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Ministry of Education.

Talking to Each Other: The Language of Conversation

Students should explore the structure of texts, sometimes called discourse structure.

English in the New Zealand Curriculum, page 17

The most common kind of spoken language is conversation, when one person communicates through speaking to another person or to other people. Just as there are patterns in sounds, words, and sentences, so also there are patterns in conversation. In even in the most unpredictable conversations, there are certain devices that we use time and time again. If a person wants to tell a joke or some bad news or to ask for a special favour, there are recognised ways of introducing these subjects. Without these cues, listeners would be very disconcerted.

Conversations are orderly and proceed in an organised way, but all the participants have to work at the conversation, making sense of things, supporting each other, checking for meaning, and so on. A conversation, unlike a piece of written work, is very much the work of at least two people.

One defining characteristic of a conversation is that it does not involve only what is said but also how it is said.

  • Hello and Goodbye

A simple pattern of conversation can be seen when people join a group and when they leave it. As far as we know, all languages have particular forms that they use as greetings and forms that they use as farewells.

In English, we can use simple formulae which do not involve any creativity.

  • Hello.
  • Hi.
  • G'day.

Or we can be more creative.

  • Oh, you're just the person I was looking for.

The greeting and the farewell take care of establishing the relationship between the speakers.

Once the greeting has been given, the speakers can get on with their business. Even on a long distance toll call when time costs money, it is still necessary to spend time on the greeting.

  • Hi! Is that Tom? How are you? Great to hear you! What's the time with you ...

The greeting and the farewell are necessary for social relations. If you fail to greet someone, the omission could be interpreted as indicating that you are angry with them for some reason.

A conversation has a very simple structure:

  • Greeting - Business - Farewell.

If you have no established relationship with someone and no wish to have one, you are likely to begin, not with a greeting, but rather with, 'Excuse me.'

This opening indicates that you are not trying to establish a relationship and that you are apologising for invading someone's privacy.

  • Excuse me, can you tell me the way to the post office?

The foreigner who begins, "Good morning, can you tell me the way to the post office?" is likely to be readily identified as unfamiliar with English conversational conventions.

This kind of speech also performs a social function, bringing people together and establishing relationships.

It was given the technical name of phatic communion by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who lived for a period in the Trobriand Islands in the Western Pacific. He thought that people, both there and in other societies, found silence threatening and so would talk about supremely obvious things in order to break the ice and show friendliness. In New Zealand and Britain, we talk about the weather. In China, the topic among friends and family members is food. The content is not as important as the social function.

Sometimes, this function can be misinterpreted. If you are asked, "Hi, how are you?" the expected response will be, "Fine thanks," and not an account of your flu and your chilblains.

When Māori and Samoan people set out to get to know people individually, they do not bother with neutral topics but ask the questions they think are important: "When did you arrive?" "Where did you come from?" and "Where do you come from originally?" For they identify people with reference to place and kinship connections (which can usually be deduced from place) rather than occupations or interests.

Metge and Kinloch: Talking Past Each Other

Getting a Response

One way in which conversation is organised is through utterances of a certain type that go together.

A greeting is usually followed by another greeting.

  • Hi.
  • G’day.

These utterances are called adjacency pairs. Some examples of these pairs are:

  • Question - Answer
  • Request - Acceptance or refusal
  • Complaint - Apology/denial
  • Compliment - Acceptance/rejection.

These structures help to keep the conversation going and enable other people to participate. Questions are especially useful in supporting conversation.

When these devices are violated, this can cause anxiety, distress, annoyance, or confusion. These reactions demonstrate the importance of observing the rules of conversation.

  • Question - No answer
  • Greeting - No greeting in return
  • Request - No response

Mothers use questions with very young babies.

  • You're a lovely girl, aren't you?
  • Shall we go for a walk?

Any noise, gesture, facial expression from the baby is likely to be taken as a response. This can be seen as very early experience of turn-taking. When a baby brings up wind, the person patting its back will nearly always say something like "That's better." The burp is interpreted as a turn in conversation which requires a reply.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009