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Susanna Karlsson "Interactional Dots"

While the sticker as directive is identical, the placement in the sequential process that is the customer’s path through the store contributes to how the sticker is understood, and what next action is made relevant by the directive.

During 2020 and onwards, we have been flooded with texts in the wake of the spread of the new corona virus, Covid-19. This entry concerns one type of such text, namely circular stickers in commercial settings, that urge customers to stay apart while moving through the facilities.

These stickers are part of the communication toolbox that we use to establish new norms of physical distancing and safe behavior. They are part of how social interaction has changed, and part of the re-disciplining process that we put our bodies through in order to establish new norms. To understand how we go about changing our behavior, and how shops and stores display how they take social responsibility, let’s have a look at how these floor stickers are placed throughout stores. All the pictures used in this study are taken in and around the area of Gothenburg, Sweden, during the period March 2020 – December 2020.

Figure 1: Overview of a store in the chain PocketShop

In order to dig into how the stickers’ placement throughout the stores, their emplacement, can be understood, I make use of the methodology of Conversation Analysis (CA). CA can be characterized as the analysis of form and sequence, or composition and position. The central analytical question is, always, “why that now”. What we mean by this is that an utterance cannot be taken out of a conversation and studied separately from it; it must always be seen in the light of what preceded it, and what followed it, and where in an exchange the utterance takes place. When we consider public signs and posters, we notice how the environment in which the sign is placed contributes to the interpretation of what immediate actions the sign suggests that we take. In this context, that means that we read a sign that is placed at the entrance of a store differently from one that we see at the exit. One can say that they make different reactions relevant. This is similar to how, at the beginning of a conversation, a person saying “so” is likely to initiate a narrative, while if they say “so” much later in the same conversation when it’s beginning to peter off, they’re likely to initiate the end of the conversation. The same form will achieve different actions depending on where in the trajectory of a conversation it is uttered.

Let’s look closely at two cases of sticker placement: at the entrance of the store, in the shopping area and at the check-out, three areas of the store that make different kinds of movement relevant for the costumers.

Picture 2: Left to right: Entrance and checkout area

Here, we see a that the stickers have different designs depending on where they are placed. One design for entrance and in-store placement on the one hand, and another for placement in line to the cashier on the other. The stickers are similar in graphic design and the color scheme, and also in the majority of the text.

Both stickers urge the reader to “ta hand om dig själv och andra“ (‘take care of yourself and others’), and “håll avstånd” (‘keep your distance’). But while the center of the entrance sticker shows the symbol of two stylized humans with a double ended arrow between them, the centre of the queue sticker is dominated by the “håll avstånd” line.

The queue sticker is signed off by the imperative “stå här!” (‘stand here!’), emphasized by an exclamation mark.

The relevant second action to the entrance sticker is mobility; to move through the store in a manner that allows you to keep your distance to others. The relevant second action to the queue sticker on the other hand would be immobility; to keep a relevant distance in the queue by standing “here”, on or near the sticker.

Here, the stickers’ placements and the linguistic choices – both composition and position - of the stickers contribute to determine the relevant actions on the part of the reader.

Next, let’s look at photographs of stickers from Ica, one of Sweden’s largest grocery store chains.

Picture 3: Left to right: Entrance, shopping area and checkout area

Here, the same design of sticker is placed at the entrance as well as in store and at the cash registry. The sticker at the entrance is placed to be read by someone entering the store – it is not there for the benefit of someone on their way out of the store. Throughout the store, the stickers can be read as indicating a flow of movement through the shopping area. When entering the store, the customer is reminded to behave in a certain manner while conducting their business.

The relevant next action here is mobility: the customer is encouraged to move through the facilities in a considerate manner and with a relevant physical distance to others. When the customer reaches the queue to the check out, the same sign signals something else, namely that the relevant second pair part is immobility: here, the customer is asked to remain standing in one particular spot until it is time to proceed in the line. The local placement in the store, as well as the arrangement of stickers in a queue-like pattern, affects and guides the reading of the sign. While the sticker as directive is identical, the placement in the sequential process that is the customer’s path through the store contributes to how the sticker is understood, and what next action is made relevant by the directive.

When the stickers are in use, they are placed throughout the stores to remind customers to keep their distance and behave in a safe and orderly fashion. But customers act and move in different ways in different parts of a store, because different actions and interactions are relevant in different sections. In small stores, it can be the case that most customers will follow the same route. In large stores, only the entrance and the exit are areas that all customers are likely to pass through. Also, in the majority of a store, the relevant action is to move forward. But when there is an in-store activity that makes a line relevant (such as paying at the counter, waiting for your turn at the cheese counter, etc.), the relevant action would be to stand still. So, depending on the action relevant in a particular section of a store, stickers will be read and reacted to differently. The relevant next action depends on the sticker’s placement in the store. Depending on where the stickers are placed, different subsequent actions are expected as sequentially relevant responses to the directives.

Further reading

Adami, Elisabetta (2020). PanMeMic Manifesto: Making meaning in the Covid-19 pandemic and the future of social interaction. Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies. Gent.

Local, John, & Tanya Stivers (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of conversation analysis. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Svennevig, Jan (2021). How to do things with signs. The formulation of directives on signs in public spaces, Journal of Pragmatics, 175, 165-183.

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