Bossy pants: How do superiors and subordinates talk?

5 Nov

There are a fair number of corpora the involve friends/family or strangers and it’s likely that there are all sorts of power-plays happening in these. But it’s a lot easier to see what’s happening in terms of power if you start with a corpus where there are very clear power differentials. Here are some thoughts about where to look:

  • The Enron Corpus–there are a few places to find this. The great thing about this corpus is that you can see how people change language based on whether they are emailing subordinates, bosses, or peers. Anecdotal from years working in industry: it is interesting to see how certain phrases circulate. At Microsoft the word “super” (e.g., “I’m super-excited”) seemed to move around mostly at the executive level. In the IT consulting universe, consultants seemed to introduce (and then overuse) colorful phrases like “open the kimono”, “come to Jesus moment”, maybe as a way to stand out/be perceived as valuable.
  • Part of my dissertation is about understanding how the word “little” is used (as a hedge, “Can I have a little water”, for affection, “Look at your little toes!”, and for insulting, “How’s your little project?”). Pages 145-158 use two different corpora to this end: CHILDES, between parents and small children and the ICSI Meeting Corpus between academic computer scientists.
  • Power and Supreme Court Justices (plus Wikipedia editors, too):
    • I think it’ll be hard to prove who has more power in terms of the justices, but there is a clear hierarchy where Justice X > Lawyer Y.
  • You may be able to use the Cornell Movie Dialogs Corpus if you did some extra annotation.
  • Russell Lee-Goodman also suggests this work on small talk and workplace communication:

If you’re curious about “power” more generally, there’s lit review stuff in my dissertation.

And here’s a short synthesis of how various people in various fields have defined “power” (and an attempt to make it operationalizable for linguists):

You might also check out Jim Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, which has the idea of “hidden transcripts” (what the powerless say behind the backs of the powerful). But if you get into that, then definitely see Gal’s response for a critique. Gaventa and Lukes work on three dimensions of power is probably useful. And you might have fun with Butler, Muñoz, and maybe Valentine (search these class notes for the names).

Some other related posts on this blog:


One Response to “Bossy pants: How do superiors and subordinates talk?”

  1. Michael Barlow November 9, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    You might also look at Vaclav Brezina’s small corpus of professor-student meetings.

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