Do you know the science of conversation?

When you think about it, talk is a tool. In fact, it’s one of the most flexible and potentially powerful tools we have at our disposal. We use it to cultivate relationships, to convey ideas, to resolve conflict, to buy and sell, to ask for and receive help. Through talk, we are able to suggest, to offer, to persuade, to annoy, to excite.

But many of us don’t know exactly how this tool works, or how we can use it to produce the best results. That’s where conversation analysis comes in. While our talk can seem random and spontaneous, conversation analysis reveals that most conversations follow predictable structures and patterns. By studying these patterns, it’s possible to perceive hidden meanings, predict reactions, avoid conflict and even tweak your talk to change the outcome of your interactions. So let’s delve into the secret world of talk as mapped out in the book, Talk: The Science of Conversation, by Elizabeth Stokoe.

You probably first learned to “take turns” in playtime at school, but taking turns is equally crucial for successful conversation.

When you’re in conversation, you and your partner are engaged in completing a conversational project. It might be a project as simple as ordering a pizza or as challenging as asking for a promotion. Whatever it is, you and your partner collaborate in completing this project through a series of conversational turns.

A conversational turn is a grammatically coherent unit of talk. Additional non-verbal cues, like trailing off or employing downward intonation, signal the turn is complete. As we listen, we’re analyzing when the speaker’s turn will finish, and when our turn should be next.

Turns are organized in adjacency pairs. The first turn in a pair is designed to prompt an appropriate second turn. A greeting is designed to prompt a greeting, a question is designed to prompt an answer, and so on.

Basically, conversation consists of turn-taking. One person talks, the other person listens and waits to talk. So far, so obvious! But a more detailed look at turn-taking reveals that it’s the source of some common conversational problems.

The end of a turn presents a potential conversational minefield. Misread the cues and you might end up interrupting someone before they’ve finished what they want to say, creating the impression that you’re not listening.

What’s more, the endings of some turns are artificial – that is, they’re only designed to produce short responses. If someone completes a turn in the middle of a long story, they’re inviting you to interject with something along the lines of “Really?” They’re not inviting you to interrupt with a lengthy anecdote of your own.

Meanwhile, if you talk out of turn, you’re a first mover. This means that you fail to complete adjacency pairs properly – and you might be creating a poor conversational impression because of it.

If your neighbor responds to your greeting of “Good morning!” with a demand, such as, “You need to do something about your dog barking,” then she’s a first mover. Her demand may be reasonable, but without following the convention of responding to a greeting with a greeting before moving the conversation along, it comes off as rude and unreasonable.

Taking turns is harder than it first seems, but once you’ve mastered the art, you’re well on your way to smoother conversations.

Whether you’re on the phone with your mom or chatting with your taxi driver, your conversations are certain to begin with a greeting, like “Hey” or “Hello,” and an initial inquiry, like “What’s up?” or “How are you?” This initial inquiry is so ingrained in the opening conversational pattern that it feels automatic. But does that make it meaningless?

Well, yes and no.

In a sense, the initial inquiry is meaningless. It’s not an information-seeking question, and your conversational partner isn’t expecting an honest answer. If, on a Monday morning, your colleague asks, “How are you?” your honest answer might be something like, “Well, Nazim, I’m exhausted. My girlfriend and I fought all weekend. Frankly, I’m not looking forward to a week of work.” This response is truthful – but also completely inappropriate.

But just because we don’t expect an in-depth response doesn’t mean the initial inquiry doesn’t serve a purpose. Imagine answering your colleague’s “How are you?” with “Where are you at with those budget numbers, Nazim?” By failing to respond to Nazim’s question, you’re not only responding inappropriately to his conversational turn, but you’ve also rebuffed his attempts at building rapport. When we say, “How are you?” and answer with “Not bad, thanks,” verbally we’re just going through the motions – but at a deeper level, we’re signaling interest in our partner.

Rapport is important in service industries, like retail, where it can be crucial to making a sale. In this context, however, initial inquiries often backfire. In fact, in many service contexts, saying “How are you?” creates a strong negative impression. It comes off as scripted, especially when it’s parroted out of turn – for example, when the query “Do you have these boots in a size 9?” is met with a “How are you doing today?”

There’s one simple trick salespeople can use to deploy “How are you?” in a genuine way, and that’s to use it out of sequence. Imagine approaching a hotel receptionist with a request to change rooms. He responds, “Let me look it up in the system,” then asks, “How are you doing today?” as he’s typing, creating the impression that the inquiry is spontaneous and therefore genuine.

Initial inquiries may be meaningless in a superficial sense, but forgoing them or using them insincerely creates a poor impression.

With books, we’re told to ‘read between the lines’. The words left off the page can tell us just as much as the words written there. The same is true for speech. Pauses, and filler words like “so,” “um,” and “oh” can say just as much as the words they come between.

Let’s start by busting a common myth about conversational pauses. There’s a misconception that when someone pauses before responding to a conversational turn, she’s processing what she’s heard. Perhaps she’s searching for the right word or deciding how to respond. In fact, conversation analysts say that this is rarely the case. Most of our processing takes place during the other speaker’s turn. That’s why conversation moves quickly.

Actually, a pause in speech generally indicates that there’s a problem ahead. It suggests that the speaker is about to deliver a dispreferred response. The preferred response to an invitation like “How about dinner Friday night?” is, obviously, “Yes.” A pause reliably signifies that the speaker is about to respond with the dispreferred “No.”

Like the pause, “um” can be the prelude to a dispreferred response. But we also often use “um,” or similar sounds like “ah” or “er,” when we’re presented with unexpected information or the conversation takes a turn for which we’re not prepared. If your conversational partner goes from fluent speech to ums and ahs, she’s probably not at a loss for words. Instead, she’s signaling that the conversation isn’t going in the way she expected.

“So” and “oh” are two more supposedly meaningless words that actually have a lot to say. In fact, they both signal turning points in conversation.

We tend to use “oh” to indicate that new information has been processed or understood. A simple “oh” is often a clue that your conversational partner has shifted her understanding of the topic at hand.

“So,” on the other hand, is a signpost. When your partner says “so,” she’s preparing to get to what she perceives as the point of your talk. Think: “So, about that money you borrowed . . . ,” or “So, how do you feel about grabbing a drink sometime?”

The use of “so” reveals what your partner really wants to talk about. If the conversational turn starts with “so,” pay attention!

Check out my related post: How do you spot a lie?

Interesting reads:


  1. What an amazingly relevant explanation of the art of conversation! I find there are many people nowadays, especially in the USA, that tend to talk over others or forget about the give and take of having a conversation. Or listen to someone distractingly as they play with their phone. I think many problems in the world could be solved with just improvements in how we listen and respond to one another. Thanks for such an informative post!

    Liked by 1 person

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