Gender differences in conversational rituals

May 31, 2016

Here is a short clip of Deborah Tannen describing one way boys and girls express themselves differently:

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Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

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Conversational turns and silences

October 11, 2012

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 in aid of Console. 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.

‘Really?’

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

‘Right.’

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.


James Joyce: ‘We must write dangerously’

June 16, 2012

On Bloomsday last year I wrote about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s last and least-read book. This year, being less blessed with free time, I’ll share some lines from Arthur Power’s book Conversations with James Joyce (Barnes & Noble, 1974), which I’ve been thumbing through again.

The first excerpt offers a glimpse of domestic life chez Joyce in Paris, where Power and Joyce first met.

Joyce, a restless man, was continually changing his abode, partly through circumstances no doubt, but also on account of his nature, and shortly afterwards he moved to a pleasant, airy apartment opposite the Eiffel Tower, where I used to visit him frequently.

I always took care not to call at his flat until the late afternoon, when he used to come into the room from his study wearing that short white working-coat of his, not unlike a dentist’s, and collapse into the armchair with his usual long, heart-felt sigh. As often as not Mrs Joyce would say to him,
—For God’s sake, Jim, take that coat off you!

But the only answer she got was his Gioconda smile, and he would gaze back humorously at me through his thick glasses.

Nora’s line always makes me laugh.

On Tumblr I posted a few thoughts from Joyce, courtesy of Arthur Power, on his efforts to convey Dublin through the texture of his words, and his belief in the primacy of emotion in art.

Here he elaborates on the latter idea in relation to Ulysses and writing in general:

Emotion has dictated the course and detail of my book, and in emotional writing one arrives at the unpredictable which can be of more value, since its sources are deeper, than the products of the intellectual method. In the intellectual method you plan everything beforehand. When you arrive at the description, say, of a house you try and remember that house exactly, which after all is journalism. But the emotionally creative writer refashions that house and creates a significant image in the only significant world, the world of our emotions. The more we are tied to fact and try to give a correct impression, the further we are from what is significant. In writing one must create an endlessly changing surface, dictated by the mood and current impulse in contrast to the fixed mood of the classical style. This is ‘Work in Progress’. The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. . . . A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.

Conversations with James Joyce is a short (111 pp.), appealing read, with enough contextual detail to enliven Power’s reports but with the pair’s ideas, dialogues and debates very much to the fore. Joyce expounds on his influences, reviews his own work, and muses on his tastes and preferences in literary and other matters.


The normality of conversation on Twitter

February 27, 2012

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, recently said that it may be unhealthy to spend too much time using the service. He has a point, albeit a trivial one: it may also be unhealthy to spend too much time in the bath or up a tree. Too much is too much, and by and large we can judge this for ourselves.

But his comments were ammunition for Professor Susan Greenfield, who believes Facebook and video games, among other things, are damaging our brains. So she appeared on Channel 4 News to offer condescending assumptions about people’s use of Twitter. Fortunately, her arguments were well challenged by science journalist Mark Henderson.

Many scientists and viewers responding to the interview seemed exasperated (or grimly amused) by Prof. Greenfield’s habit of using commercial news media to sound societal alarm bells instead of publishing peer-reviewed studies to support her sweeping claims. It has become a running argument.

I’d like to draw your attention to one response in particular, from someone I follow on Twitter. Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the UCL Speech Communication Laboratory, was unsurprised to find that Greenfield is missing some essential facts about human communication. Her riposte, “A little more conversation”, is a sane and solid defence of how normal it is to spend time on Twitter:

much of what goes on, on Twitter, is people using a slightly different medium to do what they’ll do any way they can, which is to converse, to talk to others. For humans, conversation is an end in itself.

Conversation, she writes, is “like a dance, only instead of dancing in synchrony, we take turns.” By outlining and illustrating some of the principles of conversation, Prof. Scott also makes helpful reference to the similarities and differences between electronic and face-to-face forms of it:

if you free people from the demands of having to organize all the stuff in face-to-face conversations that is concerned with the turn-taking negotiations, then conversations can really flourish. People can leap from one conversation to the next, and back and forth, when the time line is fast and busy, as it is for many people on Twitter (or chat rooms etc.).

You can read the rest here; it’s well worth two minutes of your time.

Another reason we can hold several simultaneous chats online is that although they happen in real time, if slightly delayed, they remain available to us as tweets, comments, etc. This is significant because our parallel processing power is limited, speech is ephemeral, and we quickly forget exactly what someone has said in spoken exchanges.

I love chatting on Twitter for more reasons than I could say. Most have to do with the people I chat with, who are a constant source of insight, fun, help, and goodness. Some have become friends or acquaintances offline. I need hardly mention Twitter’s other uses, for example as an aid to journalism, education, and activism.

Of course it can be addicting, but so can many everyday activities; what matters is the degree to which they’re healthy or unhealthy, and this depends more on how they’re used than on the activities themselves.

What do you think?

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