The Concept of Conversational Style

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The purpose of this essay is to discuss the concept of conversational style in terms of the structure and function of conversation in general and focusing on cultural and gender differences in particular.

Deborah Tannen broadly defines conversational style as “a combination of features relating to meaning and management of conversation: prosody (rhythm and intonation), overlapping, repetition, use of laughter, tolerance of noise and silence, and ways of using anecdotes, asking questions, linking topics and expressing particular emotions” (1984, cited by Maybin, 2006).

The aspects of style identified by Tannen are some of the elements that constitute the structural features of conversation. Some structural features such as turn-taking and adjacency pairs may be fairly predictable. Other features may not be so obvious. For example, speakers may use language ambiguously and may not finish their sentences, they may interrupt others or remain silent for long periods, or, if they are multilingual, they may ‘codeswitch’, that is to say they mix in words and grammar from their native language. Various studies have shown that these seemingly random language events are also structural features of conversation whose function within the conversation may be as significant as the actual words spoken. (Maybin 2006).

When considering the functions of conversation, Maybin (1996) cites the linguist Halliday (1978) who suggests that conversation has both an interpersonal function, that of building relationships, and an ideational function, that of conveying ideas, sharing knowledge and experience and achieving purposes (Maybin, 1996).

It may be said that the ways in which people use the various aspects and features of conversation make up their personal conversation style and that people are likely to adopt different styles depending on the context. However, Maybin suggests that some aspects of style are intricately connected to where we are from, our cultural background, social class, age and gender and suggests it is possible to identify significant aspects of style by comparing different cultural groups and different genders. Furthermore, she argues that when people with differing communication styles engage in talk, misunderstandings can sometimes result with more or less serious implications (Maybin, 1996).

Diane Eades, an Australian linguist, studied the conversational style of Aboriginal English speakers in Australia. In an interview with Maybin, Eades identifies three main features of conversational style that differ from the style of White Australians. Eades argues that these differences have serious consequences for Aboriginals in the Australian law courts. The first of these features is a general indirectness of speech and an avoidance of seeking information directly through the asking of questions. Eades (Exploring the English Language, U211) explains: “there is a cultural assumption with a lot of middle-class whites in Australia (...), if you want to find something out you ask a question. Well that’s an assumption that isn’t shared in Aboriginal societies. In fact, in Aboriginal society if you want to find something out, you contribute something of your own.” Eades argues that their indirect style of interaction serves the function of personal privacy which balances their otherwise public lifestyle.

Another aspect of style identified by Eades is the way Aboriginal people use silence as an integral and positive part of conversation. Eades argues that the use of silence has an interpersonal function: “Silence seems to be an important thing, in people getting to know each other, in people spending time with people that they already know.”

The third feature is something Eades refers to as the ‘yes of gratuitous concurrence’ whereby the Aboriginal people often agree with what is being said not because they agree with the proposition but either to keep the conversation flowing or to avoid...
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