Review of Conversational Style
|Date: Sat, 11 Feb 2006 13:27:51 +0100
From: Francesca Vigo
Subject: Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends, New
AUTHOR: Deborah Tannen,
TITLE: Conversational Style
SUBTITLE: Analyzing Talk among Friends, New Edition
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Francesca Vigo, Department of Modern Philology, University of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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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.