12 April 2009

Derek Draper breaks a basic rule of conversation

This year is the 35th anniversary of the publication of a foundational paper that established conversation analysis as a new and serious force across several disciplines in the area of language and social interaction. *

The paper is a defining analysis of how turn-taking works in everyday conversation, central to which is the most basic rule of all, namely ‘one speaker at a time’ – a rule so basic that we even have words in our language – ‘interruption’ and ‘interjection’ – for referring to breaches of it (i.e. speaking while someone else is speaking).

The fact that there are such words in our vocabulary means that the ‘one at a time’ rule must get broken quite often in conversations, as indeed it does.

But the point is that if you make a regular habit of speaking while someone else is speaking, you’re taking quite a risk because it involves, in effect, putting your reputation on the line - for the simple reason that others will not only notice what you’re doing but will also use such behaviour as evidence for coming to negative conclusions about your character and personality. That’s why we often hear complaints about someone being ‘pushy’, ‘domineering’, ‘hogging the conversation’, ‘never letting anyone get a word in edgeways’, ‘liking the sound of their own voice’, etc.

Having just got back from a skiing holiday, I was reminded about this while trying to catch up on the ‘Smeargate’ affair, which included watching Andrew Neill interviewing Derek Draper and Paul Staines.

Try watching the edited sequence below (or the whole interview HERE) and ask yourself three questions:

1. How many times does Mr Draper break the 'one at a time' rule?
2. What impression of him as a person is conveyed by Mr Draper’s repeated breaches of the rule?
3. How often have you seen an interviewer appeal to the ‘one at a time’ rule to restore normal turn-taking, as Neill does when he finally intervenes with “will you shut up for a minute and let him answer” ?

And, as an incidental footnote (given the Berkeley shirt worn by Mr Staines and his reason for wearing it) all three authors of this seminal paper really did have PhDs from the University of California, two of them from the Berkeley campus, where Sacks and Schegloff were supervised by the late great Erving Goffman.

* A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation by: Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, Language, Vol. 50, No. 4. (1974), pp. 696-735.


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