Wednesday 26 February 2014

Tweeting ‘sorry’: a guide to corporate apologies

Nowadays social networks have become ubiquitous and are used to communicate almost anything. For example, you can post a complaint about your leaking kettle directly to Argos` Twitter account and make them apologise!

Investigating the discourse strategies used in tweeted apologies, Ruth Page analysed 1183 apologies gathered from 100 public accounts that included celebrities, ‘ordinary’ members and 40 different companies. The data included both British and American English. She used corpus linguistic tools to identify posts containing direct apologies, searching for key words such as sorry or apologise. Page wanted to find out whether corporate Twitter users apologise differently as opposed to the ‘general public’.

First, she looked at the words used most frequently to express an apology. The absolute winner was sorry (occurring approximately 3600 times per million words): this appeared in posts from all 40 companies. Apology was also very frequent, occurring 563 times per million words. Another option, afraid, was chiefly used by British companies (95% of all uses of afraid, to be precise).

If you are a big company and you`ve already said sorry, is this enough? The answer is ‘no’, unless you want to lose customers. There are several steps you can take to regain your client`s good books.

Strategy 1. Explain everything
Page discovered that companies use various linguistic tricks to minimize the damaging effect of a complaint. For instance, they often downplayed the company’s agency by name the third party or the factors beyond the company`s control (e.g. the weather, legal requirement, etc) to be the causes of problems. Constructions downplaying company`s  agency are abundant in Tweeter corporate apologies, for example:

  • ·      naming non-human factors beyond the company’s control as the cause of the problem – the responsibility lies with the weather, a bot or an app (for example, weather is causing many delays tonight);
  • ·      using nominalisations instead of verbs, so avoiding mention of any subject  – for example,  Booking office closure  as opposed to we closed the Booking office;
  • ·      using adverbs – for example, by human error in by human error we deleted you;

All these phrases help to distance the company from faulty goods or services.

Strategy 2.  Offer a compensation
Companies often present themselves as a source of a solution rather than the source of the problem, for example by offering credits, refunds or further investigation. This is a specific feature of corporate apologies, since only 10% of ‘ordinary’ Twitter members made offers of repair.

Another difference is that companies rarely explicitly restated the reported offence. Two thirds of the companies avoided posts like sorry about the leaking kettle, preferring vague phrasing such as sorry about that. On the one hand, this allows them to avoid drawing further attention to their faulty goods or services and damaging the company’s reputation still further. On the other hand, they still acknowledge the complaint: not doing so could be interpreted as insincerity, which might eventually result in the loss of a customer.

Also, in order to show fellow feeling with the customer, corporate apologies often begin with Hi + first name  (e.g. Hi Steve) and finish with Thanks. This may actually work the opposite way, though, because the ‘ordinary members’ don`t need to say Hi Steve every time they post something relevant to their friends!

Tweeting apologies enables companies to react to customers` complaints quickly, so as to minimize any harm to the company`s reputation, avoid losing customers and enhance rapport with them. As Page points out, though, we now need research to find out how customers react to the apologies that they receive through tweets.
Page, Ruth (2014). Saying ‘sorry’: Corporate apologies posted on Twitter. Journal of Pragmatics 62: 30-45.

This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Learning the ropes with a metaphor

Every company or organisation has its own jargon and its own way of doing things as well as talking about them. If you are new to a company, it might take a while to get your head round work-related humour or the rules of engagement in small talk. Jay Woodhams’ research suggests that one of the best ways to socialize into a new work environment is to learn the figurative expressions used at workplace, also known as metaphors.

According to his hypothesis, a metaphor is a means of portraying norms of interaction, characteristic of certain community, it this case, work community. Learning metaphors helps a newbie to understand the ways of becoming an effective member of the team and to accelerate adaptation to the new workplace in general. To test his hypothesis, Woodhams analysed 4 hours of speech recordings, taken from conversations between a skilled  Chinese migrant, Isaac, doing an internship in an accountant team of a New Zealand government department, and Leo, his mentor in the department. Woodhams found that their conversations were teeming with work-specific metaphors.

But what exactly counts as a metaphor? To find out, Woodhams used an analytical tool called Metaphor Identification Procedure Vrije Universiteit (MIPVU). Don`t be terrified by the long name, though, the underlying principle is extremely simple: for any word, its basic sense is compared with its contextual sense. If those two don`t match, it`s a metaphor. Take, for instance,  deep understanding. The basic sense of deep is “extending far down from the surface” (Oxford English Dictionary), whereas the contextual sense is “profound understanding”. Mismatch. Therefore, deep understanding is a metaphor.

The researcher found several major themes in the metaphors, each conveying a valuable educational message. The first theme is related to HOSPITAL and provides Leo, the mentor, with useful analogies to explain to Isaac intern`s place in the organisation. “We`re like hospital”, says Leo, “we might be like nurses”.  The nurses usually do all the ‘mundane’, routine work, yet it is this kind of work that is absolutely crucial for the hospital to function. He explains that work is like a patient in need of treatment. Mistakes carry severe consequences, sometimes even death. Through these metaphors Isaac can learn where he belongs in the departmental hierarchy.

Another theme is MOTION. Leo used phrases like move on, keep moving forward, it`s holding you up, which emphasize the importance of learning new things quickly. The thought behind these metaphors is that motion means progress, and so new employees are expected to progress and learn quickly. Finally, Leo sheds light on the overall values of the department by saying “work drives it”, meaning that work is the driving force behind the organisation.

To sum up, a well-chosen metaphor can both capture the spirit of the organisation and the expectations placed upon the newcomers. This study has shown that, firstly, mentors or managers can use metaphors to communicate workplace norms in an effective way, and, secondly, that new employees, particularly non-native English speakers, might consider paying attention to colloquial speech to speed up their integration and socialization into the new environment.
Woodhams, Jay (2014) 'We're the nurses": metaphor in the discourse of workplace socialisation. Language and Communication 34 (1): 56-68.


This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska

Monday 10 February 2014

Everybody loves somebody? In America, not in New Zealand

Happy Valentine's Day!

Surprising as it may be, according to the study carried out by Alexandra D`Arcy and colleagues, a New Zealander would probably sing ‘Everyone loves someone’. The meaning is still the same, you might think, but this is exactly what the researchers were wondering about: how come two absolutely equivalent forms – words ending with either -body (as in everybody) or -one (e.g. everyone) managed to survive side by side without pushing each other out of business?

To answer this question, the study pursued three goals. Firstly, Alexandra D`Arcy tracked down historical paths of -body/-one forms to see how they were used in the past. Secondly, she made connections between historical evidence and the situation in contemporary British English. Finally, she compared the frequency of -body/-one usage across four different varieties of English: American, Canadian, New Zealand and British English. The authors used different language corpora – linguistic data bases – to track who used which form when and how often.

As it turned out, in the past there were even three options to refer to an unknown human being. Apart from the -body/-one forms, in Old English one could also say sum man to mean ‘someone’. However, by 1700 the man form had died out, leaving the linguistic arena free for the two other competitors. But why would two forms equivalent in meaning both survive another five centuries?

The explanation is that up to the 18th century these variants occupied different niches in language use. The authors hypothesized that the use of the -body variants was at first restricted to more casual contexts, such as letters to close family members, whereas the -one forms were suitable for all contexts, but were considered more prestigious and elegant. Thus, formal writing style inevitably required the use of the -one form.

To test this assumption the researchers examined the frequency of occurrence of both forms in two corpora covering the 1410-1710 period. The first corpus consisted of formal literary texts, the other included letters, representing a more informal style. It turned out that words like nobody and somebody were indeed used more often in private letters and fiction, thus being more vernacular. It also appeared that the -one variant was associated more with women.

Another important feature of these alternate forms is that at first the suffix -body was favoured with the words no and some (producing nobody and somebody respectively), leaving -one to form everyone and anyone. By the 20th century, however, both suffixes could be attached to any base.

So, what about present day British English? Are both variants used equally frequently now? The authors argue that the -one form is gradually taking over in Britain. For instance, in 1996 speakers in York aged 18-24 used the -body form 66% of the time, whereas in 2008 only 27% of words would be in the -body form. 

Finally, what are the outcomes of –one/-body competition in other varieties of English? The general shift toward the -one form holds, with older speakers favouring the -body version, whereas the younger generation is moving on to -one. All the same, there is a number of regional peculiarities. New Zealanders prefer saying every possible item with -one, whereas Americans do quite the opposite. The -body form is also more popular with Canadians, except for someone. Britain is more similar to New Zealand, but nobody is set apart.

Overall, this study shows how different the paths of the competing forms may be, not only in time, but also across the globe.
D’Arcy, A., Haddican, B., Richards, H., Tagliamonte, S. and Taylor, A. (2013). Asymmetrical trajectories: The past and present of –body/–one. Language Variation and Change 25.3: 287-310.

This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska

Monday 3 February 2014

Young, old or just ‘emerging’? How does age affect language change?

As times change so too do people’s life stages. Traditionally these were thought of as child > adolescent > adult, but this idea is now called into question with the addition of an ‘emerging adult’  stage before adulthood.  As age is such an important sociolinguistic variable, this is a significant development for anyone interested in studying language variation and change, as Douglas S. Bigham explains in detail.

An emerging adult’ is aged 18 – 25, in higher education, unmarried, moves around a lot and has a large, although not necessarily close, social network. Bigham makes it clear that not all 18-25 year old young adults are ‘emerging adults’.  The ‘emerging’ label is dependent on a particular psychological state, defined by the following factors:  identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and feeling that anything is possible. The first two factors challenge sociolinguistic notions of place and social network whilst the last three challenge ideas about social identity.

For example, traditional models of ‘place’ in sociolinguistics rest on the idea that place is geographic and that geographical and political boundaries (e.g. mountains or rivers) create and maintain linguistic variation.  However, emerging adults move around at an unprecedented rate, rarely remaining in the place where they were born and usually moving several times.  They will also live quite intimately with a variety of people from different social classes, cultures, religions etc (think of university halls of residence).   Ironically, as emerging adults move from community to community, they become more detached from any particular one, so they have no strong community bonds. Identity exploration and instability means that emerging adults’ accents seem to be unrelated to their geographical origins.  Rather than seeing their accent as showing that they come from, say, London, they seem to view accent as another facet of their personality: “just part of who you are, y’know?” 

The rise of virtual online networks has contributed to this sense of not belonging to a place or group, or ‘feeling in-between’.  Emerging adults may have friends from all over the globe but may never actually meet them, only interacting with them virtually. Their social boundaries are therefore blurred, as are their gender and sexual boundaries.  Many US university students replied ambivalently to Bigham’s question about their sexuality, responding “straight, I guess” or “mostly straight”. Emerging adults need to be able to negotiate their language across virtual global communities and seem to ‘self-focus’ on their personal identities rather than forming social ones. 

Another problem for traditional sociolinguistic models is that emerging adults view themselves in classless terms.  Over 95% of Bigham’s emerging adults were ‘very sure’ that they would “get to where they want to be in life” and would have a better life than their parents, regardless of their socioeconomic background.  They felt that ‘anything is possible’.

Emerging adulthood is therefore posing a challenge, as age and class have traditionally been such important variables in sociolinguistic research.  It has always been assumed, for example, that the speech of older people = the speech of an older time period; and that we can study language change by comparing older people’s speech with the speech of the young.  However, emerging adults are a completely new phenomenon, only surfacing in the last two decades.  As this new ‘emerging’ life stage surfaces, so too does a new challenge for sociolinguists.


Douglas S. Bigham (2012) Emerging adulthood in sociolinguistics. Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (8): 533-544.

doi. 10.1002/Inc3.350

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle