Here at The Art of Conversation we believe that spoken conversation is an important and revealing human activity. We would say that, wouldn't we? This, despite the current trend in research and marketing to decry or play down spoken conversation in favour of digital exchanges and behaviour aggregates.
Well it seems that science is on our side. As reported in The Atlantic, researchers have discovered a universal pattern in the length of the pauses between spoken utterances of people, across culture and language. And the typical pause is very short: we all wait on average about 200 milliseconds before taking our turn speaking. Oddly, the average is 470 in Denmark, but only 7 in Japan. Hells bells!
Conversation analysts have known about the rapid-fire nature of spoken conversations for some time. But now Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has measured them by recording videos of people casually talking in informal settings.
What Levinson describes as a “basic metabolism of human social life” is the universal tendency to minimize the silence between turns, without overlaps. The short duration of these silences is amazing, in that it takes 600 milliseconds just to retrieve a single word from memory. So we must be planning our responses in the middle of a partner’s turn. We continuously predict what the rest of an utterance will be, while preparing our rejoinder.
But can this be right, 200 milliseconds? The cynic in me wondered whether the conversations which were filmed were atypically rapid-fire in the first place. 'Look, psychology researchers with video cameras, let's talk really fast without gaps and see if they notice.'
But if we accept that the conversations were real and typical of social interactions, it suggests that this is 'deep' behaviour, that spoken conversations are highly evolved acts. Our turn-taking system seems to predate language. Great apes take turns when gesturing to each other and other primates take turns when calling and match a partner’s rhythm if they speed up or slow down, according to researcher Tanya Stivers.
Research is ongoing, however, with the team still investigating how infants learn and adapt their turn-taking conversations. While infants are super-fast, apparently, 8 year-olds are a few hundred milliseconds slower than adults, which is "a puzzle".
Perhaps I can help here, in the interests of science. It's context dependent. 'It's time for bed' - slow or no response. 'Who wants ice cream?' Japanese-level response.