Office Space Movie Analysis Essay

1. Introduction
Judge’s (1999) film Office Space is a bitter comedy on Generation X’s pathetic attempt to rebel against the social and economic structures of Corporate America. This paper provides a sociolinguistic analysis of one particular encounter in the movie, where Peter, a dissatisfied computer engineer who has been “enlightened” by the notion of individualism confronts Bill Lumbergh, Peter’s boss and a caricatured representative of the untalented and socially overestimated generation of “instant managers,” who is obsessed with TPS reports and can only be intimidated by the HR consultants (“the Bobs”). Note that the two characters are male Caucasians. The age difference between Peter (played by Ron Livingston, then 32 years old) and Bill (played by the 43 years old Gary Cole) is about ten years Bill stands one level above Peter in the organizational hierarchy. The dialogue

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2. Changes in Power Structures and their Linguistic Implications
The overall context of the film can be identified as struggle between classes. Conversely to Marx, who advocated the organized revolution as the primary means of breaking unjust social structures, Judge (1999) suggests individualism as a potential catalyst of change, through mechanisms such as theft, discourtesy and laziness-induced disobedience. Notwithstanding the model of social analysis we choose to adopt (e.g. the Marx’s or Weber’s approaches), it is clear that the use of language is inherent to a certain class within an organization (for that matter) and also used by it to stress hierarchical differences (Kerswill, 2007).

Without going too deeply into the development of the plot, it is important to note that the pseudo “individualistic revolution” (which reaches its catharsis when the ofiice is burned down over a missing stapler) is supported by the stagnation of the managers’ class. The excerpt given above represents one of final stages of this process, where Peter’s language has changed dramatically, whereas Bill speaks exactly the same as before (see a discussion on the two characters’ language in the dialogue below). As the traditional power structure dissolves (i.e. Peter is empowered by the “Bobs” and does not feel commitment to Bill), we can observe changes in two linguistic phenomena, namely changes in accommodation and the use of minimal responses.

2.1 Changes in Accommodation
As mentioned earlier, Bill’s divergent approach (it is not known whether divergence is accommodated to work hours or not) stays stagnant. As most of his colleagues, Peter must also accommodate his speech when talking with his bosses. However, after showing linguistic solidarity with the Bobs, Peter’s accommodation changes its course along with his disobedient behaviour, and turns to offensive and highly causal speech: Besides calling his boss simply “Lumbergh,” the most significant element in this dialogue is when Peter uses the phrase “go ahead and…” (accompanied by a verb), which was frequently used by Bill both during the dialogue and at many other times throughout the movie previously and at the end of this dialogue (“we’ll go ahead and, uh, get this all fixed up”).

Bill frequent use of this phrase (instead of simply saying, for instance, “we will get this all fixed up”) is of particular interest. While the phrase may form a notion of suggestion (Gumperz, 1982), it is actually used by Bill as a quasi-polite way to give an order (“are you going to go ahead and have those TPS reports for us this afternoon”). Hence, through the use of this phrase by Peter, Judge (1999) makes an overt statement about authority, a two-edged sword that is now used against Bill.

2.2 Changes in the Use of Minimal Responses
Judge’s characters make an extensive use of minimal responses, most notably ‘mhm’s and ‘yeah’s. The sociolinguistic literature provides a variety of explanations to minimal responses, and as often occurs in sociolinguistics, it is not uncommon to find contradicting finding. It is generally agreed that minimal responses are used for turn taking and for “holding the floor” during conversations. However, while Wardhaugh stresses the importance of minimal responses as back-channels to “indicate to a speaker that the floor is still his or hers and the topic is of interest (2006, p. 323), Zimmerman & West refer to minimal responses as a primary mechanism of interruptions, which “appear to restrict the rights of the person being interrupted to contribute to the developing topic” (1975, p. 124), either out of boredom, contradicting priorities or other reasons.

The use of minimal responses by the characters can be more associated with back channelling than with disruptive responses. Baring in mind that the classical ‘good organizational citizen’ is collaborative and practices a high degree of conformism, Peter and his co-workers at Initech (the name of the fictional high-tech company in the movie) seem to ‘hold the floor’ to one another, hence refraining from taking a stand in the conversation. In fact, they do it so intensively, that many conversations may initially seem as endless string of mumbles.

Peter, who is rather well spoken outside of the office, also uses minimal responses at work, where most interactions are discomforting. However, as part of his course of change, Peter gets used to speak freely, even with his bosses. Ironically, the HR consultants (‘the Bobs’) are fond of this use of language, which is so different from the others, that they find Peter as having “Straight to Upper Management written all over him” (Judge, 1999).

In sharp contrast, Bill clearly uses minimal responses to exercise power. By constantly ‘holding the floor’ to himself, Bill counterbalances his extremely slow, somewhat sleepy articulation. In addition, minimal responses are also used by Bill to avoid confutations and to disguise embarrassments.

3. Critical Discourse Analysis of the Dialogue
Although it is rather a minor component in the overall development of the plot, the dialogue discussed in this paper represents a climax, or a major turning point, in the relations between Peter and his boss. The fact that Peter was chosen to confront with Bill (and not the geeky Michael or the Arab American Samir) helps to identify the ways in which Judge (1999) discusses his model of social conflict. This employs three elements of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), whose main concern is the ways language forms social change (Fairclough, 2001). Among the variety of CDA components, the following two sections will focus on conversationalization and repair strategies.

3.1 Conversationalization
Most commonly associated with Fairclough (1995), the study of conversationalization follows discourse strategies, in which the linguistic elements from the private sphere penetrate the public domain as part of a social change. As a result, conversationalization methods may bring about significant social change, particularly in regard to power relations. Writer, director and producer Mike Judge, whose major publicity came from animation works such as Beavis and Butt-head and Milton (from which he developed Office Space), uses also explicit visual elements to support his linguistic conversationalization. In this particular scene, the two men hold the dialogue in Peter’s cubicle, whose walls have been dismantled. Peter, who had ignored Bill on several occasions before, is holding the dialogue while putting his legs on the desk and playing Tetris.

Sitting in his ‘home away from home,’ Peter’s laid-back language (compared to his politeness at the beginning of the film, which had been later replaced by disregarding Peter for several scenes) is another component of his rebellion. In fact, since the ‘Bobs’ are fancy of this style, it is possible that Judge is actually depicting the (then-) newly emerged form of the corporate narrative, which was best defined by Google, Inc. as “You can be serious without a suit” (2009), one of the ten principles in the company’s philosophy. Nevertheless, although conversationalization is a major foundation of cultural change, it is particularly threatening to Bill and to the set of social standards he represents.

3.2 Repair Strategies and the Struggle on Narratives
The dialogue analysed here indicates the struggle between Peter and Bill on the narrative of their relations. That is, the winner of this arm wrestling is expected to assume power over the other. Since Bill fails to gain control through his official authority and linguistic turn-taking, he uses several conversational repair strategies, which “allow the negotiation of meaning to continue despite temporary set-backs or detours” (Garner, 2007, p. 42) taken by Peter. The main repair strategies, listed by their sequential order, are:

  1. Bill opens the dialogue by using the phatic “So, Peter, what’s happening?” Obviously, Bill does not wait for an answer for his meaningless gesture.
  2. Peter does not respond to Bill’s question (“Now are you going to go ahead and have those TPS reports for us this afternoon?”) and keeps playing Tetris. Bill gives him the last opportunity to answer by using the minimal response “Uh, yeah.”
  3. Peter still doesn’t answer. Bill is coding a threat: “So I guess we should probably go ahead and have a little talk,” as well as another attempt to ‘hold the floor’: “hmm?”
  4. After receiving a direct threat, Peter takes the floor and nonchalantly ignores it, as he is “busy” (playing Tetris), and has “a meeting with the Bobs in a couple of minutes.” The meeting redirects the conversation and overturns the threat.5. Bill has a chance to repair himself (rather then trying to repair Peter’s position in the negotiation) “That sounds good, Peter.”
  5. Final retreat from Bill’s initial position: “Uh, and we’ll go ahead and, uh, get this all fixed up for you later.” Bill was obviously defeated and lost his bargaining power.

4. Conclusion
When Office Space came out in 1999, the first constituents of the so-called ‘Generation Y’ had begun their careers and their higher education. It is clear today that as former generations, ‘Gen Y’ brings about new sets of values, perception and language. The movie depicts these changes, whose effect on the contemporary society can already be seen.

From a sociolinguistic point of view, Peter Gibbons is a working class hero, mainly due to his successful change of the narrative. Scholars such as Thurlow & Brown (2003) tend to underestimate the effect of external factors such as technology and social narratives on young people’s language. Contrary to their view, Judge (1999) indicates just how far-reaching and influential this newly-emerged generation of ‘straight shooters’ can be.

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