The Rules of Pleasant Conversation

How do we know when to chime in?


Some rules are explicit. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t roll your eyes. Listen. And—as a young George Washington diligently scrawled into his school book centuries ago—“bedew no mans face with your spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak.”

Other rules are blobby, expanding and contracting to fill the contours of a given conversation. Play it cool. Don’t be tedious. Make eye contact but not too much eye contact unless you’re in love and this is a Moment.

Then there are the rules so integral to conversation that most of us don’t recognize them as rules at all. Just as syntax assigns structure to piles of words, these rules assign structure to discourse. They guide our focus, help us determine how one sentence ought to follow another, and ultimately allow us to respond to an utterance in a way that is relevant and—no less important—timely.

Conversations move faster than you’d think. In 2009, a large team of researchers led by Tanya Stivers, now at UCLA, studied casual conversations recorded in 10 drastically different languages. For each, they measured the lengths of the gaps between the end of a yes-no question and the beginning of a response. For every language they investigated, the typical gap—the one most often obtained—was less than a fifth of a second.

In addition to verbal responses, researchers also counted nonverbal ones such as head nods—or in the case of the Papua New Guinean language Yélî Dnye, “extended blinks and eyebrow flashes.” Nonverbal responses come faster than verbal ones because they’re faster to execute, less intrusive, or some combination of the two. Still, rarely do we wait to hear a telltale pause before opening our mouths. All of us share the implicit goal of keeping the turn-taking gap as short as possible without anyone’s turn being interrupted.

How do our everyday conversations achieve such FC Barcelona-like coordination? We use a number of clues to predict when our conversation partner will stop speaking before she actually does. Other studies tell us these clues include our partner’s intonations and phrasings (it’s generally pretty obvious when you’re still in the middle of a—), as well as contextual information like whether or not the expected point has been made.

Though the study reveals that a distaste for pauses isn’t an English thing, or even a Western thing, it also describes some intriguing differences among languages. Namely, while the most frequent gaps were all relatively short, actual averages—sensitive to the number and size of outliers—were more variable. Conversations in Japanese, for instance, had mean pauses of just seven milliseconds, while speakers of Danish had mean pauses of nearly half a second. While everyone can get behind a conversation that transitions at a good clip, it seems, some cultures may allow for more wiggle room—before a long pause becomes unacceptably weird.

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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