institutionalised, the extent to which the world of leisure will be permitted to encroach on the world of work is largely in the hands of the superior” (p. 30)
      Politeness – “politeness in an interaction can be defined as the means employed to show awareness of another person’s face. In this sense politeness can be accomplished in situations of social distance or closeness. Showing awareness for another person’s face when the other seems socially distant is often described in terms of respect or deference. Showing the equivalent aware when the other is socially close is often described in terms of friendliness, camaraderie, or solidarity” (Yule, 1996, p.60)
      Humour – “humour can be used to achieve the speaker’s instrumental goal while apparently de-emphasizing the power differential” (Holmes, 2000b)
    • 5. Text 1
      The first text I have is a conversation between myself and Sarah, a CA at event cinemas who is of my age, and this is our first interaction for the evening.
      K: Hey Sarah.S: Whats up brother?K: Not much. Been upto much?S: Went to watch the Phoenix play in the weekend.K: Awesome. Hey what do you want to clean tonight?S: I bags the warmer.K: I busted out the stopwatch on Brooke last night and he took under 10.S: Karan, you don’t think I can beat that? This is me you are talking to.K: (laughs) only time will tell.S: (laughs) Please, I got this.
    • 6. Breakdown of Text 1
      Friendly relationship outside of work environment
      Small talk –Informal languageSenior Participant determines the amount of small talk
      Politeness – Social closeness, Age factor
      Humour – Senior Participant uses humour to achieve goalDe-emphasizes the power differential
    • 7. Text 2
      The second text is a conversation between one of my duty managers, Jason, who is in the late fourties and myself.
      J: How are you doing Karan?K: Good Jase, you?J: Im good. I have the poster sheet ready for you.K: Oh good. J: You shouldn’t have too much to change which is great because I want you to help with stocktake.K: That won’t be an issue. Theres the Airbender standee, I will make that up as well tonight.J: If you can. Well you know what you are doing anyways. Also make sure that seat H-5 in cinema 6 doesn’t get sold.K: Wet seat?J: Yeah. What a nightmare.K: (laughs) done.
    • 8. Breakdown of Text 2
      Solely work relationship
      Small talk – Formal languageMinimal small talk
      Politeness – Social distance, respectAge factor
      Humour – Minimal use of humour by senior participant
    • 9. Conclusion
      Power relationships are existent and operational in a workplace
      Reduction in formality, “conversationalising”
      Age plays a vital role
    • 10. References
      Holmes, J. (2000). Doing collegiality and keeping control at work: Small talk in government departments. In j. Coupland (Ed.) Small talk (pp.51-58). Harlow, England: Pearson.
      Holmes, J. (2000b). Politeness, power and provocation: How humour functions in the workplace. Discourse studies , 2(2), 159-185.
      Yule, G. (1996). Pragmatics . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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