joining conversation


Banter redirects here, for the Radio 4 panel show see Banter (radio show)

A conversation is communication by two or more people, or by one's self. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow people with different views of a topic to learn from each other. A speech, on the other hand, is an oral presentation by one person directed at a group.

Those engaging in conversation naturally relate the other speaker's statements to themselves, and insert themselves (or some degree of relation to themselves, ranging from the replier's opinions or points to actual stories about themselves) into their replies. For a successful conversation, the partners must achieve a workable balance of contributions. A successful conversation includes mutually interesting connections between the speakers or things that the speakers know. For this to happen, those engaging in conversation must find a topic on which they both can relate to in some sense.

Conversation analysis is a branch of sociology which studies the structure and organization of human interaction, with a more specific focus on conversational interaction.

Types of conversation

"Banter" or "O-shaberi" (O-Shabs) in Japanese, or "Plagerij" in Dutch, is non-serious conversation usually between friends, which may rely on humour at the expense of those taking part or in-jokes. Banter is particularly difficult for those on the autism spectrum, or those with semantic pragmatic disorder. An example of banter is the use of "Mum jokes" or "your Mother jokes" between friends. This typifies the essence of banter; on the face of it, offensive, but because of the existing friendship bond between participants, it is in fact humorous, almost because of the irony of the situation.

On-screen couples can be said to have good banter if their innate understanding of each other's personality leads to a mutual respect for each other's barbs. Modern day examples are Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in "White Men Can't Jump", Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson.

Television programs described as "talk shows," such as William F. Buckley's Firing Line or the Dick Cavett Show, can be considered as exercises in conversation. In entertainment talk shows, however, the conversation is often pre-scripted.

Broadly speaking, conversation, which is not difficult for most individuals, can be divided into four categories according to its major content: conversations about ideas, conversations about concrete objects and facts, conversations about other people (usually absent) and conversations about "me". Each of these types of conversation has its own cluster of purposes and expectations attached, and each serves a different social purpose. Conversation about ideas serves to extend understanding and awareness, conversation about concrete objects and facts primarily serves to consolidate a group world view, conversation about others not present (gossip) serves to boost self esteem, and conversation about "me" is a means of attracting attention from others. In the real world no conversation falls 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.

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.

Literature on conversation

Authors who have written extensively on conversation and attempted to analyze its nature include:

  • 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 of 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

See also


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