Multimodal (inter)action in technology-mediated business meetings

This paper belongs to Thematic Session 3 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Tuire Oittinen, University of Jyväskylä (Department of language and communication studies)

International business meetings today include the frequent use of modern technologies to enable collaboration between distributed workgroups. Participation in technology-mediated (i.e. distant) meetings involves the management of three interactional spaces: i.e. official meeting space, local space and other (virtual) spaces (Wasson, 2006). This raises a practical problem of how to create and sustain shared orientation to the tasks at hand and specific meeting items (e.g. openings, closings, topic-transitions). In face-to-face meetings embodied resources, like the gaze and gesture, along with material objects are frequently used to secure participation and accomplish alignment with others (e.g. Nevile et al., 2014; Mondada, 2006). My doctoral dissertation depicts how distant meeting participants coordinate and manage their actions in the physical and virtual meeting spaces.

This paper provides with an introduction to the verbal, embodied and other resources of interaction that distant meeting participants draw on. The focus is on the interactional order and alignment constructions that contribute to the unfolding of meeting interaction and different types of transitions: i.e. openings and closings, and problematic situations during meeting-related talk. The methodological approach is multimodal conversation analysis (CA) that enables a detailed description of the sequential organization of participants’ verbal and bodily resources along with their orientation to material objects (e.g. screen). The data consists of 14 video-recorded meetings in an office of an international company in Central Europe. In the meetings there are usually two or more participants physically present in the room while others participate via audio connection from different geographical locations. In addition, the software used enables the distribution of agenda on everyone’s screen. The analysis conducted so far shows that the transitions between meeting talk and opening and closing phases contain similar steps as found in face-to-face-meetings (Nielsen, 2013). However, they additionally call for a close coordination of actions within the complex setting of multiple interactional spaces (e.g. the temporal organization of bodily conducts and talk, different chair and participant strategies used, and physical orientations to screen). The unequal division of interactional resources due to restrictions on visual access emphasizes the juxtaposition of local space and meeting space. This can be seen also in problematic situations where the ‘trouble’ is not made public in the meeting space (e.g. technological trouble). Thus, alignments can also be joint accomplishments only between the local participants that concurrently excludes the distant participants who are unable to see all of the embodied conducts. Overall, it would be oversimplified to say that technology is a mere barrier to the interaction, since what is more important, are the ways in which participants themselves display their orientation towards both the constraints and affordances in the multimodal environment.

My work contributes to the body of research that attempts to grasp the idea of meeting interaction by relying on the inductive method of the CA. While knowledge about the external context is admittedly significant, I also think that a “bottom-up approach” is relevant, as it provides with deeper understanding on the internal processes of all kinds of meetings.

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