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In addition to the long-term identity of speakers (Speaker identity) which can be indicated by how they produce language, there are factors in the contexts in which language is used that affect both how we use language and how it is received. Several decades ago, sociolinguist Dell Hymes developed the S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G model to characterise all the different features of a communication situation and help to contextualize purely linguistic analysis. He uses the letters of S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G as an acronym to remember the intersecting factors in such a context:

Setting and Scene

Setting refers to the time and place in which interaction takes place: June 15th 1998 10 a.m. in the largest space in the town hall of a small town in north-west Europe, for example.

Scene refers to the psychological setting; that is, participants' understanding of what sort of event is taking place. Thus in that north-western European town hall there might be some kind of legal proceedings, a neighbourhood mediation meeting, an awards ceremony, a lecture or a party. People's understandings of scene, and what sort of behaviour is appropriate to each type of event, can vary quite widely (especially cross-culturally) and these divergences can act as triggers for (increased) conflict.


Participants include the speaker and the audience, the latter including the addressee(s) and any others present. In conflict negotiations, these 'other' categories may be of great importance — observers who are there to see fair play etc.


Ends refers to both outcomes (the assumed purpose of an activity or event) and goals (the purposes of the individuals involved). Defining what these are in the case of mediation can of course be difficult and generic 'resolution' requires more detailed examination in particular cases to determine what in fact will be accepted by parties to conflict.

Act Sequence

The different parts of a communicative event are referred to by 'act sequence'. They would include, for example, opening remarks, formal and less formal turns by participants, and closing remarks. In informal situations (such as arguments leading to conflicts) the sequence may not be agreed and may not be coherent. This will lead to a lot of overlaps and interruptions and possibly to unfinished or cut-off communications.


The key of an utterance or speech event is determined by cues that indicate its tone or spirit. This can, of course, be different for different speakers. Thus, one speaker may indicate through choice of words that s/he is going to be aggressive and uncompromising whilst another may give cues that s/he is behaving light-heartedly or playfully. Mismatches of this kind can of course cause — or perpetuate — offence.


Instrumentalities refers to two aspects. One is the forms and styles of speech used by participants. Thus, the choice of whether to use a strong or weak version of a dialect or accent, or whether to use one language rather than another, might indicate the speaker's view of the interaction that is taking place and demonstrate intimacy, respect (or disrespect), formality etc.

The other aspect of instrumentalities is channel. Obviously, many of the other aspects of context of situation, and what can and cannot be communicated, are influenced by whether communication takes place face-to-face, by Skype, by conventional written messages or some other means.


This refers to any socially accepted conventions regarding when people can speak, what kinds of things they can say and who they can say it to. Some norms, such as how soon someone is expected to speak, relate to conversation generally in a community. Others pertain to specific, relatively formal events such as court proceedings or job interviews. When participants do not share the same norms, there can be undesirable consequences. As regards the more general norms, for instance, someone who expects a clear gap after one person has spoken before s/he starts speaking is never going to get a word in when faced with someone who expects the next speaker to start talking before s/he has even finished and finds any silence uncomfortable. Norms for specific events can also raise questions of power and control. Thus, a victim of war crimes giving evidence in a trial may be at a disadvantage when cross-questioned by the defence counsel if s/he is not very well briefed about what is and is not acceptable communicative behaviour.


Genre is not just used to refer to literary works (poem, novel etc) but also to the kind of communication that is taking place. This could include testimony in court (a kind of co-produced story-telling) but also includes interviews, speeches, joke-telling etc.

Not all aspects of communicative situations are easily encompassed by the S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G mnemonic and in the section on Participation frameworks and production formats, we suggest other ways of approaching context of situation which might be useful, specifically in considering conflict-related communication. But S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G is still a useful guide to the dimensions of communication that are worth considering.

Recommended reading

Hymes, Dell. 1974. Foundations of Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

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