Turn-Taking in Conversation Analysis

How to ensure orderly dialogue in various settings

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In conversation analysis, turn-taking is a term for the manner in which orderly conversation normally takes place. A basic understanding can come right from the term itself: It's the notion that people in a conversation take turns in speaking. When studied by sociologists, however, the analysis goes deeper, into topics such as how people know when it's their turn to speak, how much overlap there is between speakers, when it's OK to have overlap, and how to consider regional or gender differences.

The underlying principles of turn-taking were first described by sociologists Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A. Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson in "A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation" in the journal Language, in the December 1974 issue.

Competitive vs. Cooperative Overlap

Much of the research in turn-taking has looked into competitive versus cooperative overlap in conversations, such as how that affects the balance of power of those in the conversation and how much rapport the speakers have. For example, in competitive overlap, researchers might look at how one person dominates a conversation or how a listener might take some power back with different ways of interrupting.  

In cooperative overlap, a listener might ask for clarification on a point or add to the conversation with further examples that support the speaker's point. These kinds of overlaps help move the conversation forward and aid in communicating the full meaning to all who are listening. Or overlaps might be more benign and just show that the listener understands, such as by saying "Uh-huh." Overlap like this also moves the speaker forward.

Cultural differences and formal or informal settings can change what's acceptable in a particular group dynamic.  

Examples and Observations

Television programs, books, and films present some fine examples of turn-taking.

  • Christine Cagney: "I'm being quiet now. That means it's your turn to talk."
  • Mary Beth Lacey: "I'm trying to think of what to say.
    ("Cagney & Lacey," 1982)
"Once a topic is chosen and a conversation initiated, then matters of conversational 'turn-taking' arise. Knowing when it is acceptable or obligatory to take a turn in conversation is essential to the cooperative development of discourse. This knowledge involves such factors as knowing how to recognize appropriate turn-exchange points and knowing how long the pauses between turns should be. It is also important to know how (and if) one may talk while someone else is talking—that is if the conversational overlap is allowed. Since not all conversations follow all the rules for turn-taking, it is also necessary to know how to 'repair' a conversation that has been thrown off course by undesired overlap or a misunderstood comment.
"Cultural differences in matters of turn-taking can lead to conversational breakdown, misinterpretation of intentions, and interpersonal intergroup conflict."
(Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, "American English: Dialects and Variation." Wiley-Blackwell, 2006)
  • The Wolf: "You're Jimmie, right? This is your house?"
  • Jimmie: "Sure is.
  • "The Wolf: "I'm Winston Wolfe. I solve problems."
  • Jimmie: "Good, we got one."
  • The Wolf: "So I heard. May I come in?"
  • Jimmie: "Uh, yeah, please do."
    (Pulp Fiction, 1994)

Turn-Taking and Parliamentary Procedure

The rules regarding turn-taking in formal situations can differ markedly than between people who are speaking casually together.

"Absolutely fundamental to following parliamentary procedure is knowing when and how to speak in your correct turn. Business in deliberative societies cannot be conducted when the members are interrupting each other and when they are speaking out of turn on unrelated subjects. Etiquette calls interrupting someone else rude behavior and unfitting for people in refined society. [Emily] Post's book of etiquette goes beyond this to describe the importance of listening and responding to the correct topic as being part of good manners when participating in any form of conversation.
"By waiting your turn to speak and avoiding interrupting another person, you not only show your desire to work together with the other members of your society, you also show respect for your fellow members."
(Rita Cook, "The Complete Guide to Robert's Rules of Order Made Easy." Atlantic Publishing, 2008)

Interrupting vs. Interjecting

Sometimes butting in while someone is talking may not be considered as interrupting, but only interjecting.

"To be sure, a debate is as much about performance and rhetoric (and snappy one-liners) as it is about meaningful dialogue. But our ideas about conversation inevitably shape how we perceive the debates. This means, for example, that what seems an interruption to one viewer might be merely an interjection to another. Conversation is an exchange of turns, and having a turn means having a right to hold the floor until you have finished what you want to say. So interrupting is not a violation if it doesn’t steal the floor. If your uncle is telling a long story at dinner, you may cut in to ask him to pass the salt. Most (but not all) people would say you aren’t really interrupting; you just asked for a temporary pause."
(Deborah Tannen, "Would You Please Let Me Finish ..." The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2012)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Turn-Taking in Conversation Analysis." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/turn-taking-conversation-1692569. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). Turn-Taking in Conversation Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/turn-taking-conversation-1692569 Nordquist, Richard. "Turn-Taking in Conversation Analysis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/turn-taking-conversation-1692569 (accessed April 2, 2023).