Conversational interaction

In simple terms, English conversation can be described as an activity where, for the most part, two or more people take turns at speaking. Typically, only one person speaks at a time and there tends to he an avoidance of silence between speaking turns. (This is not true in every culture.) If more than one participant tries to talk at the same time, one of them usually stops, as in this example, where A slops until B has finished:

A: Didn't you know wh-

B: But he must've been there by two.

A: Yes but you knew where he was going.

For the most part, participants wait until one speaker indicates that he or she has finished, usually by signaling a completion point. Speakers can mark their turns as 'complete' in a number of ways: by asking a question, for example, or by pausing at the end of a completed syntactic structure like a phrase or a sentence. Other participants can indicate that they want to take the speaking turn, also in a number of ways. They can start to make short sounds, usually repeated, while the speaker is talking, and often use body shifts or facial expressions to signal that they have something to say.

Some of the most interesting research in this area of discourse has revealed different expectations of conversational style and different strategies of participation in conversational interaction. Some of these strategies seem to be the source of what is sometimes described by partici­pants as 'rudeness' (if one speaker appears to cut in on another speaker) or 'shyness' (if one speaker keeps waiting for an opportunity to take a turn and none seems to occur). The participants characterized as 'rude' or 'shy' in this way may simply be adhering to slightly different conventions of turn-taking.

One strategy, which may be overused by 'long-winded' speakers, or those used to 'holding the floor' (like lecturers, politicians), is designed to avoid having normal completion points occur. We all use this strategy to some extent, usually in situations where we have to work out what we are trying to say while actually saying it. If the normal expectation is that completion points are marked by the end of a sentence and a pause, then one way to 'keep the turn' is to avoid having those two indicators occur together. That is, don't pause at the end of sentences: make your sentences run on by using connectors like and, and then, so, but place your pauses at points where the message is clearly incomplete: and preferably 'nil' the pause with hesitation markers such as er, em, uh, ah. Note the position of the pauses (marked by...) in this example, placed before and after verbs rather than at the end of sentences:

A: that's their favorite restaurant because they... enjoy French food and when they were... in France they couldn't believe it that ...you know that they had ... that they had had better meals back home

And in this next example, Speaker X produces filled pauses after having almost lost the turn at his first brief hesitation:

X: well that film really was... wasn't what he was good at

Y: when di-

X: I mean his other... em his later films were much more... er really more in the

romantic style and that was more what what he was... you know... em best at doing

Y: So when did he make that one

These types of strategies, by themselves, should not be considered undesir­able or 'domineering'. They are present in the conversational speech of most people and they are, in a sense, part of what makes conversation work. We recognize these subtle indicators as ways of organizing our turns and negotiating the intricate business of social interaction via language. In fact, one of the most noticeable features of conversational discourse is that it is generally very co-operative. This observation has, in fact, been formulated as a principle of cooperation/conversation.


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