Why can’t we just talk to each other? Conversational Values and You

By: Tyler Dzuba

Have you ever tried to have a conversation, but keep getting derailed for one of these two reasons?

  • “They won’t speak up at all! I’m carrying the whole conversation!”
  • “I can’t get a word in edgewise! They’re taking up all the air in the room!”

Let me share how some savvy from the world of linguistics can help you communicate better in these cases. (Spoiler: try on the opposite conversational style, even if it feels a little rude to you!)

Did you know that across cultures and languages, people on average notice a silence of only 200 milliseconds—just a fifth of a second!—as a discernible gap in conversation? That’s literally a blink of an eye.

Here’s the thing, though: what we do with those gaps in conversation might get us in trouble depending on who we’re talking with. The research in conversation analysis tells us that individual people fall on a spectrum between high-involvement and high-considerateness with respect to how they take turns in conversation.

People who use a high-involvement style tend toward a rapid-fire conversation style. They show they care about the discussion by driving conversation forward and limiting silence. That 200-millisecond gap? They try to keep silence even shorter than that. For these people, interrupting at the end of what someone else says is a way of engaging and displaying interest.

On the other hand, those who prefer a high-considerateness style listen first. They let pauses linger, far beyond a fifth of a second, as a way to let people finish their thoughts before they start speaking. They wait until they’re sure someone has said what they’re going to say, all of it, and wouldn’t dare interrupt before that.

Does one of these styles sound absolutely wild to you? That should give you a big hint about whether you prefer high involvement or high considerateness. One key thing to be aware of: both styles are 100% typical and OK! Different cultures may have different distributions of preferences, but every culture and every language has people who speak in both of these ways.

So what can you do with this newfound knowledge?

  1. Reflect on your own preferences. Your unique conversational style comes from the whole of how you were brought up with language. What was conversation like with your household when you were growing up? How was the way you talked with peers different from the way you talked with family? What happened when you took too long to respond, or when you interrupted people?
  2. Imagine the preferences of others and what they might mean for how they interact. When someone seems to be on a totally different tempo from you, that might mean that they have a different preference from you. It’s usually not that they’re trying to talk over you or that they have nothing to say. Instead, they might be operating with a different set of principles around turn-taking.
  3. To get unstuck, try on the other style. This is the big secret of communicating well with people across the entire spectrum. Our tendency when we encounter someone with a different involvement-considerateness balance is to dig in harder to our own preference. We assume our way is right, and the other person needs to get it together. That inevitably goes badly. A more effective strategy is to adopt some of the other person’s strategy, even if it seems a little rude to you. Nine times out of ten, they’ll respond well to hearing you talk like them, even if it’s just a subtle change.

Take me as an example. I am absolutely on the high-considerateness end of the spectrum. I don’t mind extended silences, and I rarely try to squeeze in something when others are talking. This works for me in a lot of cases—I’m a great listener, and I will win the silence when I’m trying to get you to say something—but it doesn’t serve me well when I need to be taken seriously by a high-involvement person. When I notice that, I try my best to speak a little more quickly and to close up gaps in dialogue. That helps my high-involvement colleagues feel like I’m keeping up and engaged.

Want to know more about this? Deborah Tannen is the key researcher on this dynamic. Her book That’s Not What I Meant! is all about how conversational styles affect how we interact at work and at home. If you want a half-hour primer on how conversation structure works and how to help bring conversations back on track, and to learn a bit of linguistics on the way, this episode of Lingthusiasm (“A podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics!”) is the right starting place.

Learning about your conversational style and others’ styles is definitely part of your journey to cultural competence. We go deeper into these topics in The Equity Toolkit and the Inclusive Manager’s Toolkit. I encourage you to step out of your comfortable ways of communicating and to use this skill to improve your relationships across all realms of your life.

What about how Zoom, email, and technology overall change this equation? Keep an eye out for another post soon about how high-considerateness and high-involvement relate to virtual communication.

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