How We Talk | N.J. Enfield

Summary of: How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation
By: N.J. Enfield


Ever wondered about the seemingly effortless intricacy of human conversation? As you delve into the summary of ‘How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation’ by N.J. Enfield, you will uncover the fascinating complexity and unwritten rules that govern our everyday interactions. Taking a look at various topics such as the ‘conversation machine,’ turn-taking across languages, and cooperative nature of discussions, Enfield offers valuable insights into human communication. Explore how seemingly simple exchanges run much deeper, adhering to societal expectations and interpretive rules, and learn about the psychological and social underpinnings of conversation that transcend spoken words.

The Precision-timed Achievement of Conversations

Conversations may seem like a simple exchange of words, but they are actually a complex and precise “conversation machine,” governed by societal and interpretive guidelines. Experts such as Noam Chomsky speculate that even interplanetary aliens may assume that humans use only one language due to these similarities. The use of filler words like “um” or “uh” and the occasional need for clarification show that even the most straightforward conversation is truly a precision-timed achievement. The timing of taking turns during conversations differs across languages and cultures, with even a one-second difference being significant in some contexts. People also rely on nonverbal cues and meanings beyond spoken words to keep discussions moving at a comfortable pace. Rules of conversation become most visible when they are broken, indicating the complexity and precision involved in everyday communication.

The Art of Cooperative Conversation

Conversations involve a set of “norms” that surpass grammatical rules. It’s a shared act of cooperating with one another to achieve a common goal, like a dance troupe. The book argues that reports of cultural differences in communication have been overstated. The author explores moral obligations individuals face during conversation and how it requires them to act as a team. For example, if someone asks for the time, you must respond to maintain the cooperative nature of the conversation, even if you don’t know. There are specific rules to asking for favors, too, when asking someone for a favor, you should let them know by saying, “Would you do me a favor?” The grantor should respond with some form of agreement indicating that they’re open to listening to the request.

Mastering Conversational Rules

The book describes how conversational rules help manage interactions in three ways. First, by reserving floor time in advance, the speaker can think through their tale before speaking it. Second, the audience’s focus allows the speaker to observe their responses and ensure comprehension. Finally, conversation rules support fair exchange and build relationships by taking turns. Ignoring conversational rules incurs social penalties, causing discomfort and anger in the other participants. Therefore, it’s essential to understand these rules to master conversations effectively.

The Art of Conversation Timing

Conversations involve more than verbal content. Timing rules are essential as well. People take turns speaking, and there are turn-yielding signals that, if properly recognized, facilitate communicative exchange. Linguists suggest that these signals may be given in advance, rather than at the moment of transition. Delaying a response may indicate hesitation or point to a strategic move. The speed of speech also impacts communication, as languages differ in their rhythms and turns vary across cultures. Understanding how timing works can help improve conversational skills.

The Power of Timing

Responding to requests with hesitation of more than a second can convey a negative message. People prefer to say yes than no and use fillers such as “um” and “uh” to soften the blow of refusing. The majority of English speakers tend to answer within a quarter of a second. Quick responses are perceived positively, making conversations more comfortable and helpful. The rules of narrative help regulate joint-action by monitoring self and others. Timing is vital in conversations as it can make or break the message conveyed.

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