The Science of Analyzing Conversations, Second by Second: Elizabeth Stokoe (Transcript)

Elizabeth Stokoe

Here is the full transcript of British scientist Elizabeth Stokoe’s TEDx Talk: The Science of Analyzing Conversations, Second by Second at TEDxBermuda conference.


One of the questions I often get asked as an academic, especially one who studies things like pauses in talk is: “What is it you actually do, with that face and that intonation?” Obviously one of the things I’m going to try and do is explain to you, “What is it I actually do?” But I thought, just for a minute, I would linger on the question. The question is one of those things which I would call a ‘first move,’ produced by someone who is a first-mover.

You probably all know people like this in your lives, those people who ask the question which has got some bite in it, some kind of complaint, or some kind of agenda in it. “What is it you actually do?” It implies things about what you do with your life. It puts you in a quite difficult interactional position in terms of what to do next. Because if you go next and make explicit, the challenge that seems to be in the question, and say something like, “What you mean what do I actually do? I wouldn’t you ask that question.”

Then the person who went first might say something back like, “I was just asking. It’s just an innocent kind of question. God, you’re so touchy! I can’t say anything right.” All of a sudden, you find yourself as the person who made a victim of the first-mover rather than that first-mover being the person who produced an overbearing first turn in the first place. I’m going to come back to first-movers throughout this talk, and at the end, I’m going to try to teach you how to at least have a couple of ways of handling them, and also figure out if you are one yourself.

But to answer the question, or to start answering the question, “What is it you actually do?” I thought I’d share the moment in which my mom suddenly started to understand at least something about what it is that I actually do.

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We were driving to see my late grandmother – who was very old – my mom started to tell me a story about something that happened to herself the previous week. She said: “I had a fall.”

And I said: “No, Mummy, you didn’t have a fall, you fell over. You need to own that fall. You’re not Nan, you don’t have falls, you’re not old enough to have falls. There’s no point in spending money on anti-ageing face creams, if you age yourself in your language and talk yourself decades older. You need to anti-age your language, and be someone who falls over and doesn’t have falls.”

All of a sudden she started to get that the way you describe yourself, and the way we describe other people, has consequences for who we are, and how we live in the world. Of course, the verbs we use, the language, the grammar we use, sometimes have really important consequences, so I’ve done quite a lot of work on police interrogations of suspects. I’ve got a case in which the suspect’s been arrested for assault.

The police officer is asking the suspect about various things he may or may not have done to the victim. He asks the suspect, “Did you push her to the ground?” The suspect comes back with, “She fell to the lawn.” What you can see is a sort of push-pull in terms of versions of things, and the suspect is replacing the verb ‘push’. How was it that the alleged victim went from vertical to horizontal. “Did he push her?” We see the agent of that movement.

Or did she fall without him being the cause of that movement? And of course, the other nice detail changed that the police officer asks about a push to the ground, whereas the suspect says “A fall to the lawn,” lawn providing for a relatively softer landing than the ground, therefore, any injuries the victim might have had probably weren’t so bad after all. These are the kinds of things that I get interested in as a conversation analyst.

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What I’m going to do in this talk is chop it into two halves. In the first half, I’m going to try and show you in a little bit of detail what it is that I actually do. Studying talk in a systemic and scientific kind of way, and then hopefully show you how this kind of scientific and detailed approach to studying interaction can have big payoffs when it comes to understanding professional or workplace encounters.

To start off with then, I’m going to show you the opening few seconds of two ordinary domestic telephone calls. We’re going to start with Hyla and Nancy. Hyla and Nancy are American friends, and they’re on the phone. We’re going to see their conversation roll out line by line, in time with the transcript to allow you to live through the interaction as it actually happens, which is how we experience interaction. What you’re going to see is that their turns as they start this conversation is going to bounce back and forth.

It’s going to be quickly moving along with their interaction. Here comes Hyla and Nancy having a familiar kind of conversation, you might have had yourself many times today already.

((ring))] Nancy: Hello?

Hyla: Hi.

Nancy: Hi.

Hyla: How are you?

Nancy: Fine. How are you?

OK, that’s it, so far You can see there are also dots and dashes and stuff on the transcript, which is to do with intonation and phonetic information, which I will point out when it becomes relevant, but for now, you can just see that they bounced along through the interaction. It turns out when we study hundreds of types of these kind of encounters, openings of ordinary telephone calls, they have a really systematic structure to them, which you can recognize.

First of all, we have a summons: the phone rings and an answer; then we have greetings and identification- you could all hear Nancy’s “Hi!” at line four, was a recognition as well as a greeting, and quite in contrast to her “Hello?” at line two, which was an answering ‘hello’.

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And then we have initial inquiries, the ‘how are you’s’: “How are you?” “Fine,” before you get into the main business of the call. The fact that these openings of calls roll out in a systematic way, is going to allow us to see what happens when we get some kind of divergence in the pattern.

Next, we’re going to scoot over the Atlantic to the UK, and we’re going to see Dana and Gordon. Dana and Gordon, boyfriend and girlfriend, maybe not for much longer as you’ll see. Before Dana has even started to speak, we’re going to see that there’s trouble ahead in this call.

They are students, they’re home for the holidays, and here’s Dana trying to talk to Gordon.

(Ring) Gordon: Hello

OK! I know, as a conversation analyst, that there’s trouble ahead. The reason I know this is because of line three: something doesn’t happen. What doesn’t happen at line three is a return greeting.

Instead, there are seven tenths of a seconds of silence, and that’s enough to know: trouble’s ahead. Let’s see what is going to unfold. Here is line four. Here is Dana.

Dana: Hello

She’s returning the greeting but we can see it’s delayed. What she’s not going to do next is move in to the sort of, “How are you’s?” Instead, she’s going to become a first-mover. Here comes Dana’s inserted question.

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