Managing Gender through Meta-Talk1

Iris E.W.M. Bogaers (University of Amsterdam)

1  Introduction

The relationship between language and non-linguistic factors such as gender should not be seen as a simple binary relation. "Rather the relation of language to gender is constituted and mediated by the relation of language to stances, social acts, social activities, and other social constructs" (Ochs 1992: 337). It is in this framework as described by Ochs that I want to contribute to the discussion on the interaction between language and gender. I will examine the discourse of job interviews in order to show, by correlating meta-communicative talk to gender, that gender-specific rules of grounding done by the interviewers both reflect a gendered concept of the institutional setting and function to structure the job interview in a gendered way.

In a study of gender and discourse management in public opinion interviews, Johnstone et al.  (1992) found that the female interviewers and respondents were more willing to follow the rules of the interview setting and that the female respondents showed a high degree of co-operation. On the other hand, the male respondents often attempted to get a rise out of the female interviewer, to trip her up playfully, trying to get her to break out of the interview frame. It seemed that the men tried to redefine the situation as a game.

In an earlier study of job interviews (Bogaers 1998) I found something similar: at times the male interviewers seemed to toy with the interview frame, whereas the female interviewers seemed to stick to the rules. The women seemed to stay firmly within the confines of the frame, while the men seemed to distance themselves from their role and get out of the frame of the job interview. They acted and spoke playfully, regardless of the seriousness of the institutional setting. They acted as if they were saying 'I am not an interviewer, I am just playing the role of interviewer'. Whereas in the case of the women, there seems to be a kind of one-to-one relationship between who they are and what they do. These findings suggest that women and men may approach and construct institutional settings differently.

Obvious and straightforward evidence of a gendered frame distancing and rule-following as described above is not often found. What we would need, then, to investigate this phenomenon further are ways to detect more subtle instances of women's rule-following and of the more or less ironic distance that seems to be peculiar to men. We may expect to find such instances, and thus a gendered approach to the role of job interviewer, at those points where the interaction is not propelled by the dynamics of topic cohesion; that is, at the transition points between topics. At such points, the interviewer is expected to introduce the next topic, following a more or less explicit agenda. Distancing from the institutional frame should be reflected in lesser reliance on implicit agreement about role expectations and the underlying agenda. This in turn should have consequences for the interactional work that is needed to achieve a transition to the next topic on the agenda.

This interactional work or process of coordination that is needed is what Clark (1992) calls grounding. In order to coordinate on content, interactants need to assume an amount of shared information or common ground. And in order to coordinate the process of interaction, interactants need to update their common ground moment by moment. Common ground covers mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, mutual assumptions, and other mutual attitudes (Clark 1992: 6). Following or challenging the rules of an institutional framework are ways to cope with and manage this grounding task.

As stated, grounding is most obviously at issue and best observed at topic transition sequences. At these moments, the interactional work of grounding has at least two aspects. First, the new topic can be linked to the existing common ground built up in the previous correspondence with the applicant - in the job interview situation, especially the curriculum vitae - and in the interview itself; and, secondly, the upcoming topic initiative can be prepared by preliminary material and 'announcements' of projected actions (Schegloff 1980). Such 'backward' and 'forward' grounding is the responsibility of the interviewer by virtue of the frame and rules of the interview setting.

Interviewers can accomplish this grounding task with many different kinds of linguistic features. To analyze all the material with respect to the status of features as 'grounders' is, if possible at all, beyond the scope of this study. The focus here is on grounding that is done in using meta-communication. Schiffrin (1987: 3) describes meta-linguistic expressions as a functional set of expressions that "focus on properties of the code per se (on 'langue') as well as on the language used in a speech situation (on 'parole')". For the purpose of this paper I will restrict myself to meta-communication in this rather narrow sense and will only consider cases where the interviewer explicitly refers to the ongoing interaction in transition sequences.

I will first describe my data and the topic transitions I have identified. Then I will discuss the use of grounding elements in transition sequences, next, the role of meta-communication in those sequences and, finally, I will discuss how gender may play a role.

2 Corpus

The part of my corpus I have used for these analyses consists of eight job interviews taped in a Dutch multinational organization. Two female and two male interviewers each interviewed a female and male applicant. Seven applicants were successful and were allowed to go on to the next step of the selection procedure. One applicant was considered a borderline case, and was eventually dropped from the procedure. The interviews concerned very similar jobs as management trainees, and were comparable in most respects. One striking difference is that the interviews conducted by the female interviewers were on average half as long as the interviews conducted by the males (about half an hour versus one hour).

In task-oriented interaction, the major transitions occur in connection with topic changes, where "the flow of informational talk is interrupted or stalled, because the participants leave the content level of the discourse" (Stalpers 1993: 36). In order to identify such transitional units, I have made a classification of the major and minor topics that were discussed in the eight job interviews. I used Maynard's description as a working definition: topic changes are "unrelated to talk in prior turns in that they utilize new referents, and thus implicate and occasion a series of utterances constituting a different line of talk" (1980: 264).

Using this definition, I found a total of 91 major transitions in eight job interviews, as we see in table 1.

Table 1: Number of topic transition sequences in the job interviews

female interviewers male interviewers
applicant Ida Ria Rick Jan
female 12 12 12 11
male 10 12 13 9
total 46 45


Note in table 1 that the female and male interviewers have roughly the same total number of transitions, in spite of the fact that the female interviewers, Ida and Ria, used only half an hour for their interviews. The male interviewers tended to elaborate each topic somewhat more with miscellania and digressions. Moreover, the male interviewers took considerable time in the beginning of the job interview to frame the speech event. By talking first about the company, about themselves and the job interview, they placed all further activities within a framework (Goffman 1974; Rehbein 1981; Tannen 1993).

3 Realization of topic transitions

How are these topic transitions realized? In 80% of the cases, the transition is not achieved in a single utterance, but rather in what I will call a transition sequence.
To give an impression of what these transitions look like, I show you an example from Ria, the female interviewer (I) 2.
  (1.0) (1.0)
I:  (H) I: (H)
  ((cough)) ((kuch))
  (2.0) (2.0)
  (H) (H)
  ÿwe already talked uh about uh we hebben het net al gehad eh van eh
  what you would like to be wat je zou willen worden
A: huh hum hehem
  (1.0) (1.0)
  @ later @ later
I:  <X ten yea-X> <Xover tieX>
  later . later .
A:  yes ja
I:  ten years from now o[r something] I:over tien jaar o[fzo] 
A:  [@@] [haha]
I:  what do you want to start with?  waar wil je mee ^beginnen?
( 1.0) (1.0)
A:  <P yes P> <PjaP>
  (2.0) (2.0)


The standard pattern of such a transition sequence is as follows:
1. boundary
2. anchoring
3. initiative

Step 1.  Boundary: an optional discourse marker which explicitly marks the boundary of the sequence.
Step 2.  Anchoring: At this again optional stage either the topic transition initiative is anchored in the already established common ground, or its introduction is prepared by preliminary remarks. Thus, the anchoring step serves two functions: it anchors the topic transition initiative in the already established common ground and it is the starting-point from which the interviewer can formulate her or his new initiative.
Step 3.  Initiative: now the initiating move for the new topic is made. This step ends the transitional sequence and the new topic is ready to be established by the interlocutor's uptake.
This uptake should of course be considered as part of the transition sequence, but I will only discuss the interviewer's part of the sequence here.

Boundary and anchoring here are optional elements, so that the transition sequences can contain between one and three steps. Additional variation is introduced by the length of the anchoring element. Especially the two male interviewers often expand this step with rather extraneous material that provides a more indirect preparation of the initiative.

Another important aspect of the realization of topic transitions is meta-communication. One or more meta-communicative utterances are used in more than half of all the transition sequences in my data.

4 Transition sequences

In example (1) one sees the typical pattern of a transition sequence. In the anchoring phase (a), which follows the boundary (b), we see the use of meta-communication. The interviewer is referring to information already given by the applicant. This kind of meta-communication, in line 3, is used much more often by the female interviewers. I will elaborate on this later. Finally, the anchoring phase is followed by the initiative (i) through which a new topic is introduced.

 (1) Transition sequence (Ida with male applicant, T1.3)
1 I: that's how you should see that.  I: zo moet je dat een beetje zien.
2 b (H) hey, (H) hee,
3 a and you're saying uh  en je zegt eh
4 a leadership tasks at [firm] leidinggeven bij de [bedrijf]
5 a a n[um]ber of months een a[ant]al maanden
6 A:     [yes] A:           [ja]
7 i I: uhm  I:  ehm
8 i how did you do that then?  hoe dee je dat dan?
9  i how . how did you give guidance?  hoe . hoe gaf jij leiding?
10 i in what? waarin?

In example (2) one sees the expansion on the basic pattern I mentioned earlier. It is marked by double letter codes. The code 'aa' means anchoring of the anchoring, 'ai' marks the initiative of the anchoring and 'au' the uptake. The anchoring step is introduced by a back-linking meta-communicative utterance in line 5. The other meta-communicative utterance, in line 12, functions to relate forward in the interaction. This explicit meta-communicative action is used much less by the female interviewers.

(2) Transition sequence (Ria with female applicant, T2.2)
A:  then uh [that] is discussed with us again  danneh wordt [‘t] met ons weer besproken
2 I: [yes] [ja]
3   yes ja
4 b   (H) (H)
5 aa   you're saying je zegt
6 aa   (H) well, (H) nou
7 aa   I have a pre uh - ik heb vo eh --
8 aa   huh
9 aa   (branch1) and (branch2) (tak1) en (tak2) eh
10 ai   are you interested in one of those two? zoek je het in een van de twee?
11 ai   I mean uh ik bedoel of eh
12 ai   are you saying zeg je nou
13 ai   I absolutely want (branch2)? ik wil per sé (tak2)?
14 ai   being being= (H[H]) als als zijnde= (H[H])
15 au A: [well] well [no]u nou
16 au   (branch2) does have my uh my preference (tak2) dat heeft wel mn eh mn ^voor[keur] ja
17 i I: a a and e e en .
18 i   what would you ((laughing)) wat zou je ((lachintonatie))
19 i   huh
20 a   .. ..
21 a   (H) (H)
22 a   except for becoming a trainee behalve dat je trainee zou worden
23 a   and thus . en dus
24 a  A:  ((laughter)) ((lachen))
25 a I: doing a variety of things, ver[schi]llende dingen gaat doen,
26 i    what do you want to become? wat zou je nou willen (H) worden?
27 i    ((laughter)) ((lachen))
28 iu  A: [well] [nou]
29 i  I: [in] ten years [over] tien jaar
30 i   or want to be? of willen zijn?

In lines 4 to 8 of example (3), we see the typical use of meta-communicative forward-linking of the male interviewers. This forward-linking functions as an announcement of what is to be expected.

(3) Transition sequence (Rick with female applicant, T7.1)
1 I: you'll get in trouble with my colleagues krijg je ruzie met mijn collega's
2 b   . .
3 b   (H) (H)
4 b   now just nu even
5 a   very briefly heel kort
6 a   about what I think of you nog over wat ik van jou vind,
7 a A: yes ja
8 a I: uh= a bit of feedback from this conversation eh= ook n stuk feedback uit dit gesprek
9 au A: \/yeah \/jaha
10 i I: uh= eh=
11 i   I think that you fit very well in uh in (firm) ik denk dat je heel goed past bij eh bij (bedrijf)

In example (4) again we see the forward-linking use of meta-communication. Apart from that, we see no anchoring at all. As we will see later, this is more often the case with the transitions of the male interviewers.

(4) Transition sequence (Jan with female applicant, T1.2)
1 I: so= dus=
2 A: at that time as well focussed on on personnel en toen ook al gericht op op personeel
3   and [ ] en []
4 I: [no [nee hoor
5 i   let me] tell you a little about ik] zal eens even wat vertellen
6 i   [what the] division is doing [wat de] afdeling doet
7 A: [okay] [okee]

5 Analysis

After this impression of what the transitions look like, I will describe how these sequences are used in the eight job interviews. As we have seen in the examples, and as is shown in table 2, the transition can contain a boundary element (row 2) or anchoring material (row 3) or both (row 4, which partially overlaps row 2 and 3). But they can also occur without either of these grounders (row 1). As the first row in Table 2 shows, women and men use transitions with no boundary and no anchoring about equally often, in about one fifth of their transitions.

Table 2: Boundary markers and anchoring in transition sequences
               (categories do not exclude each other)

steps female interviewers male interviewers
no boundary, no anchoring 10 (21.7 %) 8 (17.8 %)
boundary 22 (47.8 %) 30 (66.7 %)
anchoring 32 (69.6 %) 30 (66.7 %)
boundary and anchoring 18 (39.1 %) 23 (51.1 %)


In the next row of the table we see that the men announce their transitions with some sort of boundary marker far more often than the women do: 47.8 % of the 46 transitions for the women and 66.7 % of the 45 transitions for the men. The same pattern is found for sequences in which both boundary and anchoring are present: 39.1 % of the 46 transitions for the women, but 51.1 % of the 45 transitions for the men. Note that the total percentage of sequences with anchoring (in the third row) is quite high, but is practically the same for women and men. The main difference, then, is the use of boundary elements (with or without additional anchoring material). Thus, the women and men anchor their initiatives equally, but the men pair their transitions more often with a boundary element. By doing so, the male interviewers mark transitions more explicitly as a break or interruption of the interaction.

Before we can interpret this finding, we have to look at the ways in which the boundary and anchoring material prepare the ground for the topic initiative. Intuitively what is happening in quite a few of the men's transitions is a kind of stalling and circumlocution which lays out the general direction of the upcoming initiative and kind of 'hones in' on it in the course of a sometimes rather lengthy transition sequence.

What I have looked at, next, are the meta-communicative links that can occur at each step in the transition sequence. I have distinguished backward-linking and forward-linking meta-communicative utterances, for instance as we already saw, 'you're saying' on the one hand and 'I'll tell you what the division is doing' on the other hand. The results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Metacommunicative links

As we can see, the female interviewers used relatively more backward-linking meta-communicative utterances and the men more forward-linking ones. Overall, women and men both use meta--communication in a little more than fifty percent of their transition sequences. What is interesting now is the use in the different steps of the sequence. In Table 3, I have at the bottom repeated the overall result from Figure 1. The other rows give the percentages of transition sequences that contain forward or backward links in boundary, anchoring, or initiative.

Table 3: Backward and forward meta-communicative linking in transition sequences

female interviewers male interviewers
backward link forward link backward link forward link
boundary 0.0 % 0.0 % 2.2 % 11.1 %
anchoring 28.3 % 10.9 % 13.3 % 17.8 %
initiative 2.2 % 17.4 % 0.0 % 28.9 %
total 30.4 % 26.1 % 15.6 % 42.2 %


Note that backward linking quite predictably occurs mostly in the anchoring step. This is where the female interviewers do most of their grounding work, mostly with backward-linking meta-communication. The amount of forward linking increases as the sequence progresses in the direction of the initiative for the upcoming topic, reaching its maximum in the formulation of the initiative itself. At this last step of the sequence, the men use more meta-communicative grounding than the women, announcing what they are about to do as they initiate the topic.

When the women use backward-linking meta-communication, they always refer to what has been said by the applicant. By initiating a next topic the women first orient both themselves and the applicant to the content of the common ground. While anchoring, the female interviewers especially focus on the applicant. In the relatively few cases where the men use backward-linking meta-communication, they are much more oriented to the conversational procedure. Examples are 'I already said' and 'this was a long introduction'. The male interviewers' backward-linking thus concerns procedural matters and is therefore less focussed on the applicant.

When we look at the forward-linking use of meta-communication by interviewers, we find that the female interviewers, again, are always oriented towards the applicant, by asking whether the applicant has any questions or by announcing that no more questions will follow. Examples are 'Do you have any questions you would like to ask me?' and 'I don't have any questions left'. On the other hand, the use of forward-linking meta-communication by the male interviewers most of the time is focussed on conversational procedural matters. With expressions like 'just because of the structure (order) of this conversation, because otherwise we'll go over time', the male interviewers explicitly focus on the course of the job interview. With some of the forward-linking utterances the men ask for questions from the applicant, as is the case with the female interviewers.

As I hypothesized in the beginning of this paper, distancing from the institutional frame should be reflected in less reliance on implicit agreement about role expectations and the underlying agenda. This in turn should have consequences for the interactional work that is needed to achieve a transition to the next topic on the agenda. The preparatory actions (Rehbein 1981) which are expressed in the forward-linking utterances of the male interviewers can be explained, then, as explicit actions to get the co-operation of the applicant. It seems that the rules, in my view inherent to the formality of the job interview, are not taken for granted here. On the other hand, the female interviewers seem not to worry explicitly about the course of the interview. They almost never explicitly try to get the co-operation of the applicant. They seem to simply expect it, relying on the institutional frame of the job interview.

6 Discussion

The analysis of transition sequences and the role of meta-communication in these transitions shows us that the process of establishing the common ground between the interviewer and applicant is done in gender-specific ways. The female interviewers manage the introduction of topics more often via backward-linking. Through the use of meta-communicative expressions like 'you just said', the female interviewers regularly introduce a recapitulation of what was said before by the applicant. Most of the time they refer to the CV or to expressed wishes about the job being applied for. A backward reference is used then as a starting-point from where a next topic can be introduced.

In my opinion, this careful anchoring of the topic initiative in the common ground, and thus focussing on grounding at the content level, reflects a particular approach to the interview setting and the task of the interviewer. The interviewer's task of establishing the relevant information in the common ground is achieved by the female interviewers through focussing on the content level of the interaction as is expressed by their backward-linking use of meta-communication. Furthermore, their rare use of focussing on procedural matters, which implies almost an absence of projecting future actions, may reflect the expectation that the applicant knows and accepts the institutional rules and procedures of the job interview.

As was shown by Johnstone et al. (1992), the female respondents in their research were typically willing to cooperate and often eager to make overt displays of co-operativeness. As a consequence, Johnstone et al. suggest, the female respondents were managed less. Concerning my research, the small number of occurrences of explicit discourse management by the female interviewers could be explained by their adherence to the job interview frame and, consequently, adherence to an implicit agreement about role expectations and interactional rules. Following the presumed institutional course of interaction might be evidence for a gender-specific approach to institutional settings.

The male interviewers, on the other hand, handle the flow of topics more often via forward-linking meta-communicative utterances. These linkings mostly announce procedural matters (e.g.: 'but maybe it's nicer to let you tell about your life and then I'll fire away' or: 'Let's start with your CV, then questions will come up and then you may turn me inside out with questions.'). In general, actions demand the co-operation of both the interactants. Through forward-linking devices coordination of actions can be established. The male's more frequent use of forward meta-communicative utterances could reflect a higher need to explicitly orient all the participants in the same direction. Less reliance on the framework and a less taken-for-granted attitude towards the interlocutor's co-operation could explain the focus on procedural aspects. Less reliance on the institutional frame, perhaps even less obedience to it, means in consequence, that you have to build up a frame more explicitly.

The finding that the male respondents were managed more than the female respondents, in the research of Johnstone et al. (1992), is explained in their paper by an eagerness to subvert the interview by turning it into teasing or banter (1992: 405). Johnstone et al. argue that the male respondents are less comfortable than the females in a speech event in which they are relatively powerless. As a consequence, males tend towards redefining the situation as a game. In my opinion, there is not much reason to relate the men's frame-breaking behavior to powerlessness. Not really taking the institutional frame seriously is what we find both in higher and lower status role positions and this might thus be evidence for a gender-specific approach to institutional settings of men in general.

7 Conclusion

Through the analysis of transition points between topics and the role of meta-communication in these transitions I have tried to detect the phenomenon of women's rule-following and the more or less ironic frame distancing of men. Through the difference in the interactional grounding work done by the interviewers, I have tried to show that gender-specific rules of grounding both reflect a gendered concept of the institutional job interview and function to structure the job interview in a gendered way.

Elaborating on the framework in which the relationship between language and gender is not seen as a simple binary one, I proposed, through a change in research focus - from gender to grounding - an indirect way of understanding gender patterns. All in all, through the analysis of grounding of interactants and the related linguistic strategies, we might obtain a more fruitful insight in the relation between language and gender.


1) I want to thank Gisela Redeker, Galey Modan, Kirsten Gomard and Antje  Hornscheidt for their helpful comments on different versions of this paper.

2)  An explanation of the transcript symbols used (see Du Bois et al.  (1993)):
{carriage return} intonation unit
truncated word
speaker identity/turn start
[ ]  speech overlap
transitional continuity, final
, " , continuing
? " ,  appeal
(1.0)  pause
..  short pause
(H)  inhalation 
<P P>  loudness, piano
\/  fall-rise tone
underlined  meta-communication
<X X>  uncertain hearing
(( ))  researcher's comment



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