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Date: Sat, 11 Feb 2006 13:27:51 +0100 From: Francesca Vigo Subject: Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends, New Edition
AUTHOR: Deborah Tannen, TITLE: Conversational Style SUBTITLE: Analyzing Talk among Friends, New Edition PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2005
Francesca Vigo, Department of Modern Philology, University of Catania
DESCRITPION OF THE BOOK
Deborah Tannen's book is the revised version of her 20-year-old seminal best seller ''Conversational Style''. It consists of an introduction, 7 chapters, one coda chapter, 4 Appendixes, one list of reference, two Indexes. A Preface explains the reasons for this new 2005 edition.
Introduction The author's aim is to explain the meaning of style with reference to conversation, specifying that it is not to be understood in terms of oppositive distinctions such as good/bad; whereas it concerns the rules, the patterns and the habits which determine and characterize human communication.
Following Scollon's (1982) ''double-bind'' concept, Tannen explains how talking is a conflictuous activity since it pushes the speakers towards two antithetic needs: the need to be independent and the need to be part of a group. These mutually exclusive needs involve speakers and their relationships in a continuous balancing activity. People react differently and conversations styles are examples of the different ways in which the speakers deal with this double need.
The author pursues her aim through the analysis of a two-hour conversation among friends which occurred during a Thanksgiving dinner in 1998.
Tannen strongly stresses the importance of what can be defined the 'relativity of style'. Starting from Sapir's statement about the superiority of variation over the objective behaviour she points out how settings are crucial in the development of a conversation and for the analysis that may follow. The same participants might behave slightly or deeply differently according to the situations they find themselves in. Conversational styles are personal and unpredictable. They prove necessary in order to analyse and comprehend the linguistic choices that help or hinder the construction and the communication of meaning in interaction. As a consequence of the non-homogeneity of our world the author stresses the virtual need our society has to investigate conversational styles in so far as they might disclose unexpected patterns which people coming from different backgrounds follow interacting with others. Thinking that conversation is a homogeneous instinctive linguistic behaviour may lead to totally ineffective interaction. Conversely, being able to recognize different conversational styles or at least being aware of the possibility of different conversational styles makes the interaction between people belonging to different groups possible and potentially successful. The strength of spoken discourse will be consequently unveiled and, as the author plainly hopes, will allow it to stand on the same level of the written one.
Chapter two. Conversational style: Theoretical Background This long chapter consists of 14 sections of various length.
Starting off from the assertion that discourse analysis is one of the key interests of linguistics and that it comprises also conversational analysis, the author argues that, since the way conversation is often dealt with does not shed light on it, it is now time to turn to a possible different mode of analysis which blends together discourse analysis, sociolinguistics and those communication studies which focus on communicative style. In doing so, she refers to the works of John Gumperz and Robin Lakoff.
Before dealing with conversational style the author pauses to reflect upon the concept of style and provides definitions and references for a deeper understanding of the term and of its conceptual area of reference. Her reflections originate from the definition Ervin -Tripp proposed in 1972 which defines style as ''the co-occurrent changes at various levels of linguistic structure within one language'' similarly to what Hymes identifies as register. The author's use of the term style comprises both perspectives and refers also to that mix of devices, which Ervin-Tripp defines as alternation, that speakers use in different contexts. Style is not, however, a special way of speaking as opposed to an (im)probable plain way of doing it. Every spoken activity is said or done in some way. This way is the style of that action, it implies choices which consciously or unconsciously are aimed to an effect.
How is style acquired? Being a necessary characteristic of the spoken activity, style is not a particular skill taught and/or purposefully learnt, it is rather an integral part of linguistic knowledge. To give evidence of this, the author refers to the works by Ervin-Tripp, Mitchell-Kernan, Ochs and Schieffelin, Fillmore and others.
The concept of style is also put in relation with that of strategy. According to Lakoff (1973) three basic principles/rules underlie specific linguistic choices, namely distance, deference and camaraderie. These lie along a continuum and the choice of one of them constructs a strategy that eventually makes up a style. Conversational styles stem from the use of some linguistic devices suggested by these principles. This three-fold system implies linguistic choices at all levels: lexical, syntactical, stylistic and of register.
After presenting Lakoff's system the author widens this theoretical reference background to introduce the work of Goffman, its focus on his concept of deference, which is more generally meant as 'politeness'. References to several scholars are made, among which, Brown and Levinson (1987) and their identification of negative and positive faces; Brown and Gillian (1960) and their concept of 'solidarity', i.e. one of the two fundamental elements for the analysis of social life, the other being power. Tannen also refers to the notion of indirectness; to the 'cline of person' proposed by Becker & Oka (1975); to Scollon's (1982) crucial description of communication as a double bind; and eventually to certain features of discourse grouped by Chafe (1982) under the headings ''integration vs. fragmentation'' and ''detachment vs involvement''. With this final shift towards discourse features the author highlights both how they disclose the possible personal involvement in the communicative activity and how the accomplishment of closeness in human relationships is not always to be considered a positive issue. With the explanatory image of the two porcupines borrowed from Schopenhauer the author states that getting close is a danger and a need and therefore every act of communication must fulfill this double, conflictuous condition. Conversational style and human interaction are thus strictly related.
Similarly the linguistic strategies that constitute the conversational style arise in response to those used by the others in the interaction. In this part of this chapter the author gives evidence of how this virtually happens in conversations and what is hidden behind the linguistic choices performed by the speakers/participants. Together with the linguistic strategies speakers do use frames, subordinate categories within which meaning has to be interpreted. With reference to Bateson (1972), Van Valin (1977) and Agar (1975) the author explains how no meaning can be interpreted except by reference to a super-ordinate message about how the communication is intended. Together with Gumperz (1982) she demonstrates how speakers signal the metacommunicative frame they operate within by using paralinguistic and prosodic features. These features are not universally shared and fail to work causing misunderstanding especially in cross-cultural contexts.
According to the author the ability to participate appropriately in a discussion of any sort depends upon the ability to signal and comprehend the relations between elements within utterances and across utterances (p.35).
The study of conversational style is thus mainly the study of the many existing ways of signalling how an utterance is meant. Style is not planned, it results from choices which fulfill both the need for involvement and the need not to impose.
In the last part of chapter two the author starts to focus more on 'her' conversation analysis. The author also presents a list of the features used by the speakers which indicate that the load is on interpersonal involvement. Among the others we find: topic, pacing, narrative strategies and expressive paralinguistics.
However, all of these features can express - or, in Gumperz's terms, put the signalling load on - both involvement and rapport. Consequently, the author proposes two ways to define the styles used by the speakers: high-involvement and high-considerateness style.
The description of the procedure and the analytic method is the topic of the following paragraph. The author reminds the reader how logistic details are important for such an analysis in so far as they might be motivating or somehow hindering factors.
The interpretative phase follows the recording and the transcription and it might pose even more problems because, as any interpretation, it is totally subjective. The author is not deterred by this, and proposes three replies to those who do not trust interpretation: 1. the multiplicity of interpretations; 2. internal and external evidence; 3. the ''aha'' factor; the latter being the assertive comments made by the readers on hearing her explanation during the playback.
The last paragraph of the chapter introduces the several topics of the conversation and an apology for not having included a complete transcription of the conversation but only some key segments.
Chapter Three. The Participants in Thanksgiving Dinner. Chapter three is a virtual description of the dinner and the participants in terms of their national origin, present occupation, relation and bonds with the host and with the other guests. They mainly differ for their cultural background and for the length of their mutual acquaintance/friendship. A diagram showing where everybody was sitting around the table is also part of the description.
A picture of the participants' attitudes and behaviours during the dinner is evidently showed in some tables which present the results of calculations concerning the number of conversational contributions and the number of words per episode.
Chapter Four. Linguistic devices in Conversational Style Chapter four is where the author's reflections on expectations and their possible final confirmation are presented. Providing ample examples to give evidence of her points the author shows how communicative behaviours change according to changes in some issues of the conversation as for example when the conversation shifted from a personal to a more impersonal topic. However, changes were not always homogeneous: some topics proved reassuring for some participants but not for all of them.
From the precise analyses carried out by the author it is clear that the choice of both what and how to tell something was not mutually shared. Besides topic shifts the author points out other crucial conversational issues/strategies such as the enthusiasm constraint, the 'Machine-Gun question', overlap and pace, the mutual revelation, the bonding through high-involvement devices, the expressive phonology and intonation, persistence, tolerance for noise vs silence, all of which richly supported by examples, transcriptions and the participants' comments and feedback.
Chapter Five. Narrative Strategies Integrally related to the conversational devices analysed in the previous chapter are the narrative strategies the author deals with in this chapter. From her definition of narrative as a prototype she maintains that there are several instances of talk that are somehow but not entirely similar to narrative. However, aiming at isolating segments for her analysis, the author chooses to consider narratives/stories (here used as synonymous terms) only those accounts that strictly adhere to the definition of narrative as a story which recounts events that occurred in the past (p.123). On the other hand, since considering the sheer number of stories could be misleading, the author calculates also the number of the narrative turns as a percentage of the total number of turns. Together with some other items, such as the number of words, these figures are displayed statistically in a table which proves revealing.
The stories told during the Thanksgiving dinner are then grouped by the author into wholes characterized by strategies or peculiarities. The first category to be presented, the story rounds, refers to stories told in sequences, a typical feature of conversations as noted by ethno- methodologists (Ryave 1978) which does not necessarily mean similarity of narrative strategies. Length of stories, expressive or understated evaluation and response, focusing immediately on the main point, use of intonation to covey meaning or as a cohesive tool, cooperative vs. impatient prompting, and cultural differences are some of the items illustrated by Tannen, who provides a wealth of examples and transcriptions to support her claims, to clarify what narrative styles are being used and how they can trigger or hinder the conversation flow.
Chapter Six. Irony and Joking This chapter focuses on some distinctive aspects of any person's style in relation to a continuum that goes from sarcasm to irony. According to the author the analyses of the linguistic, paralinguistic and discourse choices made by the speakers to express irony and joking and the way they use them in the Thanksgiving dinner conversation add further facets to the description of the speakers' conversational styles. Tannen virtually counts the ironic or humorous turns of each participant to design a table in which ironic turns are also converted into percentages of the total number of turns. However, the author clearly reminds us that the way the members of the group used irony and/or humour is not necessarily their own or a standard form. On the other hand their styles of humour and irony, besides being an aggregating device, represent what they deemed appropriate for the occasion.
Chapter Seven. Summary of Style Features. In this summarizing chapter the author picks up some of the linguistic devices that constitute conversational style emerged during the analyses. Quoting Pittenger et al. (1960) the author stresses that, no matter how many items have been found, there will always be more to be found. A list of the dimensions discussed previously is provided. She also clarifies that what has been examined is not a set of discrete phenomena but rather dimensions along which conversational mechanisms operate (p.181). In the last part of the chapter the author tries to define what conversational style is and what its specific features are. Unexpectedly, there is no one single definition of conversational style nor is it possible to list its features exhaustively. The author thus sums up her results and comments. She firmly states that conversational style is made up of the specific use of specific linguistic devices chosen by the participants with reference to wider operating conversational strategies, and also that the study of conversational style is no more nor less than the study of communication because they share the same features and the same conventions. Understanding conversation style means identifying the system that links aspects of discourse realization to each other and also links this linguistic system to other aspects of human behaviour. In this sense, states the author, the study of conversation is the study of discourse coherence (p. 189).
Chapter Eight. The study of Coherence in discourse. A perfect conversation is a conversation in which mutual understanding is achieved. Starting from this assumption the author pauses on the satisfaction that a shared pace or rhythm may convey and on how a satisfactory conversation is a proof of connection with other people. It gives a sense of coherence in the world. If, as Becker maintains (1995), an aesthetic response is the one in which discourse constraints are perceived as coherent, then, the author argues, a successful conversation is an aesthetic experience. Clashes in one's own conversational strategies and style result in the interruption of the conversation, as the author shows by means of examples taken from her analyses. This is mainly the problem of cross-cultural communication which hinders the creation of a homogeneous speaking whole.
In this chapter the author succeeds in explaining how a shared and coherent perception of the world among the various participants in a conversation is needed for the communication to flow. Conversations become for her epic poetic performances which can be studied in the light of an aesthetics of conversation in the spirit and tradition that up to now has been applied to literature only. Surprisingly Tannen parallels literary language and conversation on the basis of their way of building on features that depend, for their effect, on what is called subjective knowledge (Havelock 1963; Ong 1967). Face-to-face conversation like literature manages variously to touch the audience/reader by means of personal/subjective involvement unlike what expository prose pursues, i.e. convincing audiences and readers without involvement. Hence the author strongly suggests new trends for future research to be based on elucidating the relationships among various discourse genres, especially the one between casual conversation and literary discourse. For this purpose she lists a set of features identified in literary language which seem to be basic to conversation too. Among others she proposes 3 main groupings: rhythm, surface linguistic features, contextualization (ellipsis, figures of speech, imagery and detail) and demonstrates, by means of examples and references to literature, how they can be retrieved in conversations. Putting her insights in relation to Friedrich's revision of the Whorf hypothesis she concludes this investigation of coherence in discourse asserting that it is an enquiry into the nature of human cognition and communication.
Chapter Nine. Coda: Taking the concepts into the Present. In this final chapter the author sums up what has happened during the twenty years since the book's original publication.
She concentrates on some of the issues she raised in the book and describes how they have developed to become cornerstones of her approach to language in interaction. The issues she focuses on are the ambiguity and polysemy of conversational strategies, the interplay of power and solidarity and the linguistic framing of meaning in interaction.
Eventually she provides an overview of some of her books that can be considered natural widenings of some chapters of this book. From That's not what I meant (1986) and Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse (1989) arisen from the assumptions presented in chapter eight to You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990) where the debate is widened up to comprise issues on gender and language, to the more technical volume Gender and Discourse (1994). Her most recent books examine conversational styles in workplaces - Talking from 9 to 5 (1994) -, the role of agonism in public discourses - The Argument culture (1998) and the conversations among adult family members - I Only Say This Because I Love You (2001) -.
Conversational Style is surely a pleasant read. It presents in an extremely clear way several fundamental issues of conversational analysis, a framework for analysing cross-cultural communication, and it manages also to highly stimulate the reader's personal reflections on the topic.
The simplicity with which some crucial issues are dealt with is probably functional to one of the author's aims, i.e. to widely raise the awareness of those who work within the scope of the disciplines dealing with human behaviour who are not necessarily linguists. The author's strong belief that a better knowledge of the conversational strategies and the acknowledgement of conversational style may help to pursue and build successful relationships leads her to repeat some basic concepts quite often, whereas she dwells perhaps not enough on the theoretical background which supports her claims. Keeping in mind possible non-linguist readers some references or quotations may result difficult to understand. Key concepts are, at times, too simply mentioned. In the central analytic part, while on the one hand examples and evidence of claims are necessary and interesting, on the other they slow the reading down and make it difficult to follow the descriptive flow. The absence of the full transcription to refer to is a solution that sometimes proves demanding for the reader.
However, the aim to re-evaluate conversation as a fundamental text type worth analysing for the incredible amount of information on the human behaviours in interaction it provides, is fully accomplished. By paralleling it to literary language and drawing the reader's attention towards the many strategies and styles that make up a conversation, the author perfectly succeeds in making the audience aware of the many facets of conversation and of the key role it could play within the more ambitious process of understanding cross-cultural communication.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
I'm a researcher in English Language and Translation at the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures - University of Catania/Modern Philology Dept. My research interests are conversation analysis, identity construction through language, World Englishes. My main current activity is also teaching undergraduate and BA students.