Degree Year


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts




Ronald Casson


Answering machine, Communication, Social interaction, Conversation


Telephone conversations are unusual in several ways: messages must travel a distance, communication is based only in sound (where face to face encounters draw on visual clues), generally conversations occur only in dyads (caller-answerer), the only means of entry to these encounters is a summons-answer sequence (an unusual way for a face to face encounter to begin), and talking is the primary and often the only activity taking place in such an encounter. Telephony splits sounds from other senses, splits the dyad from society, and splits communication from other activities (Hopper 1992:41). McLuban refers to the telephone as the irresistible intruder that ignores the visual privacy provided by cubicles and offices, and any difference in the statuses of the caller and answerer (1995 :271). Identification and recognition of the interactants' names and identities form an important part of telephone conversations; names particularly playa role in the opening of most telephone conversations. The name of the target individual is the telemarketer's key to entering into an interaction, for instance. "Professional callers identify a stranger-answerer by name and then launch inquiries that simulate acquaintance. The goal is to keep a potential consumer on the line against her will." (Hopper 1992:208) This relates to McLuban's assertion that "in a visual and highly literate culture when we meet a person for the first time his visual appearance dims the sound of his name. Whereas in an ear culture the sound of the man's name is the overwhelming fact." (1995:31) In a telephone conversation, the name's sound holds great significance. Perhaps the telephone is supporting McLuhan's proposed societal shift from hot to cool; on the other hand, in a normal telephone interaction, there is not visual information available, and so the sound must become the most important aspect oft he conversation.

As this example shows, the telephone as a medium raises some interesting questions about the nature of interaction. It also has implications for how an interaction will proceed. One technology associated with the telephone that has become increasingly inescapable in American society is the answering machine. While researchers in conversational analysis have used recordings of telephone conversations to explore rules of conversation, so far they have not paid much attention to answering machines. This may be because an answering machine message is not clearly a part of conversation. In a telephone conversation the caller and an answerer participate in an exchange. An answering machine allows the answerer to make the same statement to every individual who caUs, and provides time for any caller to deliver a single response. The telephone allows people at a distance to communicate; the answering machine allows busy people to communicate without coordinating an encounter. An answering machine is a medium for people to exchange information, to conduct business, and to plan and coordinate future interactions, face to face or otherwise. The answering machine, and related technology such as voice mail, has become a ubiquitous means of interacting with other people. It would make sense, then, for scholars to fit answering machine messages into the larger body of conversation theory. How does the answering machine fit into our idea of communication?

When I began considering that question, I had to think about how I could best study answering machine messages, and fit them into an existing body of theory about conversation. Conversation analysis was the best way to pursue answers. The process of conversation analysis, in which conversations are recorded, transcribed, and described, focuses on social interaction. It begins with the study of the "interactional accomplishment of particular social activities..., [focusing on] sequences of activities." (Drew and Heritage 1992:77) Ultimately, conversation analysis seeks to identifjr the structural features underlying the orderly construction of talk (Firth 1995a: ISS). To explore how answering machine messages might fit into conversation, I will consider commonly studied aspects of talk such as error correction, routines, speech acts, and turn taking with respect to data I collected in my own research.

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