Turn Taking and Conversation:

A Study of Turn Taking and Conversation within Discourse Analysis

Linguistics 347.3 – Web Presentation





1- Turn Taking: Introduction

2- Cross-Cultural Turn Taking

3- Turn Taking and Gender

4- Turn Taking and Technology

5- Suggested Further Reading

6- Works Cited and Referenced



1 – Turn Taking: Introduction




Conversation is not chaos.


From a very young age we are taught how to take turns: this helps shape conversations for the rest of our lives (Coates 111).


Video of a baby already learning/displaying turn taking skills: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKD6jzUxkek&feature=related


Turn taking is a cyclical process.  It begins with one person speaking, and continues as the speaker gives up control to the next person.  The second speaker now has the conversational floor.  When the speaker is finished, they give control back to another speaker (in this case, the beginning speaker), thus creating a cycle.  The turn taking cycle stops when there is nothing left to say (Woodburn, Arnott, Newell, and Procter 5).



Turn taking has two central aspects:  1) Frequency

                                                                2) Control of contribution


Frequency refers to the amount of turn taking within a conversation.  For example, a conversation between two people has high frequency, and a lecture has low frequency, as show in diagram A below (Woodburn, Arnott, Newell, and Procter 8).



Lecture                                                                                                   Conversation

 Low                                                    Medium                                 High


                                                A) Frequency of turn taking                                        


Diagram: (Woodburn, Arnott, Newell, and Procter 8).


The control of contribution refers to the amount of control a person has over what to say and how much to say.  For example, a letter allows the person complete control over what is written in the letter, which is known as a free for all. A religious ritual provides less control over what a person can say therefore, it is seen as rule-dependent.  Diagram B below illustrates this point (Woodburn, Arnott, Newell, and Procter 8).




Letter                                      Conversation                           mass/ritual  

Free for                                         Negotiated                                 Rule-dependent  


                                         B) Degree of control of contribution


Diagram: (Woodburn, Arnott, Newell, and Procter 8).


What is a turn?

A turn is the essential factor within turn taking, which is attached to a speaker. Each speaker takes turns within conversation.


What is a speaker?

A speaker is someone creating some sort of utterance or speech act directed towards an audience of one or more people.


What is a conversation?

A conversation is a combination of organized utterances and turns, used with purpose among speakers.


No gap, no overlap model:

This model refers to the notion that ideally when one speaker stops speaking, the other begins in a predictable manner with no gaps or overlaps. In doing so, the listener interprets a variety of cues from the speaker, including semantic and syntactic units, which enable them to take part in smooth conversation (Coates 112).


This is an ideal model, but in reality it does not always go so easily…



The following is an example of both good and bad turn taking according to the no gap, no overlap model (special attention to 4:30 where all turn taking rules are forgotten) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VhkPJM7WEQ



Conversation Violations:



Interruptions: When an interrupter inhibits the speaker from finishing their turn, viewed as a turn taking violation (Coates 111). 


Overlaps: When the next speaker overlaps the first speaker’s turn; an anticipation before speaker is finished. The first speaker is still able to finish their turn with the overlap (Coates 113).


Grabbing the floor: When a listener interrupts the current holder of the floor, thus taking over (Coates 113).


Hogging the floor: When a speaker takes a long time on the floor and ignores others attempting to take the floor (Coates 113)


Silence: Often a sign of turn taking violations, and can follow interruptions or when someone hogs the floor for too long (Coates 122).



Turn Taking Tools:


Self Selection: When multiple people start to talk at the same time, and one person dominates and selects his or herself as the next speaker (Johnstone 108)


Turn Taking Cues:

-When the current speaker asks a question it might be a cue for someone else to take over

- If the current speaker trails off, it could be a cue for someone else to take over

-If the speaker indicates that they are done speaking with a closing statement  ex. And so that’s all…

-Marker words: but, so…, well…

(O’Grady and Archibald 480)





2 – Cross-cultural Turn Taking



"To have a second language is to have a second soul." –Charlemagne (Boroditsky 1)


What is culture? Some definitions…


Culture: the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. (Dictionary.com)


Cross-cultural: involving or bridging the differences between cultures. (Dictionary.com)


Turn Taking and Culture


There are several different aspects taking place between conversational turn taking and culture. Culture plays a significant role in conversation and whether the conversation succeeds or fails. However, when people from multiple cultures engage in conversation it is very easy for miscommunications and confusion to occur. (Boroditsky 1)


Similarities across culture…

-Avoidance of overlapping talk

-Minimal amounts of silence are preferred between speakers (ex. awkward silences)

-Speed of the listener’s response is important


Differences across culture…

-Turn taking cues are different in ordinary conversation across cultures.

-Many different body language cues

-Different gestures add to conversation (ex. hand usage in Italian)

-Different verb tenses are used for gender politeness and differences

-Honorifics are used in some cultural conversation (ex. Korean)

-Vowel and consonant systems (O’Grady and Archibald 292,294)


Political, cultural, social, historical and religious factors frequently interfere when determining linguistic boundaries. (O’Grady and Archibald 287)


Languages are made up of:

Absolute Universals: structural patterns/traits that occur in all languages (O’Grady and Archibald 291).


Universal Tendencies: structural patterns/traits that occur in all languages (O’Grady and Archibald 291).


“It is discourse which creates, re-creates, modifies and fine tunes both culture and language and their intersection, and it is especially in verbal artistic discourse such as poetry, magic, verbal dueling and political rhetoric that the potentials and resources provided by grammar, as well as cultural meanings and symbols, are exploited to the fullest and the essence of languages-culture relations becomes salient.”-Joel Sherzer  (Johnstone 50).


Language is determined by culture, and culture is determined by language.


Culture and Non-Verbal Communication





Even though two speakers cannot speak the same language, it does not mean they are unable to communicate with each other. It is possible to communicate without using any words at all. Instead the communicators use body language and hand gestures. There are a few universal body languages, but many gestures are not universal. This causes confusion between the communicators and unintentional insults, which leads to a communication failure.






This video shows how body language may lead to a communication failure.



This video shows how gestures are very important to communication and if misunderstood, how they may lead to insult between the communicators.



In Summary-Turn taking and non-verbal communication are greatly influenced by culture. When having a cross-cultural conversation it is important to be aware of the customs and politeness rules within the culture in order to avoid accidently insulting the other speaker.




3 – Turn Taking and Gender




Without question, women and men have the tendency to use language both the same and differently, especially when taking turns.


While some of the following may seem to be stereotypes (and may prove to be stereotypes with further research), current research makes the following claims…



Examples of Different Language Strategies by Men and Women (Coates 86-100):


Minimal Responses: Also known as a backchannel, these include terms such as mhm, yeah and right. They are typically used more by women than men, especially when showing agreement and support of a current speaker. Men tend to use these terms to assert dominance.


Hedges: Include terms such as I think, perhaps, like etc. While it is claimed women use these more than men, it may be argued that the use is centered more closely to context and could be used by either gender.  These terms express levels of uncertainty.


Tag Questions: Include terms such as isn’t it? These terms relay tentativeness, and while some researchers claim they are more specific to females, there is no conclusive evidence that this is true. It is argued that these depend on attitudes and context.


Questions: It is believed women use more interrogative questions than men, seemingly as a method to keep conversation active.   It is also believed that people with more power use more questions in conversation than those with less.


Commands and Directives: It is believed that males and females use commands and directives differently, especially when used in same-sex groups. Males tend to use more explicit commands ex. Gimme, while girls tend to be more inclusive ex. Let’s play.


Swearing and Taboo Language: There is widespread belief that males use more taboo forms than females. Research shows that male-male conversation uses substantially more taboo words than female-female, while mixed conversations tend to accommodate both sides.


Compliments: Research shows that women give more compliments, and also receive more. Women tend to compliment each other on appearance, while men tend to compliment each other based on skill and possessions.


Both men and women participate in conversations and turn taking situations regularly.


Strategies used by men and women differ for turn taking, and examples can be seen in both mixed gender and same gender conversations.



Mixed talk: Men and Women having conversations:


Do women and men have equal speaking rights?




The following is an example of gendered conversation from the movie ‘Garden state’  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4za6LSAoajU


Holding/Hogging the floor (Coates 116-119): Research states that men tend to dominate conversation (especially in the public sphere) more than women, contrary to popular belief.


Within a sociolinguistic context, it is argued that since men are dominant in social settings, women may be expected to be more silent; therefore, when women talk it is perceived as talkative.  Research shows that rank holds less power than gender in conversation dominance: men dominate conversation more than women.


Non-cooperational speech (Coates 120-121): Can be seen when one or more people do not cooperate in conversation.


Typically, females try harder to keep a conversation going, using terms such as you know(?), in places where pauses are not being filled by whomever they are speaking with. 


Generally, males fail to give responses at all in non-cooperative speech, and participate in more delays and pauses than females.


In a study conducted by Victoria DeFrancisco (1998), seven couples were studied regarding non-cooperational speech:


Turn-taking violations in the daily interaction of seven couples (based on DeFrancisco 1998:179) (Coates 121):


                                         Women (%)                      Men (%)

No response                            32                                68

Delayed response                    30                                70

Inadequate response               40                                60

Interruption                            46                                54



Same gendered talk:


How do men and women Converse differently in same gendered groups?


The following is an example from the TV series, ‘Friends’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGoC8FTLKSI&feature=related



a) http://howtosavetheworld.ca/images/conversation.jpg                                                    

b) http://www.janeburt.com/images/art/Jane-Burt-Women-in-Conversation-5-Painting-women-in-conversation-fat-pink-colour-naked-bejewelled-humour-1830849.jpg



General characteristics and Turn Taking (Coates 126-138):


All-female groups:

-Cooperative/collaborative rather than competitive

-More flexible

-Problems: discuss more personal issues

-Talk about people and feelings

…Turn Taking…

-Often violate one person at a time

-Open up conversational floor

-Overlapping and minimal responses

-Simultaneous speech is understood: multilayered conversations


All-male groups:


-Hierarchies emerge in conversation: submission and dominance

-Problems: discuss more circumstantial differences

-Talk about current affairs, travel and sports

-Ask questions to gain information

-Wish to achieve solidarity

…Turn Taking…

-Prefer one at a time, little overlap

-Playing the expert: hold floor and talk for a long time about a subject

-Verbal sparring: rapid-fire turns



In summary – As far as current studies allow us to believe, men and women use language in a variety of ways, some similar and some different.


Without question, there is much more to learn on gendered conversation tactics, and in particular gendered turn taking.


4 – Turn Taking and technology


Turn taking happens not only in oral conversations, but also through technology programs, such as live chats. While turn taking may not seem prevalent in technology, it still exists to bring order into a conversation.















Computer-mediated communication (CMC): A conversation that is not face-to-face.  No verbal or non-verbal cues (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


Oral communication:  A conversation that involves two or more people talking face-to face (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


Verbal cues:  The utterances of the speaker (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999)


Non-verbal cues: The actions of the speaker (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


Main differences between oral communication and CMC:


In CMC, turn taking is not specified as it is in oral conversation.  The person who claims the next turn is the one who posts their message first (Garcian and Jacobs, 1999).


Oral communication includes two separate roles:

A) The speaker: The person creating the utterance (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).

B) The listener: The person listening and interpreting the utterances of the speaker (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


In oral communication, each person can assume only one role at a time.  Therefore, one person cannot be the speaker and the listener at the same time (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


CMC includes multiple roles:

A) Message constructor: The person typing (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).

B) Message poster: The person who sends the message (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).

C) Waiter: The person waiting for the message (Garica and Jacobs, 1999).

D) Reader: The person reading the message (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).

E) Worker: The person who is not working directly at the computer. For example, reading a book instead of working on the computer. (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


In CMC, each person can assume multiple roles at the same time.  For example, one person can be typing a message while waiting for a message from the other person (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


Verbal and non-verbal cues:

Oral communication involves the use of verbal and non-verbal cues.  What a person says is a verbal cue that can be interpreted by a listener.  What a person does is a non-verbal (visual) cue that can also be interpreted by a listener.  Verbal and non-verbal cues can be useful in determining the correct response as well the appropriate time to start the next turn. 


In CMC, there are no verbal or non-verbal cues.  The listener cannot interpret verbal cues because they are reading text on the computer, not listening to someone’s speech.  Non-verbal cues are also non-existent because the listener and speaker cannot see one another.  Thus, it is harder to determine if the present speaker is finished which makes it harder to determine the next appropriate turn (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


Competing for turns

Oral communication can involve competition for turns, such as talking louder, interrupting, etc.  CMC does not involve competition for turns.  This is because everyone involved in a computer conversation can type and post their messages at the same time (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


The only competition in CMC is where something will be typed.  The faster you type, the faster you can post your message. Therefore, your message will be the first to be displayed (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


Length, order, and content

In oral communication, the length, order, and content of a conversation are determined ahead of time.  In CMC, the length, order, and content are not determined ahead of time.

For example, in oral conversations, a person may stop themselves mid-sentence, whereas in CMC, once a message is posted, it cannot be stopped or deleted.  In CMC, what a person decides to say depends on the order of conversation.  If someone enters text before you can get your point across, the topic may have changed and your point becomes irrelevant (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).


How does a person self-select themselves in CMC?

1) By typing faster (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).

2) By typing a shorter message (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).

3) By typing and entering the first half of the message, and then typing the rest of the message right after (Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).










5 – Suggested Further Reading




General Turn Taking and conversations:


Cross-Cultural Turn Taking:


Turn Taking, Language and Gender:


Turn Taking and Technology:

The Eyes of the Beholder: Understanding the Turn-Taking System in Quasi-Synchronous Computer- Mediated Communication, Research on Language & Social Interaction By Angela Cora Garcia and Jennifer Baker Jacobs (Electronic).



6 – Works Cited and Referenced




Boroditsky, L. “Lost in Translation.” Dow Jones & Company, Inc.Web. 18 Oct. 2011



Coates, Jennifer. Women, Men and Language, 3rd Ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2004. Print.


Dictionary.com, "culture," in Dictionary.com Unabridged. Source location: Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/culture. Web. 18 Oct. 2011.



Garcia, Angela and Jacobs, Jennifer. “The Eyes of the Beholder: Understanding the Turn-Taking System in Quasi-Synchronous Computer- Mediated Communication, Research on Language & Social Interaction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction. 32:4 (1999). 337-367. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. http://www.tandfonline.com.cyber.usask.ca/doi/pdf/10.1207/S15327973rls3204_2


Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 3rd Ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 2008. Print.


Johnstone, Barbara. Discourse Analysis, 2nd Ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2008. Print.


O’Grady, William, and John Archibald. An Introduction Contemporary Linguistic Analysis. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2009. Print.


Woodburn, R., Arnott, L., Newell, A.F., Procter, R. “A Study of Conversational Turn-Taking in a Communication Aid For the Disable.”  1-8. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.