Conversation Defined

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

one-sided conversation
(Vasko Miokovic Photography/Getty Images)

Conversation is the spoken exchange of ideas, observations, opinions, or feelings between people. 

"[T]he properties of the best conversation," says William Covino, echoing Thomas De Quincey, "are identical to the properties of the best rhetoric" (The Art of Wondering, 1988).

Examples and Observations

  • "Many of us dismiss talk that does not convey important information as worthless . . .. Such admonitions as 'Skip the small talk,' 'Get to the point,' or 'Why don't you say what you mean?' may seem to be reasonable. But they are reasonable only if information is all that counts. This attitude toward talk ignores the fact that people are emotionally involved with each other and that talking is the major way we establish, maintain, monitor and adjust our relationships.”
    (Deborah Tannen, That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Your Relationships. Random House, 1992)
  • Transactional and Interactional Functions of Conversation
    "[T]wo different kinds of conversational interaction can be distinguished--those in which the primary focus is on the exchange of information (the transactional function of conversation), and those in which the primary purpose is to establish and maintain social relations (the interactional function of conversation) (Brown and Yule, 1983). In transactional uses of conversation the primary focus is on the message, whereas interactional uses of conversation focus primarily on the social needs of the participants...
    "Conversation also reflects the rules and procedures that govern face-to-face encounters, as well as the constraints that derive from the use of spoken language. This is seen in the nature of turns, the role of topics, how speakers repair trouble spots, as well as the syntax and register of conversational discourse."
    (Jack C. Richards, The Language Teaching Matrix. Cambridge University Press, 1990)
  • Fielding on Knowledge Gained Through Conversation
    "A true knowledge of the world is gained only by conversation . . .
    "[T]here is another sort of knowledge, beyond the power of learning to bestow, and this is to be had by conversation. So necessary is this to the understanding the characters of men, that none are more ignorant of them than those learned pedants whose lives have been entirely consumed in colleges, and among books; for however exquisitely human nature may have been described by writers, the true practical system can be learnt only in the world."
    (Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, 1749)
  • Conversational Narratives: Pro and Con
    "[N]o style of conversation is more extensively acceptable than the narrative. He who has stored his memory with slight anecdotes, private incidents, and personal peculiarities, seldom fails to find his audience favourable. Almost every man listens with eagerness to contemporary history; for almost every man has some real or imaginary connection with a celebrated character; some desire to advance or oppose a rising name."
    (Samuel Johnson, "Conversation," 1752)
    "Everyone endeavors to make himself as agreeable to society as he can; but it often happens that those who most aim at shining in conversation overshoot their mark. Though a man succeeds, he should not (as is frequently the case) engross the whole talk to himself; for that destroys the very essence of conversation, which is talking together."
    (William Cowper, "On Conversation," 1756)
  • Polite Conversation
    "Speech, no doubt, is a valuable gift, but at the same time it is a gift that may be abused. What is regarded as polite conversation is, I hold, such an abuse. Alcohol, opium, tea, are all very excellent things in their way; but imagine continuous alcohol, an incessant opium, or to receive, ocean-like, a perennially flowing river of tea! That is my objection to this conversation: its continuousness. You have to keep on."
    (H.G. Wells, "Of Conversation: An Apology," 1901)
  • Contextualization Cues
    "[In conversation], speakers use contextualization cues, including paralinguistic and prosodic features, word choice, and ways of structuring information, to signal the speech activity in which they are engaged--that is, what they think they are doing when they produce a particular utterance. The use of contextualization cues is automatic, learned in the process of learning language in a particular speech community. But whereas speakers focus on the meaning they wish to convey and the interactional goals they wish to achieve, their use of contextualization cues becomes the basis for how they are judged. When expectations regarding the use of contextualization cues are relatively similar, utterances are likely to be interpreted more or less as intended. But when such expectations are relatively different, speakers' intentions and abilities are likely to be misevaluated."
    (Deborah Tannen, Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends, 2nd ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 2005)
  • Swift on the Degeneracy of Conversation
    "This degeneracy of conversation, with the pernicious consequences thereof upon our humours and dispositions, hath been owing, among other causes, to the custom arisen, for sometime past, of excluding women from any share in our society, further than in parties at play, or dancing, or in the pursuit of an amour."
    (Jonathan Swift, "Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation," 1713)
  • The Lighter Side of Conversation
    "You brought up the subject; I contributed an interesting fact on that subject. It's called the art of conversation. 'Kay, your turn."
    (Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper, "The Spoiler Alert Segmentation." The Big Bang Theory, 2013)
    Dr. Eric Foreman: You know, there are ways of getting to know people without committing felonies.
    Dr. Gregory House: People interest me; conversations don't.
    Dr. Eric Foreman: That's because conversations go both ways.
    (Omar Epps and Hugh Laurie, "Lucky Thirteen." House, M.D., 2008)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Conversation Defined." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Conversation Defined. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Conversation Defined." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).