Why conversations are easy to hold but hard to study

Why conversations are easy to hold but hard to study

Everyday conversation is characterized by smooth turn-taking, i.e. short gaps and frequent overlaps between turns. Switching quickly between the tasks of listening and speaking, and planning one's turn during an interlocutor's utterance should render conversation a taxing task. Yet, it is not commonly experienced as such. Why is this? I review evidence showing that (a) in everyday conversations and in dyadic laboratory tasks, speakers indeed often plan their utterances while listening to their interlocutors; (b) listening and speaking require attention in multiple ways; (c) listening and speaking interfere with each other. All of this should make holding a conversation hard. However, I also discuss that (d) speaking and listening only require part, but not all of a person's attention, and that (e) listening and speaking may not only interfere with each other but can also facilitate each other. Finally, I argue that (f) the capacity demands imposed by speaking and listening are largely strategic rather than structural, and that in everyday conversation, speakers are free to allocate capacity to these activities as they see fit. This contrasts with the tight task constraints in most laboratory settings. In other words, we might often experience conversation as easy because we are in control of our allocation of attention.

Prof Antje Meyer
Hosted by
School of Psychology

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