Take a Turn

What animals can teach us about conversation.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

Aragorn: You draw too much attention to yourself, "Mister Underhill." / Frodo: What do you want? / Aragorn: A little more caution from you, that's no trinket you carry. / Frodo: I carry nothing. / Aragorn: Indeed. I can avoid being seen if I wish, but to disappear entirely, that is a rare gift. / Frodo: Who are you? / Aragorn: Are you frightened? / Frodo: Yes. / Aragorn: Not nearly frightened enough …

You might recognize this dialogue from The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo meets Aragorn for the first time. What happens in this conversation happens nearly every time we talk to each other: we take turns. It seems very simple: participants speak one at a time in alternating turns and avoid overlapping or interrupting. Thus, Frodo waits until Aragorn is finished until he continues to argue. Moreover, speakers construct their turns into units whose structure allows the next speaker to anticipate the first speaker’s completion. In that way, silence between turns is minimized. Across cultures and languages, the gap between speakers in conversation is usually only about 200-500 milliseconds long.

Turn-taking is thought to be crucial for successful conversation. Infants perform turn-taking with adults long before they develop gestural and linguistic competence (Bateson 1975, Gratier et al. 2015). Thus, already at the age of 3 months a baby will start “talking” to you and will react to your answers—this is what researchers call proto-conversations.

But what about non-human animals? They obviously do not have a language, but they do take turns (Pika et al 2018).

Pixabay License
Source: Pixabay License

From intensive studies on bird songs, we know that birds listen and respond to each other and adjust their timing. For instance, common nightingales start to sing their song precisely one second after a neighbour has terminated its song (Todt & Hultsch 1999). Nest-mates of European starlings exchange calls very early in life with simultaneous calls occurring only rarely (Chaiken 1990). Later in their lives, these starlings still avoid overlaps in vocalizations. If overlap occurs, individuals become silent or fly away, suggesting that overlapping may be treated, in this species, as a violation of socially accepted rules of turn-taking (Henry et al 2015)!

But birds aren’t the only ones that take turns in their communication. Monogamous primate species like gibbons sing coordinated duets and Callitrichids, a group of New World monkeys, are famous for their call exchanges. Great apes show a turn-taking pattern in their gestural communication. Bottlenose dolphins produce characteristic signature whistles that are used in coordinated vocal interactions and which seem to facilitate individual recognition and maintenance of group cohesion. Time windows of vocal turns between interacting individuals seem to be generally shorter than one second. There is evidence for turn-taking in bats, frogs, and also in elephants: Female elephants exchange vocalizations such as low-frequency rumbles to respond to calls from other females. Elephants mainly call to their friends, with a response most likely when the interacting females have strong social relationships (Soltis et al 2005).

If you now think that only vertebrates are capable of what Aragorn and Frodo do in their first encounter, think again—insects also show turn-taking. Researchers have found that, in many insects, the first signal of a given interaction is always initiated by males, with females providing a response. Depending on the insect species, intervals between signals vary from extremely short (e.g., 15 milliseconds) to comparably long (850 milliseconds).

Thus, turn-taking is not at all uniquely human. On the contrary, it sometimes seems that humans may be losing this ability. Instead of listening to each other and pausing before we respond, we talk—and often shout—over one another. We might think this helps to get our point across but as we have seen in starlings, interruption only prevents further communication. Perhaps we should remember what birds, monkeys, elephants, insects, and even Aragorn and Frodo have shown us: even when we argue and have every reason to be suspicious, when times are hard and frightening, it makes sense to take turns.


Bateson, M. C. (1975). Mother-infant exchanges: the epigenesis of conversational interaction. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 263, 101-113. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1975.tb41575.x

Gratier, M., Devouche, E., GUELLAI, B., Infanti, R., Yilmaz, E., & Parlato, E. (2015). Early development of turn-taking in vocal interaction between mothers and infants. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1167). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01167

Pika, S., Wilkinson, R., Kendrick, K. H., & Vernes, S. C. (2018). Taking turns: bridging the gap between human and animal communication. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 285(1880), 20180598. doi:doi:10.1098/rspb.2018.0598

Todt, D., & Hultsch, H. (1999). How Nightingales develop their vocal competence. Paper presented at the 22. International ornithological congress Durban, South Africa.

Chaiken, M. (1990). The ontogeny of antiphonal calling in European starlings. Developmental Psychobiology, 23(3), 233-246. doi:10.1002/dev.420230304

Henry, L., Craig, A. J. F. K., Lemasson, A., & Hausberger, M. (2015). Social coordination in animal vocal interactions. Is there any evidence of turn-taking? The starling as an animal model. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1416). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01416

Soltis, J., Leong, K., & Savage, A. (2005). African elephant vocal communication I: antiphonal calling behaviour among affiliated females. Animal Behaviour, 70(3), 579-587. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2004.11.015