Art of conversation a delicate, uh, dance


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Conversation is, um, a finely tuned social co-operation and not, uh, the “messy back and forth” it sometimes seems, Australian linguistics professor N.J. Enfield asserts in his new book, How We Talk.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/12/2017 (1931 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Conversation is, um, a finely tuned social co-operation and not, uh, the “messy back and forth” it sometimes seems, Australian linguistics professor N.J. Enfield asserts in his new book, How We Talk.


Linguistic studies focus on formal,written language and ignore conversation, “where language lives and bre­athes,” writes the chairman of linguistics at the University of Sydney, and a research associate in the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

It appears the “um,” “uh” and “huh” used above are fundamental to language and not just bad words your mother and/or teachers tried to stop you from using, along with “oh,” “like” and “mm-hmm.”

A rising tone of voice, an apparently meaningless word or a glance are among tactics whose use we don’t really recognize in the moment, but which make possible the split-second timing necessary to make conversation work, to make sure we get a word in edgewise, writes the author of, among other books, The Utility of Meaning: What Words Mean and Why.

Linguists disagree on the meaning of “um” and “uh” in conversation. One side views their use as an “involuntary symptom of an internal problem with speech production.” The other — ­Enfield’s side — feels “people use these words to signal to others that they are momentarily busy formulating their thoughts.”

So, rather than a sign of not knowing what to say, “um” and “uh” are really indicating the speaker is close to formulating a response, and they double as a method of holding one’s place in the conversation because we all know how quickly someone else will jump in if it seems there is a break.

Enfield cites research that shows if “um” is used, there will be delay of about three-quarters of a second before speech resumes, but if “uh” is used, the delay is about a quarter of a second.

Considering that most transitions from one speaker to another occur at about 200 milliseconds (faster than it takes to blink an eye), those “um” and “uh” markers make a big difference in someone’s ability to maintain the floor.

The timing research results are remarkable, Enfield writes, because they show people tend to transition from one speaker to another with a minimal gap, and are able to accurately predict when they can join the conversation in that same narrow time frame.

Researchers have found a version of “huh” in many languages. The next time someone utters “huh?” in response to something you said, don’t treat it as a sign of misunderstanding and confusion, Enfield writes; it really stands for co-operation, a willingness to pause a conversation and sort out a ­communication problems as it occurs. And it works because both parties are willing to co-operate.

A conversation is a duet, an entirely improvised duet in humans, Enfield writes, and even though some primates engage in back-and-forth communication, it is scripted.

Some, such as the siamang, a species of tree-dwelling gibbon mainly found in Sumatra, are more sophisticated with elaborate calling bouts “not unlike duets in humans — think Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe — in that the individuals each contribute to a preordained set of alternating moves, one leading to the next, until the end of the planned song has been reached.”

Yes, that is a scientific declaration comparing the sound of Sonny and Cher’s best-known recording to tree-dwelling gibbons.

Enfield calls for more focus on conversation as a key to understanding “what makes language possible in our species,” and he does it in clear prose, and with the use of 30-odd graphs and charts.

Conversation really is a remarkable verbal dance with signals, clues, split-second timing, all in a co-operative setting without speakers really being aware of the complex negotiations going on at the time. Remember that the next time you want to butt in.

Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer and, um, occasional conversationalist.

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