Back-channel Signal Communication

Glossary

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In conversation, a back-channel signal is a noise, gesture, expression, or word used by a listener to indicate that he or she is paying attention to a speaker.

According to H.M. Rosenfeld (1978), the most common back-channel signals are head movements, brief vocalizations, glances, and facial expressions, often in combination.

Examples and Observations

  • Fabienne: I was looking at myself in the mirror.
    Butch Coolidge: Uh-huh?
    Fabienne: I wish I had a pot.
    Butch Coolidge: You were lookin' in the mirror and you wish you had some pot?
    Fabienne: A pot. A pot belly. Pot bellies are sexy.
    (Pulp Fiction, 1994
  • "We . . . show we are listening and do not wish to interrupt by giving back-channel signals, such as yes, uh-huh, mhm, and other very short comments. These do not constitute turns or attempts to take the floor. On the contrary, they are indications that we expect the speaker to continue."
    (R. Macaulay, The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. Oxford University Press, 2006
  • Karen Pelly: Brent might learn a little lesson if his security camera got stolen.
    Hank Yarbo: Yeah.
    Karen Pelly: By someone.
    Hank Yarbo: Hmm.
    Karen Pelly: Someone he trusts.
    Hank Yarbo: Yeah, I suppose.
    Karen Pelly: Someone he would never suspect.
    Hank Yarbo: Yeah.
    Karen Pelly: Plot the camera's motion and approach from a blind spot. You could pull it off.
    ("Security Cam," Corner Gas, 2004

Facial Expressions and Head Movements

  • "The face plays an important role in the communication process. A smile can express happiness, be a polite greeting, or be a back-channel signal. Some facial expressions are linked to the syntax structure of the utterance: eyebrows may raise on an accent and on nonsyntactically marked questions. Gaze and head movements are also part of the communicative process." (J. Cassell, Embodied Conversational Agents. MIT Press, 2000)
  • "And here Mrs. Aleshine nodded vigorously, not being willing to interrupt this entrancing story."(Frank R. Stockton, The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, 1892)

A Group Process

  • "Turn-taking and suppressing signals are given by the current speaker; they are used to defend the right to continue speaking on the same subject or with the same level of emphasis. Back-channel signals are communication acts by others, such as a person agreeing or disagreeing with the speaker. The types of signal and the rate at which they are used relate to the underlying group process, particularly the group regulatory forces. Meyers and Brashers (1999) found that groups use a form of participation reward system; those who are co-operating with the group receive helping communication behaviours and those in competition are received with communication-blocking behavior." (Stephen Emmitt and Christopher Gorse, Construction Communication. Blackwell, 2003)