You’re trying to get out the door after a long day at work, and your boss decides to start chatting with you about the latest news out of Hollywood. You’re not really all that interested in the first place, but it’s your boss, and you don’t feel you can ease yourself out the door. Or perhaps you’re at a family gathering, and you’ve gotten seated next to a relative you really adore, but who tends to maintain a conversation that’s almost all one-sided. You just can’t get a word in edgewise, and your relative hardly seems to notice. When we get stuck in these predicaments, it would be nice to have a go-to strategy to get out. These situations certainly derive from the personalities of the people involved, as well as your relationship to them. This makes your choice of a strategy a tricky one, especially when you don’t want to offend someone important to you, such as your boss or your favorite aunt.
A new approach by Oslo and Akerhus University’s Carsta Simon and UC Davis’ William Baum (2017) uses principles of Skinnerian conditioning to analyze the conversational exchanges between communication partners. Seeing communication in terms of “verbal behavior,” the international team decided to see how reinforcement patterns create and maintain these uneven patterns in which one person dominates an interaction. As the authors note, “Humans’ talking occurs as a stream whose functional units vary greatly in duration” (p. 259). They believe that because organisms constantly make choices based on the reinforcement they receive for whichever choices they make, it should then be possible to “uncover lawful relations in people’s communicative exchanges in conversations” (p. 259). In other words, do people monopolize conversations because we let them do so? Could we change the reinforcers we provide to them so that they’ll make the choice to stop talking?
Ordinarily, organisms (including ourselves of course) will match their behavior to the available reinforcers. If they persist in behavior that fails to get reinforced, this is called “undermatching.” You might instead “overmatch” in which you keep responding at a greater rate than would be expected in favor of the choice that produces a desired result. Earlier researchers used this approach to analyzing how what people said in an experimental setting would change according to whether they were reinforced (agreed with) by their conversation partners. The data produced in this study didn’t consistently follow predictions of the matching principle. With human speech, it’s not only the verbal but the nonverbal behavior that can enter into the equation. You can show agreement by nodding as well as by saying you agree, and this might alter how the person speaking to you then behaves. When your conversation partner is exceptionally long-winded, you might hope that looking away, shuffling your feet, or heading toward the door (if possible) would send out signals to stop talking. However, you may be inadvertently keeping the reinforcement going in other ways that you don’t realize.
The international collaborative team in this study tested their model on a set of 9 native German speakers who were paired with 2 research “confederates,” purportedly other participants who were actually part of the experimental design. The confederates were young adult women who looked very similar, and the conversation was led by a “moderator” who was actually the experimenter (a male). The verbal behavior of the actual participants was compared based on whether the confederates agreed with their statements, and whether they looked at them or not while offering their supportive responses.
Contrary to their prediction, the amount of speech uttered by the participant had no relationship to whether the confederates provided reinforcement (i.e. agreement) with or without an accompanying eye gaze. All that mattered in predicting length of the participants’ responses was length of the confederate’s utterances. The participants were more sensitive to how much the confederates talked, but not whether they offered agreement. As the authors stated, “the participant was trying to draw the more taciturn confederate into the conversation, perhaps out of courtesy” (p. 273). This situation represents the opposite of what happens when you’re wishing someone would speak less, not more. Whether you offer agreement just to get the conversation over with, or avert your eyes from the other person’s gaze, seems to matter less than how long you actually end up speaking.
Perhaps it’s occurred to you that the Simon and Baum experimental setup, in addition to being somewhat artificial, involved two and not three people. When you’re trying to extricate yourself from a single conversation partner, the dynamics may differ. Also, because the confederates were following a script in terms of what they could and could not say (i.e. they could only offer approval or not), the situation further differs from real life. You may feel that if you’re the quiet person in a group of three, no one will notice if you contribute to the conversation or not, as long as the other two are doing all the talking.
Given these factors, there still appears to be value in this carefully controlled approach to studying people’s talk, or “verbal behavior.” Because you undoubtedly want people such as bosses and beloved family members to like you, it’s improbable that you would do anything but agree with them. Fortunately, the results of this behaviorally based study say that this won’t make any difference in altering how much they speak. Nor should you try to interrupt a lengthy monologue. The Simon-Baum study showed that people will talk less when they sense that others in the conversation are being unusually quiet. Resisting the urge to interrupt, even if it’s to offer agreement, may be the best way to signal that it’s time for the other person to quit.
As I noted in a previous blog, being able to go with the conversational flow is an important way to keep your relationships working well. If you want to stop the other person’s flow, you can signal your desire to end the conversation by ending your contributions to it. You can still have a fulfilling relationship with your verbose friends and relatives, but one that will involve a more equitable balance of that flow.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Simon, C., & Baum, W. M. (2017). Allocation of speech in conversation. Journal Of The Experimental Analysis Of Behavior, 107(2), 258-278. doi:10.1002/jeab.249