Thursday, 16 February 2012

Who's calling?

Speaker A: This is the electric company. Is your refrigerator running?
Speaker B: Yes, it is
Speaker A: Then you better catch it!

This is a classic example of a crank phone call, dating from about 60 years ago.   Crank calls actively violate the accepted norms of conversational structure by misleading the ‘victim’ into thinking the interaction is ‘real’.  Here, the prankster, (A), introduces the “frame” of a service interaction, which (B) follows by giving a relevant answer.  The prank is completed when (A) shatters this frame in line 3 and (B) now has to reassess and conclude that the interaction was one of play.

Due to the modern age of the internet and digital media, Mark Seilhamer notes that it is easy now for pranksters to share recordings of themselves and get advice on techniques on the many internet sites/ chatrooms dedicated to this cause. However, modern crank call communities tend to condemn ‘unsophisticated’ pranks such as the phone call above as ‘lame’.  Instead, the modern crank caller will employ a range of devices (such as specific foreign accents which reflect certain stereotypes held by particular societies).  

Their behaviour highlights the conversational frames that we usually take for granted when we communicate. During face-to-face interaction, we can pick up all sorts of different cues, such as types of eye contact and gesture.  These cues are not available during telephone interaction and, as a result, we have to rely solely on audio cues and how they fit with our intuitions and expectations of particular conversations. For example, we might ring someone with the aim of getting specific information, and so we will follow a conversational structure which fits that purpose (e.g. by opening with Hello, I wonder if you can help me). Usually participants work together to maintain types of conversational structure.  During a prank call, though, only one participant treats the interaction as real: for the other, it’s play.

The aim of the crank caller is to keep the victim disoriented about the type of conversational frame that is in place. Seilhamer gives the following example, where Justin (the prankster) phones a telecommunications company under the guise of applying for a job with the company.

(1) Kevin: Thank you for choosing (name of company) this is Kevin how can I help you?
(2) Justin: Hi Kevin this is Justin how are you doing?
(3) Kevin: Good who’s this?
(4) Justin: This is Justin
(5) Kevin: Justin?
(6) Justin: Yeah, Nickatyne. I’m trying to (.) uh find out about the ad for the tele sale receptionist

 (adapted from Seilhamer 2011:683)

The manner in which Justin introduces himself in line 2 leaves Kevin unsure which conversational framework he is in, as this is not the response he would predict from the expected customer services frame.  He tentatively replies and tries to find an appropriate frame for the interaction in line 3, but his uncertainty continues until line 6 when Justin declares that he is ringing about a job. The rest of the phone call proceeds in a similar way, with Justin’s remarks suggesting that he has no idea how to behave when making an enquiry about employment.  Thus, Kevin is continually being wrong-footed as he tries to establish an appropriate frame.

Crank callers operate on the fringes of the law. However, by analysing these types of interactions, we can gain insight into the accepted (socially ‘agreed’) rules of conversational structure and how participants go about trying to repair broken structures.  After all, Seilhamer concludes that the successful crank caller will adopt a specific set of rules in order to complete a fabricated frame so that the victim wouldn’t even know or suspect that they’ve been pranked.

Seilhamer, M. (2011) On doing ‘being a crank caller’: A look into the crank call community of practice. Journal of Pragmatics 43:677-690
doi 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.09.005

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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