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The science of conversation


How often is it that we stop to consider the inspiration, meaning and consequences of the words that come out of our mouths? How often do we consider the way our spoken language shapes and influences what we think and how we feel? And how often do we admit to ourselves that although our everyday is made up of various oral interactions, we actually know very little about the constructions of the language that we use? Well below, Elizabeth Stokoe takes us through some brilliant and challenging aspects of the science of talk.


The conversational racetrack

Conversations are encounters with a landscape, with a start and an end like a racetrack. We start at the beginning with our recipient or recipients and, along the way, complete various projects. We design and build openings with summons and answers, greetings and identifications, and ‘how-are-yous’. Think about the encounters you have with friends, partners, the checkout person at the supermarket, your children’s schoolteacher, the doctor, a first date. Each of these has a landscape with projects, or actions, that comprise the complete encounter. Some actions will be the same, like greetings, openings and closings. Others will be particular to the setting, like diagnoses, flirts, storytelling, complaints, requests or instructions. We may move smoothly along the racetrack from one project to the next, or bump along the sides of the racetrack, on the rumble strips.


We know a lot about talking – implicitly. We now know more about the technology and machinery of talk. Talk is simultaneously simple and complex. It is messy – full of ums, uhs, false starts, pauses – but remarkably systematic. And its systematic nature is known to us. If it were not, we could not identify breaches, [or] find scripted dialogue funny. Talk is both unique and familiar. All fingerprints are unique, but we know a fingerprint when we see one.



The science of conversation

A decade or so ago, I was driving with my mother to visit her mother – my grandmother. My grandmother was very old and housebound. My mother started to tell me that, the previous week, she herself had ‘had a fall’. ‘No, Mum,’ I said. ‘Nana has falls; you fell over. You need to own that fall!’ ‘Old people’ may have falls because of reduced strength in their bodies. ‘Younger people,’ I said, ‘like you and me, Mum, still trip up, fall over, bash ourselves’ and so on. ‘There is no point in buying anti-ageing skin cream if you refer to yourself as “having falls”. You need to anti-age your language!’


This was the moment that my mother started to understand a little of what I do, as an academic who studies talk. She suddenly understood that there are different ways to describe things and that those different ways have consequences for who we are and how we live. Our words build our sense of self.


For most people, most of the time, our sense of who people are comes from the turns of talk they utter. Most of us are not psychologists. But we are – whether we realise it or not – conversation analysts. We make decisions about who people are from what they do and say as our evidence base.


People often ask me, as a scientist of talk, about many aspects of human communication. Some questions draw upon commonly held myths about the way we speak. For example, if I am showing an audience how customer service works over the telephone, people ask about ‘body language’, and the limits of the voice-only mode. Their questions often reveal a presupposition about the answer. Body language, it is assumed, has primacy over words. Actions speak louder than words.



Do actions speak louder than words?

The notion that talk is secondary to something else – to action – forms the basis of many idioms, proverbs and phrases. The first recorded use of the proverb ‘actions speak louder than words’ was in 1628 (Oxford English Dictionary 1628: J. Pym Deb. King’s Message to hasten Supply 4 Apr. in Hansard Parl. Hist. Eng. (1807) II. 274/2). The proverb is shared across all major world languages, including Brazilian Portuguese, Finnish, Russian, Swedish, Persian, Chinese Mandarin and Irish. So the idea that people’s actions are a better indicator of character than what they say is, perhaps surprisingly, universal.


The idea that ‘actions speak louder than words’ drives our understanding of talk towards communicative practices other than talk as the place to find out what people are really doing. Somehow, then, talk is not action. Talk is disconnected from action. And the phrase figures repeatedly in advertising, art, culture and literature.


Almost four hundred years after its first recorded use, it continues to capture the public imagination. A recent exhibition at London’s Halcyon Gallery was promoted with the poster ‘Actions Not Words’ (Lorenzo Quinn, ‘Actions Not Words’, Halcyon Gallery, London, 2017). Aaron Reynold’s ‘Effin’ Birds’ shouts the question on Twitter, ‘Can we stop talking and actually fucking do something?’ (‘Effin’ Birds’, Aaron Reynolds, 2017). And Amazon advertises its web services with the strapline, ‘While talkers talk, builders build’.


How do these ideas about talk and action get used in conversation? Let us start with a fictional – but very recognisable – example from Tom Sharpe’s The Wilt Alternative (1979). Sharpe writes the following dialogue between two characters, Wilt and Eva.


But on the domestic front suspicion still lurked. Eva had taken to waking him in the small hours to demand proof that he loved her.


‘Of course I do, damn it,’ grunted Wilt. ‘How many times do I have to tell you?’


‘Actions speak louder than words,’ retorted Eva.


The next thing to happen is that Wilt and Eva have sex. The words, ‘I love you’, are not enough to convince Eva of Wilt’s love. An embodied action is the proof she needs. Note that everything in this example from Sharpe is words. It’s all words, including the appeal to action, and including the explanatory scene-setting by Sharpe. We tend to look through language at the world it describes, ignoring how that world is itself given shape, nature and relevance by language. One thing that Eva’s words do is get sex to happen, which is presumably Eva’s project in saying them.


‘Actions speak louder than words’ is itself a sentence; a proposition; a collection of words – and each time they are used, in some specific context, they are designed to make something happen.


In fact, talk is often the only resource people have to make the world happen at all. It may be the only resource to establish the facts of the matter or mask the truth.


Actions do not speak louder than words. Words are actions. No talk is ‘small’; talk does big things.



This article is extracted from Elizabeth Stokoe’s Talk: The Science of Conversation.