Conversational turns and silences

The latest post at Linguistics Research Digest is about turn-taking in conversations and how we automatically structure and detect this. It describes everyday conversations as “highly coordinated events” that we manage on a turn-by-turn basis:

Our role in conversations constantly alternates as we either take up the task of acting as the current speaker or the current hearer. Conversations can be analysed in terms of turn-constructional-units (TCUs) and transition relevance places (TRPs). A TCU is meant to describe a piece of conversation that may comprise an entire turn and a TRP is a point in the conversation where the talk could legitimately pass from one speaker to another. In reality, a hearer doesn’t always take up the opportunity to speak at every TRP and so the same speaker will often continue their turn with a new TCU.

Once you digest the jargon, this makes immediate sense. We take turns in conversation and there are pauses, brief silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party. (Though I have known people who want all the TCUs and never decline a TRP.)

By coincidence, the subject appears explicitly in a book I’m reading this week. Silver Threads of Hope is an anthology of new Irish short stories edited by my friend Sinéad Gleeson. Many of the stories are excellent, and Anne Enright has written an affecting and insightful introduction on depression and suicide and how we react to them: a different kind of silence, sometimes.

The TRP happens in ‘First Anniversary’, a story by Claire Kilroy (whose fine debut novel, All Summer, featured in a bookmash here last year). A man wakes up dazed, in a graveyard, confronted gently by an old man who works there and who offers him a cup of tea:

‘You’d be amazed how many I’ve found in here over the years when I open up in the morning,’ the old man added.


‘It’s always the men. The women handle their emotions better.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Plus, they’re scared to wander around at night.’


The gravedigger instituted a silence then. It was an alert silence, a lacuna inserted into the conversation to indicate that I was welcome to speak if I wished to speak and that he was willing to listen. I am no stranger to silences of this nature, not any more. I kept my counsel and sipped the tea.

“Instituted a silence”. I like that line and its elaboration, the way they carry the speaker’s measured, affable intent, and I enjoyed the coincidence of seeing a fictional, literary description mirror a factual, technical account of a transaction we carry out many times a day without normally reflecting on it.


22 Responses to Conversational turns and silences

  1. Excellent post. Often a measure of silence in dialogue brings the readers’ intellect into play and makes them wonder what’s going on in the mind of the one who doesn’t speak. Engagement at this deeper level is powerful. I, too, like the “Instituted a silence”.

  2. Stan says:

    Yes, I’m all for pauses in conversation. It lets the air in. Some of us too easily get hypnotised by our own voices, and the more we speak the less we hear.

  3. Charles Sullivan says:

    You really notice when the TRPs are lacking, as is the case when a politician prevents an interviewer from getting a word in edgewise.

  4. aparnauteur says:

    I love “Instituted a silence”, too. In a time where people conjure TRPs out of thin air or grab them from others, just to stand out in a conversation, and have their thoughts heard, it probably takes a conversation at a graveyard, to actually have the time to institute silence.

  5. Stan says:

    Charles: That’s true. It occurred to me this morning while I was reading Andrew Sullivan‘s round-up of reactions to yesterday’s US Veep debate: “Biden does a good job of interjecting himself into Ryan’s time, usually to say a quick dart like ‘Not true’ or ‘Nope’ and the like” (Elias Isquith); “Biden is acting as though he cannot physically tolerate Ryan having a turn to speak!” (Althouse).

    aparnauteur: I’d say there have always been people who want as much ‘air time’ in a conversation as they can get, or get away with. Courtesy and generosity are conversational skills usually learned and observed, but very noticeable when they aren’t.

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I have to confess, on occasion, that in my casual conversation w/ close friends, work colleagues, or relatives, I’ll find myself interrupting the speaker in mid-sentence, and interjecting what I’m anticipating the speaker will say next—basically finishing the other person’s sentence(s).

    My cue to ‘intrude’ is usually sensing a bit of a hesitation, or encountering a deliberate pause by the speaker, who’s perhaps groping for, or trying to recall just the right word, a specific person’s name, a certain turn of phrase, or whatever.

    I know this can be a very annoying conversational habit, which I’m really trying to minimize, these days.

    I realize that most folks find this conversation butting-in quirk bothersome at best, and inconsiderate, and rude at worse.

    We’ve all encountered ‘conversers’ who may use the immediate mid-sentence request of an over-zealous dialoguer, (as a point of courtesy, perhaps), “Could you just hold that thought, for a minute?”; which is usually effective in nipping the interruptor’s pending interruption in the bud, so to speak. This defensive action allows the interrupted speaker to at least finish out articulating their trend of thought without further impediments.

    But I imagine these awkward, intrusive moments can create a bit of dissonance in the tenor of a normally smooth, naturally flowing conversation.

    I’m finding that making an effort to be more of an attentive listener, while trying to hone one’s skill in reading the flux in facial cues, body language, and speech patterns of the person with whom one is engaged in conversing, helps to maintain, and encourage that desired, aforementioned natural, easy conversational back-and-forth flow.

    By-the-by, I too like the implications of that phrase, “instituted a silence”. Almost like tacitly giving permission to either say something, at that very moment, or just merely enjoy ‘the sounds of silence’*, and say nothing.

    *Credit to Simon and Garfunkel. HA!

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    I was brought up around a fairly large dinner table where conversation flourished and I still have to fight myself not to interrupt or just let silence be. Still in dread of not getting my turn :)

    And who said that Irish conversation is just a series of monologues?

    I’ve noted the two books, Stan. And I loved another book you recommended – the Hoffman “Lost in Translation”. Now that had me reflecting…


  8. Stan says:

    Alex: Yes, interruptions comprise a grey area of courtesy. Sometimes a speaker appreciates assistance, as for example when they’re completely stuck for a necessary word and the interjector, word supplied, becomes engaged listener again. But other times it has the opposite effect, correlated to how unnecessary or irrelevant or just plain rude the interruption is. Some seem unable to control the reflex. I’ve abandoned conversations because a nominal listener is unable to allow me to speak freely and at my own pace.

    WWW: Vying for attention as a child can be quite a competitive enterprise! I suppose our conversational styles are all conditioned in slightly different ways, and being flexible about it as we grow up is very useful. I’m delighted to hear you picked up Lost in Translation, and not surprised you liked it so much.

  9. the ridger says:

    One of the many things that separates dialog – especially cinematic – from conversation is this lack of signalling when a turn is over. Not only is dialog structured to entertain and move the plot, but the actors know how much line they have and when the next actor is supposed to speak. Getting “interrupting” right is very hard.

    • Stan says:

      That’s very true. And the format has conditioned us to expect to be able to hear every line, and for lines to be ‘well written’, which is deeply different to natural dialogue. Films whose dialogue ebbs and flows and overlaps, like some of Robert Altman’s, can feel strikingly different; we’re given fewer and less obvious cues about who to listen to and what’s important.

  10. alexmccrae1546 says:

    @the ridger,

    Following up on your last statement, “Getting ‘interrupting’ right is very hard”, I caught an interview w/ a seasoned actor (can’t recall the name) on NPR over the weekend, who made the point that convincingly “acting drunk” on stage, or screen was very difficult, as well.

    He admitted that there was a handful of noted actors who could pull ‘drunkenness’ off w/ conviction, but most, ironically, had reputations as major imbibers, in their private, off-stage lives. I guess drawing on life-experience, as it were. Hmm… although most chronic drunks seem to conveniently have little, to no recall of what transpired when they were in that ‘altered state’.

    I would offer that Sir Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in the film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, or was it “The Taming of the Shrew” (I’m confused…. but not drunk HA!) played marvelously credible, angry drunks… believable to a fault. (Maybe a little over-the-top?)

    So much for my tangent, there.

    I’m wondering if your little bird graphic accompanying your posts is a grackle, or perhaps a Brewer’s blackbird. If we could see the tail, and it was a fairly long one, then “grackle” would my first guess. I’m an ardent birder out here in L.A. so I’m ever curious about our fine feathered friends.

    • the ridger says:

      He is indeed a grackle.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        Ah! Ha!

        Grackle it is.

        Figured it might be, w/ that characteristic pointy beak, beady yellow eye, and the lovely sheen on the purple-black plumage. (It’s amazing how many colors one can see in a grackles feathers w/ the shifting light. Almost like the colors in an oil slick.)

        Here in L.A. we mainly get the great-tailed grackles, whose tails are like a huge keel, and look most impressive, all fanned out, when the raucous males are courting their golden-brownish females in breeding season.

        The U.S. gulf coast region from Florida to Texas tends to get mainly the common grackle which has a relatively normal-length tail, as you likely know.

        Thanks for the ID.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Speaking of Texas birds, I have a dear lady friend living in Nacogdoches, East TX, who is a diehard birder/ nature enthusiast, and am ever jealous (in a good way) of her being able to observe numerous local species of birds, on a regular basis, that rarely make it out here to Southern California*.

      These include the magnificent, multi-hued Painted Bunting, the amazing Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the handsome Red-bellied Woodpecker, all manner of migrating eastern wood warblers, the Yellow -crowned Night Heron, the Little Blue Heron, Carolina Wrens, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (rare)… well you get my point.

      But then when my Texas-based friend visits L.A., on occasion, she is just as appreciative of the various birds of California we observe, that rarely venture into her neck of the woods, back east. Such is the enduring fascination and appeal of checking out birding locales all over the map, so to speak.

      (I apologize if all this off-topic nerdy-birdie talk is boring some of you folk out there. Birds are just a big passion of mine. Can’t help it.)

      *Interestingly, for the past four years, or so, we’ve been observing several very animated Reddish Egrets hanging out w/ regularity at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands off Pacific Coast HWY in Huntington Beach CA. These are generally Gulf Coast and Lower Baja residents, so to have these ‘foreigners’ in our midst has been a real treat.

      These mid-sized heron-like birds are quite eccentric, in that they often stagger about, in fits and starts, quickly changing direction for no apparent reason, while frantically flapping their wings. Some have speculated that this is a behavior meant to stir up prey (usually fish) in the marsh shallows. These displays are very entertaining, at any rate,

  11. Stan says:

    Alex: One of the best screen performances of drunkenness is in Withnail & I, whose drunk, played by Richard E. Grant, was a teetotaller.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:


      Surely, there is no locked-in truism that one needs to be a drunk, to play a drunken character on stage, or screen.

      Any actor worth their salt, who is very likely a keen observer of human behavior in all its myriad manifestations, I would think would have likely gleaned a storehouse of knowledge of how drunks tend to behave; and yet, as most of us have experienced in living our day-to-day lives, there is a full range of types of drunks—from the extroverted, happy-go-lucky, to the angry, abusive, to the quiet, withdrawn, to the staggeringly out-of-control imbiber. (I may have missed a few in that ignoble laundry list.)

      For a teatotaller like your aforementioned Richard E. Grant to have given such a sterling screen performance as a drunk in “Withnail & I” was a testament to this actor’s thespian talents. Who knows, he may have grown up in a household of alcoholics, and harkened back to, and drew on his early memories of the disfunction in the family.

      Or, just as likely, his folks and extended family of adults could well have been a bunch of teetotalling, sober, morally upright souls. Everything being rosy.

      For me, when an actor takes on a role that seems totally out of character w/ their previous efforts, and pulls it off w/ aplomb, I’m totally impressed. For me, it shows the audience that this actor has both incredible courage to tackle the part*, and a deep reservoir of talent to make the character believable, and compelling on screen, or live, on stage.

      The actress Charlize Theron immediately comes to mind, when she took on the role of that maniacal white-trash killer (Warnow?), transforming herself into that tough, brutal, beast of a woman, w/ nary a trace of her classic beauty, or genuine personhood coming thru. She literally inhabited that role, giving what many critics felt was the tour de force acting effort of her career. I believe she won the Oscar for her stunning performance that year.

      *I imagine it would also takes a sage, and somewhat daring director to have faith in a particular actor taking on a role that would seem, on the face of it, a huge stretch for that actor, in light of their earlier body of work.

  12. Lovely post and comment thread. Thanks, Stan.

  13. Jennifer Romig says:

    Thanks for this post. A book you might enjoy (although perhaps not as much as a work of fiction) is Frederick Erickson’s Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life. One neat thing about the book is that he transcribes conversations using musical notation. It captures the turn-taking you’re talking about in a neat visual way. Thanks again for the post! You are inspiring me to explore the idea at as well.

  14. Mary says:

    Beautiful post, thanks. I appreciated that coincidence too, and the unusual opportunity to stop and think about the mechanics of something I do (and see others do) every day without thinking. I’ll be observing conversations somewhat differently today.

  15. Stan says:

    Philip: And thank you for stopping by.

    Jennifer: It’s a pleasure, and I appreciate the book recommendation: it sounds very interesting. I’d be curious to see that use of musical notation.

    Mary: I guess it’s something we have to do intuitively, otherwise we’d end up hopelessly halting and self-conscious about it. But it’s also fun and interesting to notice from time to time, or when we’re not directly involved in the conversation.

  16. […] to convey, minimally, that we’re listening, that we agree, that the speaker should continue their conversational turn, and so on. Back-channelling didn’t work well in some apps, because the timing was slightly out […]

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