I once heard that how someone treats a waiter can say a lot about their character. What about the way a waiter responds? Researcher Larssyn Rüegg thinks that there may be differences in how waiters respond to their customers’ thanks, based on the kind of restaurant they are in.
While previous research has looked into how various languages may differ in this pragmatic function of the thanks response, none so far has looked into how thanks response might vary within a single language. Rüegg's research is based in part on a previous work by Klaus Schneider who typified different forms of thanks responses. An example is the welcome type which include a spoken phrase such as 'you're welcome', or even just 'welcome'. Other types include okay, anytime, no problem, pleasure, don't mention it, thanks, yeah, sure, and don't worry about it. Rüegg extends this study by asking what influences these types of response. She identifies two potential factors: socio-economic setting and the type of favor.
It is strongly supported by research that service staff tend to select a style of speech deemed appropriate to their clientele, so their speech would therefore reflect social stratification. Based on this, Rüegg decided to use a corpus of naturally occurring talk in restaurants of different price ranges to exemplify different socio-economic settings. This corpus, the Los Angeles Restaurant Corpus (LARC) contains three categories, LARC-up, LARC-mid, and LARC-low, each reflecting their price range.
The first finding from this study is as we would expect: thanks responses in LARC-up and LARC-mid were 50% more frequent than that of LARC-low. Yet, even the frequency of thanks responses in LARC-up and LARC-mid are quite low, with expressions of thanks being responded to less than 25% of the time.
The form of thanks responses also differs across the socio-economic categories. For example, the most common response types in LARC-up and LARC-mid, such as welcome and thank you, are not found in LARC-low. Furthermore, customers in the LARC-low restaurants use thanks responses that are not present in both LARC-up and LARC-mid, such as yeah, and absolutely. Interestingly, LARC-mid display the most variation in types of thanks responses.
The type of act which waiters are thanked for shows distinctive patterns as well. A non-verbal service act elicits the most thanks responses in LARC-up and LARC-mid. Such acts include clearing or setting the table, or perhaps bringing the bill. Interestingly, such acts never elicit a thanks response in LARC-low. Enquiries by the service staff about the guests' well-being do not elicit a thanks response in LARC-low either. Serving food or drinks is correlated with socio-economic setting, with customers in LARC-up giving the most thanks responses, and those in LARC-low the least. On the other hand, verbal offers of service such as Do you need more wine? Anything else? more consistently generate thanks responses across all categories.
Through this research, we can see that thanks responses in English are not very frequent on the whole. This is in contrast to some other languages. In addition, the sensitivity of thanks responses to socio-economic setting suggest that they are a subtle form of cultural encoding, with common responses in LARC-up and LARC-mid restaurants possibly signalling formality. Furthermore, thanks responses do not appear to be very standardized, with a wide range of forms being used, especially in LARC-mid and LARC-low. The fact that the type of service performed elicits differing thanks responses across the different socio-economic settings reinforces the sense that these small linguistic acts are actually a rich form of interactional management and cultural signalling.
Rüegg, Larssyn. 2014. Thanks responses in three socio-economiuc settings: A variational pragmatics approach. Journal of Pragmatics 71: 17-30
This summary was written by Darren Hum Chong Kai