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«Marking the Turn: Obligation, Engagement, and Alienation in Group Discussions David R. Gibson University of Pennsylvania Abstract In group ...»

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Marking the Turn:

Obligation, Engagement, and Alienation in Group Discussions

David R. Gibson

University of Pennsylvania


In group conversations, not speaking is the state of affairs experienced by most people most of

the time; I refer to this as “conversational latency.” I analyze the association between latency

(operationalized as the number of turns that elapsed since the current speaker last spoke) and

turn-initial words (e.g., but, oh) in twenty-nine experimental task groups, taking turn-initial words as indicators of the type of content a speaker proposes to produce. The findings suggest a model of group conversation in which conversational obligations weigh heaviest on the shoulders of the most recent contributors; those who contributed somewhat less recently remain engaged but have more latitude to take discordant positions; and those who have been quiet for longer periods are susceptible to “alienation from topic,” as a result of which re-entry is often accompanied by an attempt to change the topic.

When we think of conversation, we think of people talking. But in a group setting—such as in a jury or business team meeting or at Thanksgiving dinner—what most people experience most of the time is not speaking. What are the consequences of not speaking? These might include having little influence on the course of the discussion (Gibson 2000) and perhaps leaving with little by way of emotional payoff (Collins 2004), and we know that someone who infrequently speaks will be allotted little status by others (Rashotte and Smith-Lovin 1997). Here I explore another consequence, of conversational inactivity on one’s conversational options when one finally does re-enter conversation. This means linking the structural-organizational side of talk to the content side, or the formal dimension of talk to the semantic dimension.

Conversational inactivity, or “latency,” is easily operationalized as the duration of time that has elapsed since one last spoke. Here I use a variation which I call “turn-latency,” which is the number of speaking turns that have elapsed. More daunting is the question of how to capture content. Social psychology (and adjacent fields) is replete with “speech act” schemes, by which utterances can be classified as, for instance, “offering an opinion” and “releasing tension” (Bales 1950), but such schemes are easily criticized for imposing the theorist’s categories on people with much different concerns (Gibson 2008). With that objection in mind, I instead categorize speaking turns by how they begin, in terms of their opening “discourse markers” (Schiffrin 1987). These are words like oh and but that people use to signal to one another the gist of what they intend to say, and thus why they believe that they deserve to take the floor.

DATA The data were derived from transcripts of the discussions of 29 experimental task groups.

Each group consisted of six previously unacquainted undergraduates, and sex compositions were manipulated to provide for several groups with each possible mix (six males, five males and one female, etc.). The groups were given a problem that, per the scope conditions of expectation states theory, was well-defined but lacked an obvious solution. Specifically, they were instructed to devise such a problem for some other group to perform, as if they were part of the research planning stage rather than the actual subjects. Group members did not know each other in advance. They were allowed to talk for twenty minutes, and were videotaped. The tapes were subsequently transcribed, and have since deteriorated entirely, so that only the transcripts remain.1 These data were used for a number of reasons. First, each group consisted of six members, making it likely that people would fall out of active participation frequently enough to ensure substantial variation on that independent variable. Second, the task situation has been hypothesized to activate sex as a “status characteristic” consequential for the exercise of influence and other sorts of conversational behaviors, a hypothesis that has been confirmed using these very data for speaking (Smith-Lovin et al. 1986) and interruptions (Smith-Lovin and Brody 1989). This gives me the opportunity to compare the effects of a salient characteristic on the content of a turn with the effects of latency. And third, the task situation resembles the sort of thing done in many multi-party encounters, such as those of managerial teams (Gibson 2003) and juries (Rose, Diamond, and Murphy 2007).

The transcripts were coded for two types of information: the identity of the speaker in a given speaking turn and the word that he or she began with. Someone was considered to have taken a turn if he or she spoke at least one entire word “in the clear”—that is, without this overlapping with another person’s speech. In contrast to some prior work on these data, working More information about data collection can be found in Smith-Lovin, Skvoretz, and Hudson (1986).

out of the expectation states tradition (e.g., Smith-Lovin et al. 1986), a person’s turn was considered to have stretched from its beginning until the start of the next speaker’s turn, so that, by definition, a person could not take two consecutive turns. An attempt at interrupting was only counted as a turn if the first speaker stopped talking while the interrupter continued. More generally, a later-starting utterance that, for a time, overlapped with the previous (earlierstarting) turn was considered a turn unto itself when it continued beyond the previous turn, as judged by whether the number of syllables in the later-starting utterance exceeded the number of syllables remaining in the previous turn, counting from the onset of overlap. (The transcripts indicate where overlap begins, but do not locate its end.) Excerpts 1 and 2 provide examples. In each, the slash indicates the point in the first speaker’s turn that the second speaker began speaking. In Excerpt 1, for instance, subject 3 began saying “I’ve heard of it” immediately after 5 asked the question, and in overlap with 5’s “We used to do that in high school.” In accordance with the rule just given, subject 3 in Excerpt 1 is not credited with a successful turn, while in Excerpt 2, 6 is so credited, because though both 3 and 6 begin speaking in overlap, only 6’s utterance clearly extends beyond the previous speaker’s turn.

–  –  –

2. You know, actually there could be a solution / if the problem was what you--If the problem has to be of interest to most college students, then, you know, that college problem would do that.

A speaker’s first word is simply the word he or she began a successful turn with, even if its first portion was produced in overlap. Thus, in Excerpt 2, the first word of subject 6’s turn is “If.” An exception is when the word or words produced in overlap do not immediately continue into the successful turn. An example is in Excerpt 6, where subject 1’s turn is considered to have started with “Well,” and not the “Yeah” produced without any immediate attempt at continuation in the midst of subject 4’s turn.


Table 1 lists the 21 most common turn-initial words in the 29 task groups. (All right was considered a single word because in meaning and usage it is akin to okay, and because almost all instances of turn-initial all were followed by right.) Together, these account for 64 percent of first words—a fairly amazing thing given the tens of thousands of words in an educated speaker’s vocabulary (Aitchison 1997:62). Some of these words—such as that, it, and there—are fairly unrevealing about the content to follow. Other words, however, are more telling. Several are discussed in detail by Schiffrin (1987) under the heading of “discourse markers.” Here I draw heavily upon her account (and related work), at least as a starting point to this description of how such words were typically used in these groups.

Five discourse markers discussed by Schiffrin (1987), and not only in opening position, are well, and, but, so, and oh. The first four, in particular, serve the function just described, of signaling to listeners how subsequent talk is to be interpreted with respect to previous talk— which means talk by the previous speaker(s), inasmuch as these words are turn-initial. And and so mean about the same thing at the start of a turn as they do in its middle: and that a previously started action (like the telling of a story) is about to be continued or extended (Schiffrin 1987:141-50; see also Turk 2004), and so that the talk that follows identifies the result or consequence of whatever came before (Schiffrin 1987:191-227; see also Raymond 2004).

Examples from the task group transcripts are in Excerpts 3 and 4.

–  –  –

2. If all of the sudden CBS came out and promoted one presidential candidate, it would be unfair. It would make a big difference, if the other stations didn't.

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5. So the problem, we could say, would be, um, the need for different ways of assessing student's performances, is that the problem?

In Excerpt 3, subject 5 provides the implied conclusion to 2’s and 4’s observations about media partisanship. In Excerpt 4, subject 5 attempts to formulate the consequence of recent talk— spread over the course of many turns—for the group’s task.

Well and but, in contrast, have distinct turn-initial import. While in the middle of a turn (or in written text) but marks a contrast between contiguous ideas, in turn-initial position it often heralds a flat-out objection (Schiffrin 1987:175), as in Excerpt 5.

–  –  –

5. Make it [cafeteria food] more nutritious.

3. But you know they're [university dining services] not going to do that, they're going to say their spending budget, they only have so much money to spend Well, in the meantime, is probably far more common in turn-initial position than elsewhere.

According to Schiffrin (1987:102-27) and Pomerantz (1984), its function is to signal that the incipient utterance is in some way at odds with what was evidently expected or hoped for (by way of response) by the previous speaker. This is illustrated in Excerpt 6.

–  –  –

1. Well, somebody would know about it, though. Somebody would have a special interest in it.

Here, subject 4 proposes a general topic from which a problem might be crafted. Subject 1 initially encourages the thought (“Yeah,” interjected so as to overlap with 4’s “like,” as indicated by the slashes), but subsequently expresses a reservation, namely that it might tap strong preexisting opinions.

Oh is a bit different in that, to a much greater extent than the first four discourse markers, it may serve as a complete turn. According to Heritage (1984) and Schiffrin (1987:74), what oh signals is that new information has been received or familiar information recalled. Receipt of new information is illustrated in Excerpt 7 (in which the remainder of the turn conveniently explains what sort of oh it is).

–  –  –

1. This is, this is just a sample question, "Should any of the Ten Commandments be dropped?" Period. Five were dropped and thrown away. If they all were thrown away would it...?

–  –  –

1. Fifth one? Well, there was once fifteen of 'em.

2. Oh, I didn't know that.

Also included in Table 1 (and also potentially stand-alone utterances) are okay, all right, yeah, and right. Okay and all right can express simple understanding or assent (Beach 1995), but in these groups, at least, also heralded attempts to take stock of the implications of recent talk for the task at hand. This is illustrated in Excerpt 8 for the case of okay.

–  –  –

6. Okay, we've got "Should the drinking age be raised to 21 for both beer and liquor?" Now, how does this problem meet the requirements?

Meanwhile, yeah and right are markers of agreement and affirmation. (Yeah may also serve as an affirmative response to a question.) Excerpt 9 illustrates for the case of yeah.

–  –  –

One other word in Table 1 carries consistent enough meaning that it, too, reveals something about the turns it introduces. What is a standard question-initial word, leading off a request for the naming of a thing to which the rest of the sentence (with a bit of rearranging) declaratively applies.

These, then, are the turn-initial words included in the statistical analysis: and, so, but, well, oh, okay, all right, yeah, and right.2 In addition, the six wh-question words—what, when, Discourse markers (such as because) not in listed in Table 1 occurred too infrequently to support statistical analysis. No, which is in Table 1, was considered, as the possible obverse of yeah, but was not included because it was most often used in ways that had nothing to do with why, who, where and how—were combined into a single category, at least for the initial analysis, both because they appear to herald a single sort of interrogative speech act, and because distributionally they manifest very similar patterns vis-à-vis latency. Together, these account for 34 percent of turn-initial words. Again, a speaking turn was associated with whatever word it began with, even if the turn-initial word was produced in overlap with the previous speaker’s talk.

Two objections to using turn-initial words as indicators of content should be anticipated.

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