Cooperative Overlap in Conversation

Two women speaking simultaneously

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In conversation analysis, the term cooperative overlap refers to a face-to-face interaction in which one speaker talks at the same time as another speaker to demonstrate an interest in the conversation. In contrast, an interruptive overlap is a competitive strategy in which one of the speakers attempts to dominate the conversation.

The term cooperative overlap was introduced by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen in her book Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends (1984).

Examples and Observations

  • "[Patrick] had to wait another five minutes or so before his wife remembered he was there. The two women were talking at the same time, asking and answering their own questions. They created a whirlwind of happy chaos."
    (Julie Garwood, The Secret. Penguin, 1992)
  • "Mama sat with Mama Pellegrini, the two of them talking so rapidly that their words and sentences overlapped completely. Anna wondered, as she listened from the parlor, how they could understand what each was saying. But they laughed at the same time and raised or lowered their voices at the same time."
    (Ed Ifkovic, A Girl Holding Lilacs. Writers Club Press, 2002)

Tannen on High Involvement Style

  • "One of the most striking aspects of high involvement style that I found and analyzed in detail was the use of what I called 'cooperative overlap': a listener talking along with a speaker not in order to interrupt but to show enthusiastic listenership and participation. The concept of overlap versus interruption became one of the cornerstones of my argument that the stereotype of New York Jews as pushy and aggressive is an unfortunate reflection of the effect of high involvement style in conversation with speakers who use a different style. (In my study I called the other style 'high considerateness')."
    (Deborah Tannen, Gender and Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1994)

Cooperation or Interruption?

  • "Cooperative overlap occurs when one interlocutor is showing her enthusiastic support and agreement with another. Cooperative overlap occurs when the speakers view silence between turns as impolite or as a sign of a lack of rapport. While an overlap may be construed as cooperative in a conversation between two friends, it may be construed as an interruption when between boss and employee. Overlaps and interrogative have different meanings depending on the speakers' ethnicity, gender, and relative status differences. For example, when a teacher, a person of higher status, overlaps with her student, a person of lower status, typically the overlap is interpreted as an interruption."
    (Pamela Saunders, "Gossip in an Older Women's Support Group: A Linguistic Analysis." Language and Communication in Old Age: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, ed. by Heidi E. Hamilton. Taylor & Francis, 1999)

Different Cultural Perceptions of Cooperative Overlap

  • "[T]he two-way nature of cross-cultural differences typically eludes participants in the throes of conversation. A speaker who stops talking because another has begun is unlikely to think, 'I guess we have different attitudes toward cooperative overlap.' Instead, such a speaker will probably think, 'You are not interested in hearing what I have to say,' or even 'You are a boor who only wants to hear yourself talk.' And the cooperative overlapper is probably concluding, 'You are unfriendly and are making me do all the conversational work here'... '"
    (Deborah Tannen, "Language and Culture," in An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, ed. by R. W. Fasold and J. Connor-Linton. Cambridge University Press, 2000)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Cooperative Overlap in Conversation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Cooperative Overlap in Conversation. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Cooperative Overlap in Conversation." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 5, 2023).