Conversation is a form of interactive, spontaneous communication between two or more people. Typically it occurs in spoken communication, but some written exchanges may also be referred to as conversations. The development of conversational skills and etiquette is an important part of socialization. The development of conversational skills in a new language is a frequent focus of language teaching and learning.
Conversation analysis is a branch of sociology which studies the structure and organization of human interaction, with a more specific focus on conversational interaction.
- 1 Definition and characterization
- 2 Classification
- 2.1 Discussion
- 2.2 Subject
- 2.3 Functions
- 3 Aspects of conversation
- 3.1 Differences between men and women
- 3.2 Conversation between strangers
- 3.3 Conversational narcissism
- 3.4 Conversation with artificial intelligence
- 3.5 Conversing with one’s self
- 4 In the media
- 5 Literature
- 5.1 In fiction
- 6 See also
- 7 Works cited
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Definition and characterization
No generally accepted definition of conversation exists, beyond the fact that a conversation involves at least two people talking together. Consequently, the term is often defined by what it is not. A ritualized exchange such a mutual greeting is not a conversation, and an interaction that includes a marked status differential (such as a boss giving orders) is also not a conversation. An interaction with a tightly focused topic or purpose is also generally not considered a conversation. Summarizing these properties, one authority writes that “Conversation is the kind of speech that happens informally, symmetrically, and for the purposes of establishing and maintaining social ties.”
From a less technical perspective, a writer on etiquette in the early 20th century defined conversation as the polite give and take of subjects thought of by people talking with each other for company.
Conversations follow rules of etiquette because conversations are social interactions, and therefore depend on social convention. Specific rules for conversation arise from the cooperative principle. Failure to adhere to these rules causes the conversation to deteriorate or eventually to end. Contributions to a conversation are responses to what has previously been said.
Conversations may be the optimal form of communication, depending on the participants’ intended ends. Conversations may be ideal when, for example, each party desires a relatively equal exchange of information, or when the parties desire to build social ties. On the other hand, if permanency or the ability to review such information is important, written communication may be ideal. Or if time-efficient communication is most important, a speech may be preferable.
One element of conversation is discussion: sharing opinions on subjects that are thought of during the conversation. In polite society the subject changes before discussion becomes dispute. For example, if theology is being discussed, no one is insisting a particular view be accepted.
Many conversations can be divided into four categories according to their major subject content:
- Conversations about subjective ideas, which often serve to extend understanding and awareness.
- Conversations about objective facts, which may serve to consolidate a widely held view.
- Conversations about other people (usually absent), which may be either critical, competitive, or supportive. This includes gossip.
- Conversations about oneself, which sometimes indicate attention-seeking behavior or can provide relevant information about oneself to participants in the conversation.
Practically, few conversations fall exclusively into one category. Nevertheless, the proportional distribution of any given conversation between the categories can offer useful psychological insights into the mind set of the participants. This is the reason that the majority of conversations are difficult to categorize.
Most conversations may be classified by their goal. Conversational ends may, however, shift over the life of the conversation.
- Functional conversation is designed to convey information in order to help achieve an individual or group goal.
- Small talk is a type of conversation where the topic is less important than the social purpose of achieving bonding between people or managing personal distance.
- Banter is non-serious conversation, usually between friends, which may rely on humour or in-jokes at the expense of those taking part. The purpose of banter may at first appear to be an offensive affront to the other person’s face. However, people engaging in such a conversation are often signaling that they are comfortable enough in each other’s company to be able to say such things without causing harm.
Aspects of conversation
Differences between men and women
A study completed in July 2007 by Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona shows that contrary to popular belief, there is little difference in the number of words used by men and women in conversation. The study showed that on average each of the sexes uses about 16,000 words per day.
Conversation between strangers
There are certain situations, typically encountered while traveling, which result in strangers sharing what would ordinarily be an intimate social space such as sitting together on a bus or airplane. In such situations strangers are likely to share intimate personal information they would not ordinarily share with strangers. A special case emerges when one of the travelers is a mental health professional and the other party shares details of their personal life in the apparent hope of receiving help or advice.
Conversational narcissism is a term used by sociologist Charles Derber in his book, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life.
Derber observed that the social support system in America is relatively weak, and this leads people to compete mightily for attention. In social situations, they tend to steer the conversation away from others and toward themselves. “Conversational narcissism is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America,” he wrote. “It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and coworkers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.”
What Derber describes as “conversational narcissism” often occurs subtly rather than overtly because it is prudent to avoid being judged an egotist.
Derber distinguishes the “shift-response” from the “support-response”. A shift response takes the focus of attention away from the last speaker and refocuses on the new speaker, as in: “John: I’m feeling really starved. Mary: Oh, I just ate. Whereas a support response maintains the focus on the last speaker, as in: John: I’m feeling really starved. Mary: When was the last time you ate?
Conversation with artificial intelligence
The ability to generate conversation that cannot be distinguished from a human participant has been one test of a successful artificial intelligence (The Turing Test). A human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. If the judge cannot tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. One limitation is that the conversation is limited to a text.
Conversing with one’s self
Also called intrapersonal communication, conversing with one’s self is sometimes able to help solve problems, or serve therapeutic purposes, such as the avoidance of silence.
In the media
As a prominent and useful figure in most human lives, conversation is often used in the media, e.g. talk shows such as William F. Buckley’s Firing Line or the Dick Cavett Show.
Authors who have written extensively on conversation and attempted to analyze its nature include:
- Milton Wright wrote The Art of Conversation, a comprehensive treatment of the subject, in 1936. The book deals with conversation both for its own sake, and for political, sales, or religious ends. Milton portrays conversation as an art or creation that people can play with and give life to.
- Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Al Switzler, and Ron McMillan have written two New York Times bestselling books on conversation. The first one, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, McGraw-Hill, 2002, teaches skills for handling disagreement and high-stakes issues at work and at home. The second book, Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, McGraw-Hill, 2005, teaches important skills for dealing with accountability issues.
- Charles Blattberg has written two books defending an approach to politics that emphasizes conversation, in contrast to negotiation, as the preferred means o resolving conflict. His From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics: Putting Practice First, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-19-829688-6, is a work of political philosophy; and his Shall We Dance? A Patriotic Politics for Canada, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-7735-2596-3, applies that philosophy to the Canadian case.
- Paul Drew & John Heritage – Talk at Work, a study of how conversation changes in social and workplace situations.
- Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death (Conversation is not the book’s specific focus, but discourse in general gets good treatment here)
- Deborah Tannen
- The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words
- Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends,
- Gender and Discourse
- I Only Say This Because I Love You
- Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work
- That’s Not What I Meant!
- You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation
- Daniel Menaker – A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation (published 2010)
- Stephen Miller – Conversation: A History of a Declining Art: provides an extensive history of conversation which dates back to the ancient Greeks with Socrates, and moving forward, to coffeehouses around the world, as well as the modern forces of the electronic age, talk shows, etc.
- Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) is one of the main novels by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa.