Analysis of Workplace Meetings: Structures of
Discourse and the role of Politeness and
Culture
Dr. Nor Fariza Mohd. Nor
School of Language Studies and Linguistics,
Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities,
UKM.
Structure
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Background to the study
Research questions
Methodology
Framework of analysis – Speech acts,
discourse strategies, politeness, culture
Findings
Conclusion
Implication
Background to the study
Analysis of meetings discourse
Data taken from observations of meetings in two organizations
– organization A and organization B.
 Meeting in organization A – government-owned company
incorporated under the Ministry of Finance
1. Participants – 10
2. Meeting agenda –standardization of device in cards
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Meeting in organization B – multinational company in
consultancy services – business consultancy (executive
recruitment, management assessment and mid-level
recruitment services)
1. Participants – 3
2. Meeting agenda – consultancy services
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Research questions
1. What types of Speech Acts and
discourse strategies were employed to
display politeness?
2. Are these politeness traits reflective
of the participants’ cultural
background?
Methodology
Qualitative
Observation and recording of the meetings.
Meeting in organization A – almost two hours.
Meeting in organization B- one hour.
Transcription of the meetings
Discourse analysis – eclectic approach – speech acts,
discourse strategies, politeness strategies.
 Stage 1
 Close examination of speaker-hearer response
patterns
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Methodology
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Stage 2
Coding
Identification of speech acts
Identification of discourse strategies
Examination of politeness strategies
Examination of whether the politeness strategies
reflected the cultural traits of the participants.
Framework of analysis: Speech Acts
 Speech Acts
 Speech Act theory concerns “what people do with language”
(Schiffrin, 1994: 90). In other words, the theory is concerned
with the functions of utterances in interaction.
 Introduced by Austin (1962) – locutionary, illocutionary and
perlocutionary act.
 Searle (1969) – modified Austin’s framework – proposed five
categories based on their illocutionary point:
 1. declarations – words & expressions that change the world by
their very utterance;
 2. representatives – the words state what the speaker believes
to be the case;
 3. commissives – the words commit the speaker to future action;
Framework of analysis: Speech Acts
 4. directives – the words are aimed at making the
hearer do something.
 5. expressives – the words state what the speaker
feels.
 These five categories are considered in identifying
the speech act form of the participants’ utterances.
 In discourse, however, speech acts function may
overlap, or a speaker may have several intention in
mind, thus an utterance can have more than one
function. This means that speakers perform one
illocutionary act explicitly while implying another.
Framework of analysis: Speech Acts
 Speech Acts
 to establish purpose/objectives
 to express opinions
 to make suggestions
 to ask for clarification
 to request for information
 to express agreement
 to express disagreement
 to seek agreement
 to justify argument/ disagreement
Framework of analysis:Discourse
strategies
 Van Djik (1983, 1997) - discourse strategies constitute a
fundamental aspect of discourse.
 - links the use of discourse strategies with the realization of
social and communicative goals. A strategy has to do with
“various possible routes in a complete course of action in order
to reach a wanted goal” (Van Djik, 1983: 11).
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Discourse strategies
Rhetorical strategies – inductive and deductive
Hedges
Humour
Topic control
Questioning
Repetition
Framework of analysis: Politeness
theory
 Brown and Levinson (1987)- SA are related to polite
behaviour as face-saving strategies.
 Theory based on the concept of face as proposed by
Goffman (1967) who defines face as an individual’s
self image.
 Brown and Levinson define face as ‘wants’ and
distinguish between positive face and negative face.
 Positive face is the desire to have one’s attributes
and actions approved of by significant others.
 Negative face is the desire to maintain one’s
autonomy and be free from unnecessary constraint.
Framework of analysis: Politeness
theory
 A particular strategy is chosen based on the assessment of
whether it will involved risk of face loss in performing a specific
Face Threatening Act (FTA). The risk is assessed by evaluating
the relative value of three variables:
 1. the social distance between the speaker and the hearer;
 2. the relative power of hearer over speaker;
 3. the relative ranking of the FTA in the cultural context
concerned.
 Thomas (1995: 169) – FTAs are “illocutionary acts [that]
damage or threaten another person’s face”.
1. Bald on record – direct and without redress. Used when the
risk of face loss in performing FTA is low.
2. SA is abstained - if the risk of face loss in performing FTA is
high, the speaker does not perform the SA.
Framework of analysis: Politeness
theory
3. Bald on record with negative politeness, with redress - the
speaker avoids intruding into the hearer’s territory.
4. Bald on record with positive politeness, with redress - the
speaker aims to save positive face, by demonstrating closeness
and solidarity, by appealing to friendship and making other
people feel good.
5. Off-record politeness strategy - the utterance is ambiguous,
which means there is more than one possible interpretation for
the utterance – this is indirectness of SA which gives the
speaker a way out of FTA. The hearer, on the other hand, can
choose not to understand the utterance.
Framework of analysis: Politeness
theory
 Brown and Levinson admits - the distinction
between positive politeness and negative
politeness is vague and in natural data, there
are bound to be overlaps.
 Criticism - the concept of positive and
negative face do not address the discourse
behaviours of non-western cultures, such as
Asian cultures - the interaction focus on
collectivism or group identity rather than
individualism (Matsumoto, 1989; Mao, 1994).
Culture
 Malay culture – an important component of the Malay culture is
the religion; consequently the beliefs, attitudes, perceptions and
social behaviours of the Malays are strongly influenced by the
teaching and tenets of the Islamic religion.
 Chinese culture – Buddhism and Taoism – with the underlying
concepts of Confucianism.
 Indian culture – majority of the Indians are Hindus by religion.
 Malaysian values – common values – observation of politeness
system that embodies specific codes of verbal and non-verbal
behaviour in interaction with others.
 i. Respect for the elders
 ii. Hierarchy – consciousness of the social hierarchy in society –
honorifics, correct salutations .
Culture
 iii. Religion – most malaysians identify with a
particular religion. This forms the foundation in
guiding the conduct of a person’s behaviour.
 iv. Harmony – preserving each other’s face in
interactions is very important in maintaining harmony
and stability. To preserve harmony, the truth must
not always be expressed openly and one has to find
subtle ways to avoid conflict.
 Studies in Malaysian context (Abdul Aziz Idris, 1991;
Khadijah Ibrahim, 1993; Jamaliah Mohd. Ali, 2000;
Suraiya Mohd. Ali, 2002; Baljit Kaur, 2002)
Speech acts and politeness: Findings (1)
 Organization A
 RoCS1: We shall go through the minutes first er the
previous minute before we invite comments from the
group –to establish purpose - directive- instruction
was direct and commanding.
 Politeness - Direct and bald on record – to assert
his position and power as the chairperson of the
meeting.
Speech acts and politeness: Findings (2)
RoCS1: Now item number four. In last meeting we decide what do
you call that…the ..the.. status of the project pertaining to
which part we want to er…adapt or not. Any comments? –
Silence
to seek agreement - representatives – ‘claiming’ and
‘describing’.
Indirect SA – should not comment. This utterance restrict
the action of the group members.
The participants were constrained into agreeing with RoCS1 –
solidarity politeness, to save RoCS1 face. Allowed RoCS1 to
exercise power.
RoCS1: No comments? I take it that everyone agrees. Ok we shall
er proceed to the next item –to instruct - directive.
Speech acts and politeness: Findings (3)
 Organization A
 CS5: Mr. Chairman, correct me if I’m wrong. I think
the procedure will delay the standards issue.
 indirect SA, ‘to suggest’ - directives – aimed at
making the hearer do something.
 Politeness - bald on record with negative politeness
strategy – ‘correct me if I’m wrong’ – to show
respect of the chair’s position.
 Minimise the imposition by using the mitigating
device - “correct me if I’m wrong”.
 “I think”–displayed deference as it reflected CS5’s
subordinate position.
Speech acts and politeness: Findings (4)
 RoCS1: I see your point, but the procedure is important. We
need to conduct it. We’re…the stakeholders and er we don’t
want to jeopardize our position.
 to express agreement. ‘but’ indication of disagreement. To
justify disagreement - representatives
 Politeness - bald on record with positive politeness strategy,
with redresive action in order to redress his power enabled the SA to be carried out with no damage to the
interaction despite the face threat involved.
 When he gave reason to support his disagreement, he tried
to save CS5 positive face. The politeness strategy employed
by RoCS1 tapped on the interplay of power with solidarity
politeness – expressed through the use of the pronoun “we”.
Speech acts and politeness: Findings (5)
 Organization B
 RHCS1: All aside the concern is how long you’ll stay?
It’s important for us to know.
 to request for information - directives, direct
with emphasis.
 Politeness strategy – direct and bald on record –to
assert his power as the chairperson and the
interviewer.
Speech acts and politeness: Findings (6)
 JIS3: It’s difficult for me to tell. For sure I’m ready
to move in the industry. It’ll be a challenge. I think if
I’m comfortable working here I’ll stay…you know
 Indirect SA – ‘to suggest’ - the hearer appeared
to avoid committing herself to a clear answer. The
speaker tried to rationalize her reply - “I think if
I’m comfortable working here I’ll stay…you know” –
the speaker also used hedges.
 Politeness - off-record politeness strategy –the
reply was ambiguous, which enabled JIS3 to be
polite without threatening the hearer’s face
(RHS1). The hearer can choose to ignore the
utterance.
Discourse strategies: Findings (1)
 Hedges - Hedges are identified as markers which
comprises filled pauses – modal auxiliaries or
utterances. Hedges are often used as a means to
protect the speaker and the hearer’s face wants.
Brown and Levinson (1987) classify hedges in the
category of negative politeness.
 Organization B
 RHCS1: You seem to be very interested in the Asia
Pacific region.
 SCLS2: Yes because I feel I could contribute a lot in
that direction
Discourse strategies: Findings (2)
 RHS1: I can see that you’re rather confident about it
despite the fact that er… I mean you’re not so in
touch with the local context
 “Yes because I feel I could contribute a lot in that
direction”
 Modal auxiliary – ‘could’ used by SCLS2, as a
strategy to mitigate FTA (of himself) in the event
that his interest to work in the Asia pacific region
might be ignored. SCLS2 is aware that he lacked
the experience of working in the region although
he has a strong interest to work in the region.
Discourse strategies Findings (3)
 Politeness - bald on record with positive politeness
- allowed SCLS2 to seek solidarity as the
company does a lot of work in the Asia pacific
region.
 “I can see that you’re rather confident about it
despite the fact that er… I mean you’re not so in
touch with the local context “
 RHSC1 used ‘I mean’ to soften the effect of FTA
- as a deference strategy.
 Politeness - bald on record with positive politeness
in order to reduce FTA and save face of both
RHSC1 and SCL2.
Discourse strategies: Findings (4)
 Humour - considered a politeness strategy device used to
establish solidarity between parties.
 Organization B
 RHCS1: So yes with the degree thing the possibility of you
wanting to leave is there =
 JIS3: = But you know me very well. I’ll tell you if I intend to
leave
 RHCS1: That’s what we’re scared of <laughter>
 In order to ease the tense atmosphere and to change the
topic, RHCS1 uttered something which appeared humorous to
JIS3 and TMDS2.
 Considered as solidarity politeness to reestablish rapport
following the tense atmosphere.
 It was also a strategy to lessen the FTA for JIS3 and
RHCS1.
Discourse strategies: Findings (5)
 Humour – Organization A
 RoCS1: This crypto is the crypto engine within the card, kan
(right)?
 KS10: It is the card crypto, but we don’t follow their standard. I
don’t think we can adopt their standard because we already have
ours.
 RoCS1: Well, you know better as engineer. But I think we can
change. Nanti dia kata (They might say later) Malaysian banking
card no standard pulak (well) <laughter>
 Code switch to Malay drew laughter.
 Strategy used by the chair effectively to subtly assert his
power as well as to soften negative face threats of KS10.
The use of humour also enhance the group’s solidarity as
members of the meeting and members of the same
organization.
Conclusion (1)
 Speech acts used were primarily directives.
Two instances of representatives.
 Direct and assertive – display power.
 Discourse strategies
 Hedges were found to be used as strategy to
soften face threatening acts or to enhance
solidarity.
 Humor was effectively used by superiors to
downplay power distance, soften negative
face threats such as directives, or enhance
solidarity. (Holmes, 2000).
Conclusion (2)
Politeness
 The politeness strategy used were for the purpose
of attending to the goals of the speaker and
the hearer.
 The politeness strategy extended the support to
both the hearer and the speaker in order to minimize
FTAs.
 Face support protected the harmonious relationship
between the speaker and the hearer.
 The participants in the meetings were receptive to
the information presented by the other, and into
being accomodative and adaptable to each other’s
wants and concerns.
Conclusion (3)
 Both the superior and the subordinate parties
displayed politeness to express deference and
solidarity.
 Cultural orientation
 The majority of participants in the meeting in
organization A are Malays. While the participants in
the meeting in organization B are Malay (RHS1, the
CEO of the company) and Chinese (TMDS2, the
managing director; JIS3 and SCLS2 (the clients).
 The notion of individualism, which Brown and
Levinson’s theory is built on is not fully applicable.
Conclusion (4)
 Asian cultural orientation is towards collectivism,
instead of individualism.
 The cultural traits of the participants with respect to
politeness reflect the cultural orientation for
relational harmony, for both Malays and Chinese. The
interplay of indirect speech act and politeness in the
interaction showed emphasis for relational harmony in
achieving goals.
 Power was exercised with redress and politeness by
the Chairperson in the meetings. Direct speech act
was displayed in order to establish purpose at the
beginning of the meeting and to proceed with the
meeting (RoCS1).
Conclusion (5)
 JIS3 (meeting in organization B)– was adamant about
not giving the expected answer. However, this was
done using off record politeness strategy, which
allowed JIS3 to be ambiguous in order to avoid
threatening the chairperson’s face.
 Thomas (1995) - Altering another person’s behavior
inherently is face threatening; consequently,
individuals use politeness to balance their competing
desires to be clear about what they want and to
support their interaction partner’s face.
Implications
1.
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3.
In order to achieve the goals of a meeting successfully – be
receptive, accommodative and adaptable. Participants must be
receptive to the information given to each other in order to
facilitate the attitude of being adaptable and accommodative
of each other’s wants and concerns.
Politeness appear to be an essential tool for fulfilling goals in
meetings. This has implications for intercultural encounters –
giving deference and emphasizing solidarity politeness can
foster relational harmony between participants.
The universality for politeness as face-saving device (the
concept of politeness by Goffman, Brown and Levinson, which
presumed that individuals in all cultures desire to maintain
face) – can be used as a tool to facilitate interaction in
intercultural communication.
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