Johnson: The importance of pauses in conversation

Date: 14-12-2017
Source: The Economist

“Um”, “uh”, “mm-hmm” and interruption are not killers of conversation, but its lubricants

MARGARET THATCHER was known for a voice that brooked no disagreement. While still in opposition, she had taken elocution lessons to sound more forceful. Despite this, she was often interrupted in interviews as prime minister, and in 1982, three researchers set out to understand why. They played clips from one of her interviews to a variety of people. The clips included segments that ended in interruption (while editing out the interruptions themselves). More often than not, those hearing the interrupted phrases thought that the prime minister was ending her conversational turn. It seems her interviewer had come to a similar conclusion.

Why? Conversation, it turns out, is a finely tuned machine, as Nick Enfield, a linguist at the University of Sydney, suggests in “How We Talk”. Humans mostly follow a rule called “no gap, no overlap”, reacting to the end of a conversational turn by beginning their own in about 200 milliseconds—about the time it takes a sprinter to respond to the starting gun. This is all the more remarkable given that it takes about 600 milliseconds for someone to work out what they are going to say by mentally retrieving the words and organising how they are to be expressed.

People, therefore, must plan to begin speaking before their conversation partner has stopped. That requires a fine attention to the cues signalling the end of a turn, such as a lengthening of syllables and a drop in pitch. As it happens, using a downward shift of pitch is also a frequent piece of advice given to those who want to sound more authoritative—like Thatcher. The researchers studying the times she was interrupted found precisely that a sharp drop in her pitch accurately predicted an interruption.

Contrary to popular assumptions, many dynamics of the “conversational machine” are similar from culture to culture, something that Mr Enfield demonstrates by looking at both big and small languages in rich and poor countries alike. For example, take “no gap, no overlap”. The cross-cultural differences in this timing are small, and not always what stereotypes would suggest. Though the Japanese are often said to be polite, they have one of the shortest gaps before starting conversational replies. In answering “yes” or “no” to a question, the Japanese, on average, even reply before the questioner’s turn is over.

This is not because the Japanese are rude. Quite the opposite. Answering quickly moves the conversation along. In general, two people speaking try to help each other. And to a remarkable degree, they succeed. Take some of the words that are generally considered conversational detritus: “uh”, “um” and “mm-hmm”. “Uh” and “um” signal to the other speaker that a turn is not quite finished, that the speaker is planning something more. This makes sense only in the light of the split-second timing with which speakers take turns. Men use these pause-fillers more than women, being perhaps more eager to hold the floor. (For unknown reasons they prefer “uh”, and women, “um”.) Those who tend not to use “um” and “uh” often just replace it with something else, like “so”, much derided as meaningless at the beginning of a statement.

Like “um” and “uh”, humble “mm-hmm” and “uh-huh” are critical too. Listeners use them to show they have understood the speaker and are sympathetic. To show their importance, researchers concocted a devilish experiment in which speakers were asked to tell about a near-death experience, while listeners were given a distracting task like pressing a button every time the speaker used a word starting with “T”. As a result, the listener was less able to encourage the speaker with “mm-hmm”. This drove the speakers themselves to distraction. They paused more, used more “um” and “uh” themselves, and repeated the dramatic lines of their stories, desperate for affirmation that they had been understood.

Cicero wrote a set of rules of conversation, which included taking turns and not going on too long. He thought he was the first to do so, but his rules have been rediscovered in culture after culture. They may be part of human beings’ shared social instincts, a product of evolution. So, next time you find yourself in conversation with a bulldozer or a bore, you might feel sorry for them, rather than for yourself. They are lacking a basic human skill. From a certain point of view, what is fascinating about conversation is not how hard it is, but how well people subconsciously co-operate to make it seem easy.

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