Micro-ecology and macro-functions of gaze in workplace interaction

Jürgen Streeck

The University of Texas at Austin, USA

WS167: What can face and gaze tell us about language use in interaction?

This paper investigates differential uses of gaze in workplace interaction. The context is a car-repair shop, and the video data show the owner and chief mechanic of the shop in various interactions with employees, on the one hand, and customers and suppliers, on the other.

Most of what we know about the precise role of gaze in social interaction concerns its contribution to the regulation of turn-taking and the interactional axis between speakers and listeners in conversation (Goodwin, 1981; Kendon, 1967, 1970; for overviews on gaze see Kleinke, 1986; Bavelas, Coates, & Johnson, 2002). We still know surprisingly little about processes of gaze-allocation and withdrawal in other than conversational interactions.

I first describe two contrasting patterns of gaze allocation in the shop-owner’s interactions with different classes of co-participants, especially during the approach phase of face-engagements (Goffman, 1963; Kendon, 1990). In one pattern, the shop-owner focuses on an object in the environment and only looks at the interlocutor during brief moments; in the other he looks at the co-participant and only briefly at objects in the environment. This difference is implicated in creating and maintaining distinct systems of interactional involvement, a system of joint attention in which the interactional engagement services the completion of instrumental tasks, and a system of mutual engagement in which interaction services the relationship, on the other. Gaze behavior is thus implicated in establishing and maintaining differential participation frameworks (Goodwin & Goodwin, 1992).

The other behaviors examined is the systematic deployment of gaze-withdrawal by the shop-owner in order to disaffiliate from a project pursued by the interlocutor and sometimes to foreshadow imminent disagreement. Occasionally, such gaze-withdrawal is accounted for or campouflaged by the need for the owner to monitor the goings-on in the environment.

The paper thus brings together phenomena which, while addressing organizational matters in the immediate context at hand, simultaneously contribute to the constraining and maintenance of larger, more enduring contexts in which the current interaction is embedded.


Bavelas, J. B., Coates, L., & Johnson, T. (2002). Listener responses as a collaborative process: The role of gaze. Journal of Communication, 52 (3), 566-580.

Goodwin, C. (1981). Conversational Organization: Interaction between Speakers and Hearers . New York: Academic Press.

Goodwin, C., & Goodwin, M. H. (1992). Context, activity, and participation. In P. Auer & A. DiLuzio (Eds.), The Contextualization of Language (pp. 77-100). Amsterdam: Benjamins B.V.

Kendon, A. (1967). Some functions of gaze direction in two-person conversation. Acta Psychologica, 26 , 22-63.

Kendon, A. (1970). Movement coordination in social interaction: some examples described. Acta Psychologica, 32 , 100-125.

Kleinke, C. L. (1986). Gaze and eye contact: A research review. Psychological Bulletin, 100 (1), 78-100.

Session: Workshop
What can face and gaze tell us about language use in interaction?
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 06