Conversation Researchers The People Who Make Conversations Readable

The person who is talking decides who may speak next.
The person who is talking decides who may speak next. | Photo: Peter Baxter © iStockphoto

Why are filler words like “um” not as superfluous as is often claimed? Why does a Finn feel uncomfortable in conversation with New York Jews? Conversation researchers investigate the rules governing language.

Pick up a voice recorder and record some conversations you hear in everyday life. Your children quarrelling at the kitchen table, the conversation of the person sitting next to you on the commuter train, a meeting with your colleagues … Play back the recordings and write down exactly what you hear. What do you notice? Your text will differ quite substantially from what you can read in a novel or newspaper or on one of your memos. There will be pauses and repetitions, broken off and apparently incorrect sentences, self-corrections and filler words like “hm”, “um” or “uh-huh”. So you will see black on white something of which you may have been aware already – people do not write in the same way as they speak.

From examples to the big picture

“The assumption used to be that people paid little attention to their language in everyday conversations and thus made lots of mistakes. Today, we know that these apparently incorrect phenomena are used quite systematically and fulfil certain functions,” explains conversation researcher Arnulf Deppermann of the Institute for the German Language in Mannheim. To analyse the features of the spoken language, linguists and sociologists specialising in conversation research look at transcriptions of sound recordings of everyday conversations. This analysis involves first examining individual cases and then compiling a collection of similar cases: “We look at the phenomenon and analyse what happens immediately before it in the conversation and how the conversation partners react to it,” explains Deppermann.

This does not always confirm what the speakers intuitively assumed or had been taught by teachers and public speaking trainers. The little word “um”, for example, is often regarded as superfluous and irritating. According to Deppermann, however, it is actually only a problem in presentations, whereas in conversations it often fulfils an important function: “Speakers use it to show that they want to continue talking after a pause and have not lost the thread of what they were saying.“ Using “um” can also help to avoid offending one’s conversation partner: “If someone asks me if I would like to join him for lunch, I don’t say “no”, but, “Um, I am already doing something else”. In so doing, I show that I do not answer lightly, but look for a response that is acceptable to my partner.”

A universal rule: Don’t interrupt

Conversation researchers examine the unspoken rules that are responsible for behaviour being perceived to be polite or rude, normal or funny. These include the so-called turn-taking rules governing who is allowed to talk: “The person who is talking decides who may speak next. If he does not do so, the right to speak is open to anyone. But no one has the right to interrupt another person. That is a rule of conversation with universal validity.” However, perceptions differ on the question of how long the gap between individual statements should be.

Analytical studies of conversations have shown that in many southern European cultures and among New York Jews it is common to start to speak when one knows what the other person is intending to say and that he or she is about to finish talking. In Finland, in contrast, it is quite common to let two seconds pass before answering. We Germans are somewhere in between.” Of course, these different conventions may lead to conflicts: “A Finn among New York Jews may feel lost in a conversation because he cannot join in. On the other hand, a German in Finland may often have the feeling that conversations are very slow.”

Individual analyses rather than across-the-board standards

Conversation research is not only able to highlight such communication problems, but can also contribute to resolving them. “Conversation research can help us to better recognise the rules of conversation and warn against possible contraventions, thus optimising conversations,” explains conversation researcher Martin Hartung, who offers communication consultancy services for people from various vocational fields.

Unlike many conventional public speaking trainers, he does not teach any general rules for successfully mastering a conversation. Regardless of whether the situations involve interviews by radio journalists, advertising calls by call centre agents or interviews by human resource managers, Hartung always analyses transcripts of recorded conversations to identify when particular conversational rules are contravened. “In the transcript, you see quite clearly why there was a misunderstanding that escalated emotionally, for example, or where a problem keeps cropping up because the knot was never untied. You can use that as the basis for working out alternative behaviour.”