Buckingham Palace with crowds on the Mall

For many people the telephone has been a great source of support during lockdown. Not only has it enabled us to keep contact with family and close friends, but the ‘hallo – how are you – how are you coping?’ calls with not-so-close acquaintances have somehow frequently developed into long, intimate exchanges.

Many will remember the BT advertising campaign in the ’90s, ‘It’s good to talk’ featuring the late Bob Hoskins. This was based on innovative semiotic research into then-current British telephone culture. A complex advertising strategy was developed which segmented ‘big talk’ – important, information-bearing, serious, usually typified by men talking to men and ‘small talk’ – trivial, discursive chat, seen by both sexes in the research as the province of women talking to women.

A paper in the Archive describes the deeply-felt gender assumptions about the way people used the telephone at the time (see link below).

Of course nowadays, and particularly in lockdown, such gender differences do not apply.  Ex-footballer Gary Mabbutt has described how he has been contacting Spurs fans to check how they were doing during lockdown. He recently spoke to his 1,000th fan! It’s not big talk nor small talk now, but both.


‘Big talk, small talk’ by Monty Alexander, Max Burt and Charlie Gower, in the Proceedings of The Market Research Society Conference, March 1995. A summary of the paper is in the Market Research Abstracts Collection, Volume 63, Abstract number VI/10753.

The Archive of Market and Social Research contains a wide range of valuable digitised material that is free to access through its comprehensive search function.

Contributed by Phyllis Vangelder
Date posted: 30th September 2020


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