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.