Unit 6: Pragmatics and discourse


6.1. Investigating small talk

‘The term “small talk” has a recognized currency in several traditions of sociolinguistics, semantics and communication studies, and certainly in popular perceptions’ (Coupland 2000: 1). It also has a given place in pragmatics and in discourse analysis. However, it is not usually referred to in conversation analysis in spite of the interest in the ritualized character of openings and closings, especially of telephone calls.

Small talk is related to gossip or chat and other types of non-serious talk where speakers talk in order to convey or maintain a friendly relationship with the hearer. Small talk occurs, for example, in the opening of the conversation with the function of establishing common ground before coming to the topic. Speakers talk about the weather, weekend activities, health problems, etc. Small talk is closely associated with the phatic function of language and with ‘phatic communion’, a concept invented by the anthropologist Malinowski and defined as ‘a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words’ (Malinowski 1972: 151). The meaning of the words is not to convey information, and the exchanges are concerned with obvious things:

Are words in phatic communion used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning of which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not! ... A mere phrase of politeness ... fulfils a function to which the meaning of its words is almost completely irrelevant. Inquiries about health, comments on the weather, affirmation of some supremely obvious state of things – all such are exchanged, not in order to inform, not in this case to connect people to action, certainly not in order to express any thought. (Malinowski 1972: 151, quoted from Coupland 2000: 3)


Small talk is generally optional and the topics are taken from a small range of possibilities. They are also specific to the situation. In the following task you are asked to consider the talk that may take place at the supermarket checkout between the cashier and customer. The cashier utters a greeting that may or may not get a response. In addition there may be some ‘overlay talk’ about the weather, the goods bought, etc. It may be part of the exchange section as in the following examples (adapted from an interchange between a cashier and a customer at a supermarket in New Zealand) (Kuiper 2009: 104).

Cashier: Hi. How are you? You had a good week?
Customer: S’pose so. Been all right. Glad the weather’s come right.
Cashier: Yeah. ’bout time it did.
Customer: You’re not wrong.

The interchange consists both of formulae and of small talk (including special opening or closing phrases).

Using observations of real situations or fictional situations (e.g. TV drama), collect a number of examples of such supermarket exchanges.

  • How do they vary? For example, do they vary in length and complexity?
  • Choose another situation where small talk occurs: for example being at a party where you don’t know the other guests, in the elevator, passengers in the same train compartment, at the beginning of a telephone conversation.
  • Document examples of topics typical of small talk representing the different speech activities and situations. 
  • How do the exchanges in your chosen situation vary?
  • The speakers may sometimes use special formulae (Glad the weather’s come right). Note down similar examples where the main purpose is to establish a harmonious relationship between the speakers.


  • Coupland, J. (2000) ‘Introduction’ in J. Coupland (ed.) Small Talk, Harlow: Longman and Pearson Education, pp1–25
  • Kuiper, K. (2009) Formulaic Genres. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Malinowski, B. (1972) ‘Phatic communion’ in J. Laver and S. Hutcheson (eds.) Communication in Face-to-Face Communication, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp146-152.

6.2. The social action of requesting

In conversation analysis (CA) speech acts are analysed in their interactional contexts. People perform actions by designing their turns so that one turn sets up expectations about what is to follow in the next turn (the sequential organization of discourse). The approach differs from that found in the philosophical speech act tradition where speech acts are abstract units analysed in terms of their felicity conditions. From a CA perspective philosophical speech act theory ‘analytically overemphasises participants’ cognition and use of rules of inference to go beyond the literal meaning of utterances, while politeness theory either fabricates examples or abstracts examples of actual, spoken utterances from their contexts of production’ (Maynard et al. 2011: 56; cf. Curl and Drew 2008). Maynard et al. chose to study requests as used by real people in their interactional contexts. They showed, for example, that when a person intends to make a request there may be several turns providing a background before the speaker performs a request.


When we discussed requests in Unit 4A we focused on how requests were produced by the speaker. CA has taken an interest in requests as a generic action whose outcome is negotiated by the participants in the interaction. The format of the request also depends on the situation and the institutional setting in which the requesting takes place. In conversation, for example, the request is in the form of an interrogative (can you help me?). In the following example the request is issued in a telephone interview with the purpose of getting the answerer to participate in a survey and it involves a lot of preparation.

01 Answerer: .hhh Hello?
02 Interviewer: tch . h Hi Mister Martino? hh
03 A: Yes.
04 I: My name is Brandon Johnson. I’m calling from the Wisconsin
05 Longitudinal Study? .h Ah d– we sent you a letter about ahu : : : h probably
06 about th:ree months ago. I don’t know if it– do you remember what (0.4) th– ah
07 Wisconsin Longitudinal Study is?
08 (0.3)
09 A: No.
10 (.)
11 I: No? .hh Um (0.3) essentially what it is back in nineteen-fifty
12 seven when you graduated from uh Stockdale High School I think it
13 says. .hh Um (0.4) we did a s– we began a study with you and
14 we’ve talked with you about every : : twelve years since then?
15 (0.4)
16 I: .hh Do you remember that at all?
17 (0.9)
18 A: Yea:h I remember o: : ne.
19 (.)
20 I: Okay. .hh well– (.) basically it’s been about (0.2) n: : eleven
21 years, and so we’re doing another wa: ve of this study right now.
22 .hh um .h I was wondering if– do you have some time to maybe
23 begin it now or would you like us to send you another letter to
24 remind you about what is?
25 (0.2)
26 A: I’: : : m not gonna be interested sir. hh
(Example adapted from Maynard et al. 2011: 64)

The example illustrates a number of features associated with the social action of requesting.

  • How is the request expressed (lines 22 and 23)?
  • Interviewers may use mitigators such as please, maybe, just in order to weaken the request. Illustrate.
  • The interviewer’s request comes quite late. What is the character of the material preceding the formal request? Notice that some of the material may be scripted.
  • How would you describe the answerer’s contribution to the call?


  • Curl, T.S. and P. Drew (2008) ‘Contingency and action. A comparison of two forms of requesting’, Research on Language and Social Interaction 41(2): 129–53
  • Maynard, D.W., J. Freese and N.C. Schaeffer (2011) ‘Improving response rates in telephone interviews’ in C. Antaki (ed.) Applied Conversation Analysis. Intervention and change in institutional talk. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan