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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 393-395

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Widening the Lens of Observation

"Don't Just Sit There--Interrupt!"
Pacing and Pausing in Conversational Style

Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University


A theme that has run through my research from the start is reflected in the title of my first book, Conversational Style (1984). I use this phrase to refer to the many linguistic aspects of how speakers say what they mean, including pacing and pausing, indirectness, tone of voice, intonation, syntactic patterns, genre (tell a story? make a joke? ask a question?), and so on. One feature of conversational style that continues to fascinate me (and, from what they tell me, audiences at my lectures) is pacing and pausing--a seemingly minor element with major consequences.

When two people have different assumptions about how long a pause is "natural" between one speaker's turn and another's, conversations between them become unbalanced. The one who is waiting for a longer pause finds it harder to get a turn, because before that length of pause occurs, the other person begins to perceive an uncomfortable silence and rushes to fill it, to save the conversation. The result (especially if the speakers are romantically or maritally involved) can be hurtful and unfair: the one who waits for and never gets the longer pause accuses: "You're interrupting me," "You're self-centered--you only want to hear yourself talk." The shorter pauser accuses: "You're withholding," "You're hostile," "You never tell me what's on your mind," or even "You have nothing on your mind!" In other words, characteristics of speaking style are interpreted as evidence of character and intentions.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Conversational styles are learned growing up, as one learns to talk. So our styles are influenced by the social groupings that determine whom we hear and talk to growing up--all the ethnic, regional, and class distinctions that have so many reverberations in society. So we end up not only accusing, "You interrupt me," but also generalizing, "Jews (or blacks or Northerners or Anglos or city people) are pushy, loud, and self-centered," or "Christians (or whites or Midwesterners or Indians or country people) are dull," or "You can't tell where they stand." In countries all over the world, there are speakers from some geographic regions who speak more slowly than those from others. And in every one of those countries that I know about, people from the slower-speaking regions are stereotyped as stupid, and those from the faster-speaking regions are stereotyped as too aggressive. [End Page 393]

Differences in conversational style are always relative, not absolute. It's not a matter of some people being fast talkers and others being slow, but of how relatively fast or slow a speaker is in relation to the others in the same conversation. The same person can be an apparent victim in one conversation and an apparent perpetrator in another.

My colleague Ron Scollon, who has written about these phenomena too (1982), grew up in Detroit; I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. When I talk to Ron, I have to be careful to give him what seems to me extra time to respond; otherwise, I inadvertently interrupt him. Ron's wife, Suzie, is Hawaiian of Chinese descent, and she expects longer pauses than he does. So she accuses him of interrupting, of not giving her a chance to answer his question before he asks another. Ron and Suzie worked among Athabaskan Indians in Alaska (Scollon and Scollon 1981). When Suzie talked to Athabaskans, she became the conversational steamroller, as Athabaskans are comfortable with longer silences than she could tolerate.

But the story doesn't end there. The Scollons invited me to a workshop in Alaska, after which they sent me on a bush flight to an Athabaskan village, Fort Yukon, just inside the Arctic Circle. They were curious how someone who thinks friendly verbosity is next to godliness would fare as a stranger in a setting where no one talks...


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pp. 393-395
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Archived 2005
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