The Echoes of the Mind (138-1) Taking Turns

Taking Turns

To reduce the likelihood of speakers talking at the same time, people in a conversation typically obey turn-taking rules. ~ American psychologist Esther Blank Greif

Dialogue involves reciprocity. Cues indicate when a speaker yields, or a listener would like to interject.

Listeners have 3 types of cues to help regulate a conversation: turn-requesting, turn-denying, and back-channeling. These cues involve brief vocalizations, gestures, or postures.

A turn-requesting cue indicates the desire to address the topic at hand. Conversely, a turn-denying cue demurs the opportunity to speak.

A back-channeling cue provides feedback without assuming the speaker’s role. Back-channeling – what the Japanese term aizuchi – is an essential aspect of efficient communication. Aizuchi is strong in Japanese culture, with frequent acknowledgement interjections.

People react to the end of a conversational turn by beginning their own after a gap of just ~200 milliseconds: about the time it takes a sprinter to respond to a starting gun. This despite the fact that it takes at least 600 ms to work out what to say; but people plan to speak before their turn. The verbal gun is loaded before one shoots off his mouth – the speaker-in-waiting primed for the cue that indicates turnover, such as a drop in pitch at the end of a sentence.

Conversation dynamics are similar across cultures. Gaps as cues for turnover are consistent, with only small timing differences.

Though the Japanese are notably polite, they have one of the shortest gaps before starting conversational replies. In answering “yes” or “no” to a question a Japanese may even reply before the questioner’s turn is over. This is not rudeness, but efficiency – answering quickly moves the conversation along.

The conversational detritus of “uh” and “um” by speakers signal that they are not quite done. Men use these pause fillers more than women and tend to prefer “uh” to “um,” which women employ more often. A meaningless, drawn-out “so” to begin a sentence serves as a substitute for “uh” or “um.” Listeners use “uh-hum” and the humbler “mm-hmm” to show that they have understood the speaker and are sympathetic.

The cross-cultural use of such cues indicates universality, and how well people subconsciously cooperate in conversation.