Johnson: The importance of pauses in conversation

15. December 2017

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. Read the rest of this entry »