I am interested in aviation talk (or discourse; cf. Schiffrin 1994), especially the talk of flight attendants, and particularly communication whilst working. My interest in this area of study stems from my ten years working as a commercial flight attendant for a major US airline. After graduating with my BA in Anthropology from Wayne State University in Detroit, I decided to take a position working as a flight attendant, to see the world and gain sociocultural knowledge. What I did not expect to find was a fascinating occupational community (Hochschild 2003; Marschall 2012; Van Maanen and Barley 1984; Williams 1986) about which there is a dearth of linguistic research. My research is an attempt to rectify this gap in the literature.

My research is situated within the analytic frameworks of interactional sociolinguistics (e.g., Goffman 1981, 1974; Gumperz 1982a, 1982b; Schiffrin 1994; Tannen 1993) and ethnography of communication (e.g., Cotter 2010; Gumperz and Hymes 1986; Heath 1983; Hymes 1996, 1974; Saville-Troike 2003). In order to understand how people use language in different situations in everyday life, I believe it is necessary that we take into account contextual influences. These influences include, but are not limited to, participants in the discourse (such as the speaker, the audience, and those who might “overhear” the discourse but to whom discourse is not addressed) and the range of components in communication developed by Hymes (1986) into his SPEAKING mnemonic: Setting, Participants, Ends, Acts, Key, Instrumentalities, Norms, and Genre. (Click here for PDF of the SPEAKING grid.)

My research broadly focuses on how flight attendants use language to create identity (Bucholtz & Hall 2004) and community (Cotter 2010; Cotter and Marschall 2006/2008; Marschall 2012). I recently completed my thesis (PDF) at Queen Mary, University of London, where I am very fortunate to have as my primary supervisor Dr Colleen Cotter and as my secondary supervisor Dr Erez Levon.  In my thesis I analyse talk from two speech situations: safety reports to a US government agency, and online discussion forums aimed primarily at US flight attendants. The data is created by working flight attendants, but the audience and communicative components are markedly different.

My analysis suggests that there are institutional influences on discourse irrespective of speech situation. That is, in both the safety reports and forum discussion threads, flight attendants are using patterns of speech and discourse which stem from institutional literature and training (e.g., Crew Resource Management training; US Federal Aviation Regulations; features include ‘objective’ language, reporting the facts of a situation, and elimination of emotional and subjective styles of talk). This finding would suggest that flight attendants are internalizing institutionally-related and institutionally-motivated language and using it beyond the specific settings in which it is taught and primarily used.

Moreover, the findings from my thesis suggest that flight attendants use non-institutional styles of discourse (i.e., ‘ordinary’ discourse; cf. Drew and Heritage 1992; but see also McElhinny 1997) in the safety reports, which are submitted to a government agency holding a great deal of institutional authority and power. Using ordinary language (features of which include emotional appeals, personal details and information, and subjective opinions) in the institutionally sanctioned speech setting of the safety reports suggests that flight attendants are doing so strategically, to call attention to the events and situations being reported.

Finally, the data suggests that ideologies which are prevalent in commercial aviation (i.e., safety and the Chain of Command) motivate and enhance the existing institutional, physical, and sociocultural divisions between flight attendants and pilots. These divisions include such taken-for-granted things as working in different physical locations in the aircraft (pilots in the flight deck, flight attendants in the cabin) and wearing different uniforms, but also include factors such as staying in different hotels on layovers, having different trade union representation and concomitant contracts and work rules, and the frequently large disparity in income levels. I would argue that these divisions may have consequences for intercrew cohesion in emergency situations.

These findings also suggest how identity and community are being constructed and oriented to in the data. I follow Bucholtz and Hall (2004) in theorizing that identity is an outcome of practice, indexicality, ideology, and performance. A ‘flight attendant identity’ is thus constructed through linguistic practices unique to flight attendants (e.g., pre-flight safety announcements; repeating safety-related phrases and terms in speech situations where safety is not the primary focus); indexical stances such as orienting to safety awareness and service tasks; (linguistic) ideologies relevant to the flight attendant profession (e.g., strong adherence to safety; displaying awareness and accommodating to the Chain of Command hierarchy which places the captain at the top and as ultimate authority on the aircraft); and linguistic performances which work to foreground practices and enhance ideologies, such as the voluntary submission of an inflight incident report to a US government agency (Clark 2010). A sense of a flight attendant community is discursively constructed and oriented to by drawing on the shared knowledge which flight attendants possess, e.g., myriad contextualization cues in the discourse of flight attendants.

Findings from my thesis are applicable beyond the commercial aviation industry. I am interested in how speakers integrate institutional, occupational, and practical influences in their discourse (both at work and away from the occupational or institutional setting). I believe understanding how speakers use language they learn and are taught in social institutions such as places of employment, government agencies, and schools can help to reveal the influence which these social institutions have on speakers. People are not born with the knowledge of how to communicate ‘as a flight attendant’ in different situations. They have to learn these communicative features and ‘ways of speaking’. I am interested in these processes of learning, and how they carry over beyond the settings in which they would be expected.

Works cited

Bucholtz, Mary and Kira Hall (2004) “Language and identity”. In Duranti, Alessandro (ed.), A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology (Blackwell Companions to Anthropology, Oxford: Blackwell), 369-94.

Clark, Barbara (2010) “Constructing flight attendant identity in safety reports to a government agency.” Proceedings of the Summer School of Sociolinguistics, University of Edinburgh. Available at

Cotter, Colleen (2010) News Talk: Investigating the Language of Journalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cotter, Colleen and Daniel Marschall (2006/2008) ‘The persistence of workplace ideology and identity across communicative contexts’. Journal of Applied Linguistics 3 (1): 1-24.

Drew, Paul and John Heritage (eds.) (1992) Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings. Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics, 8; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (1981) Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Goffman, Erving (1974) Frame Analysis. New York: Harper and Row.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, John J. (ed.) (1982) Language and Social Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, John and Dell Hymes (eds.) (1986) Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd.

Heath, Shirley Brice (1983) Ways With Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell (2003) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Twentieth Anniversary Edition). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hymes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Hymes, Dell (1986) “Models of the interaction of language and social life”. In Gumperz, John and Dell Hymes (eds.), Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), 35-71.

Hymes, Dell (1974) Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Marschall, Daniel (2012) The Company We Keep: Occupational Community in the High-Tech Network Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

McElhinny, Bonnie (1997) “Ideologies of public and private language in sociolinguistics”. In Wodak, Ruth (ed.), Gender and Discourse (London: Sage), 106-39.

Saville-Troike, Muriel (2003) The Ethnography of Communication: An Introduction (Third Edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Schiffrin, Deborah (1994) Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tannen, Deborah (ed.) (1993) Framing in Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Maanen, John and Stephen R. Barley (1984) “Occupational communities: Culture and control in organizations”. In Staw, B.M. and L.L. Cummings (eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 6 (Greenwich: JAI Press), 287-365.

Williams, Claire (1986) “Domestic flight attendants in Australia: A quasi occupational community?”. The Journal of Industrial Relations 28 (2): 237-51.