Why Your Closest Friends Can Finish Your Sentences
What we assume of our listeners, and what we actually say.
Posted May 26, 2015
Sharing an elevator with someone you don’t know can be awkward. We're taught as children not to talk to strangers, but occupying the same space with other people in silence just doesn’t feel right. Talking is what we humans do together. We spend many of our waking hours chatting, swapping stories, and exchanging information. As our common knowledge expands, so does our sense of connectedness.
What are the core elements of conversation? More than you might expect.
Conversation is what language is all about. Talk-in-interaction—the spontaneous speech people use as they engage in joint activities—far outweighs all other forms of language use. A conversation, however, is more than a set of sentences produced by alternating speakers.
For example, incomplete and ill-formed utterances are the norm in spontaneous conversation. This happens for two reasons:
First, we do not plan out our sentences before we speak them. As a result, we often experience processing delays, during which we buy time with conversational "fillers"—words like “uh” and “um” that have no meaning but are used to signal planning difficulties. (Although they seem to disrupt syntactic structure, conversational fillers are actually beneficial to both speakers and listeners, giving speakers more time to plan their intended messages and listeners more time to anticipate what’s coming next. In fact, words are better recalled later if they followed a conversational filler. Speakers can also use conversational fillers intentionally to highlight important information.)
Second, incomplete sentences may result from planning errors. Sometimes, speakers drop a structure mid-sentence to start anew. Other times, they persevere with an errant sentence, attempting to steer it back to the intended message by tacking on additional phrases and clauses.
Language is a means of communicating thoughts from one person to another. However, our speech in casual dialogue doesn’t always represent the thoughts we wish to convey. Instead, our utterances provide clues that listeners use to infer our intentions.
Due to these features of talk-in-interaction, transcripts of conversations can be difficult to read. Take, for example, this exchange recorded by Lee-Goldman (2011):
Aaron: For instance, I mean, I wouldn’t expect that it was very common overall, that when two people were talking at the same time, that it would—that it really was lower, although sometimes, as you say, it would.
Megan: Yeah, no, that was—That was a joke.
Notice Aaron’s use of the conversational filler I mean near the beginning of his turn. He seems to be having difficulty planning his utterance. And at one point, he abandons a newly started clause, that it would, repairing it with that it really was lower.
Megan starts her turn with the yeah, no combination filler. (The no, yeah combination is common as well.) She also breaks off in mid-sentence—that was—only to repeat what she’d just abandoned.
Although the reader probably has no clue what they’re discussing, Aaron and Megan seem to understand each other. How is this possible? Most of the conversation's meaning lies not in the semantics of individual words, but rather in the larger context.
In general, speakers tend to assume that listeners know what they know—after all, listeners can always ask for clarification if needed. While many of the words in a conversation are vague, it doesn’t matter because they refer to things and events that the participants all know about.
Conversation partners often negotiate the meanings of terms within the given situation. For example, people who interact with each other frequently—such as family members or coworkers—develop special terms that only they understand. After 50 years of marriage, Grandma can ask Grandpa to get her the thingamajig from the whatchamacallit, confident that he knows exactly what she means.
In sum, participating in a conversation requires more than just good listening and speaking skills. It requires considerable mindreading ability, as well.
Beňuš, Š., Gravano, A., & Hirschberg, J. (2011). Pragmatic aspects of temporal accommodation in turn-taking. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 3001–3027.
Lee-Goldman, R. (2011). No as a discourse marker. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 2627–2649.
ten Bosch, L., Oostdijk, N., & Boves, L. (2005). On temporal aspects of turn taking in conversational dialogues. Speech Communication, 47, 80–86.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).