I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while the other day when I noticed something unusual about our conversation. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
We were sat outside a pub by the Thames gazing out across the river with one eye on the famously changeable British summer. Each black cloud charging in from the west looked as though it would be the one to send us scurrying inside. But none of them did.
Then it hit me.
It was the uncanny precision with which our utterances meshed. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time and yet we seemed magically to know when to start and stop talking. In three hours of turn-taking we hadn’t interrupted each other – our conversation was perfectly choreographed.
Admittedly this wasn’t that unusual in itself, but it was to me because of a conversation I had earlier in the day. This one, although with someone I know quite well, couldn’t have been more different. There were awkward gaps, we talked over each other, we accidentally interrupted. It was as though our conversational choreographer had gone on holiday.
It all put me in mind of the former British Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, whose interactions often mirrored my own awkward stop-start conversation. Indeed, a study published in Nature by Beattie, Cutler and Pearson (1982) asked: “Why is Mrs Thatcher Interrupted So Often?”
Their in-depth analysis revealed the reason might not be just because she wanted to dominate conversations. It was, they argue, a particular facet of her speech that caused her to be interrupted so often.
They found she often displayed turn-yielding signals in the wrong places. She would lower the pitch of her voice and slow the rhythm of her speech – both classic signs you’re about to hand over the conversational reigns – and then she would carry on talking. Hence, all the accidental interruptions.
Perhaps, I wondered, the difference between my two conversations partly came down to tiny turn-yielding signals of which we are normally completely unconscious. In one these signals were being picked up loud and clear, in the other they were lost – and so was the smoothness of our conversation.
Further proof of how an ordinary conversation is actually a highly skilled performance. Even tiny imperfections in nonverbal signals can throw the whole thing off. It’s a wonder any of us can manage it at all.