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C-level assignment for the Department of English, Uppsala University by E. Täljeblad-Steiner Austrasse 27 CH-8134 Adliswil Supervisor: Pia Norell 2005
Key words: backchannel, form, function, men, women, gender, mixed, conversation, support, difference, strategy, laughter
Table of Contents 1. INTRODUCTION 1.1. Informal conversation 1.2. Aim of study 1.3. Material and method 2. BACKGROUND 2.1. Turns and backchannels 2.2. Identifying backchannels 2.2.1 Back-backchannels 2.2.2 Unnoticed turns 2.2.3 Comment on the transcription marker (>) 2.3 2.4 Backchannel functions Laughter 2 2 3 3 4 4 6 7 8 8 9 9 11 11 12 13 17 18 18 19
3. RESULTS 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Backchannel forms Backchannel functions 3.2.1 Defining a "level of interest" scale Appropriate timing Elicited backchannels
4. CONCLUDING REMARKS 5. REFERENCES AND NOTES APPENDIX
1. INTRODUCTION 1.1 Informal conversation In one of her TV programs, the journalist Stina Dabrowski had as her guest the prominent politician Carl Bildt. The atmosphere was relaxed and Dabrowski picked the moment to comment on the fact that she had never heard Bildt make one single mistake when he spoke, regardless if he was prepared or not; no grammatical errors, no repetition of words, not even a hesitation. Dabrowski said this in an unmistakingly disapproving tone, and Bildt had to defend himself, asserting that he made as many errors as the next man when it came to spontaneous speech. This was, however, expressed with such eloquence that the audience burst out laughing and Dabrowski said something like "Well, you are incorrigible". Bildt seemed a little embarrassed. This example shows how important it is to know how spoken language functions and what impact this knowledge or lack of knowledge has on our daily life. Crystal & Davy (1969:104) explain the phenomenon as follows:
"Informal, spontaneous conversation is characterised by a very high proportion of 'errors',
compared with other spoken varieties, involving hesitation features of all kinds, slips of the tongue (though these are by no means restricted to this variety), and a substantial amount of overlapping or simultaneous speech."
Is there an interesting point to make in the fact that the above exchange took place between participants of different sex? Thirty years ago, language and gender did not exist as a research area in sociolinguistics (Coates, 2003). By tradition, research concentrated on social class, ethnicity and age. Although gender has been said to be the primary category by which the social world is organised, it was long avoided. Why? As Coates states, still after the Second World War, the concept of man and person coincided. Man was the heart of the society, holding all important positions, and this 'maleness' was not remarked on (2003:10). A shift came with the Women's Movement and with well educated women, who focussed their research on women's characteristics. From a deficit and dominance approach (assuming that woman is powerless and subordinate, which is mirrored in her language), modern research often takes the view that 'gender' – an alternative expression to the biological 'sex' – is socially constructed, and that women and men are equal, but use different communication strategies. This is the stance that I take.
1.2. Aim of study In this paper, I am looking at the form and function of backchannels in daily conversation, and more specifically, I want to look for any significant differences in the way men and women use backchannels. My questions are: Do women and men use different forms of backchannels? Do women use more backchannels than men? Is there evidence that women give more support to show cooperation and sympathetic understanding? Is it true that men interrupt in order to dominate and are they bad listeners?
1.3. Material and method The primary source for my investigation is The London-Lund Corpus of English Conversation (LLC), edited by Quirk and Svartvik in 1980. It includes 34 transcriptions of pieces of informal conversation. Recordings made in the 70's were interpreted into orthographic transcription with prosodic analysis, such as the beginning, end and nucleus of a tone unit, stress, pauses, boosters, etc. In my examples, I will omit features that are irrelevant for my discussion in order to facilitate their reading. Below you see an explanatory list of the symbols used in my examples: S.1.1 >Dave sylls +yes+
text identification speaker continues where he/she left off syllables simultaneous talk word is stressed tone unit end
brief pause of one light syllable unit pause
/m/ /sigh/ oral sounds /- laugh/1 the length of the activity
Like Oreström (1983) and Tottie (1991), I have chosen to study only dyads, i. e. texts representing conversation between two persons. These texts represent spontaneous conversation between educated British speakers. The corpus contains all in all nine
transcriptions of face-to-face conversation: five are male-male, three male-female and one female-female. I will examine three of these texts, one of each constellation: - S.2.12, between a nurse aged 23 and a teacher aged 25, hereafter called Alice and Beth; - S.1.6, between a female academic aged 45 and a male academic aged 28, called Claire and Dave; - S.2.1, between two male academics aged 43 and 34, called Eric and Frank. Together, the texts amount to 15,000 words. I am aware that it is not enough material to be able to present any statistically significant data, but I can look for patterns and tendencies. As a rule, the recordings were made without the prior knowledge of the participants, socalled surreptitious recording. However, Beth and Eric were aware of being recorded. I have had no access to the material in other forms, such as recordings or computer disks. In studying the texts, I listed the different forms of backchannels and counted the instances of each form. Also, I identified the most important functions on an interactional level. I compared the results in search of differences between male and female use of backchannels. Moreover, I compared the timing and number of elicited responses. The first step, to define a backchannel, turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. Therefore, I will next describe the background to my set of definitions as clearly as possible, and comment on the transcription.
2. BACKGROUND 2.1 Turns and backchannels In 1970, Yngve (1970:568) brought forward a characteristic feature of spoken language while discussing turntaking in conversation:
"The passing of the turn from one party to another is nearly the most obvious aspect of
conversation (---) the distinction between having the turn or not is not the same as the traditional distinction between speaker and listener, for it is possible to speak out of turn and it is even reasonably frequent that a conversationalist speaks out of turn. (---) This is because of the existence of what I call the backchannel, over which the person who has
the turn receives short messages such as 'yes' and 'uh-huh' without relinquishing the turn."
This kind of listener responses function as a direct feedback to speakers, signalling that their messages have been received, understood, agreed to and/or caused a certain effect (Oreström 1983:24). There are various labels for this phenomenon; it seems that every linguist coins his/her own term. Those I have come across are: response token, signal of attention, accompaniment signal, acknowledger, support, feedback signal, reassurer, continuer, a go-o, minimal response. I have chosen to use Yngve's term backchannel, which has come to designate a backchannel message, which can contain one or several backchannel items. The difficulties connected with defining a backchannel have been recognised, if not given any systematic study or satisfactory solutions by the authors I have consulted for this paper. Oreström (1983:23) states that there are two types of utterances: speaking turns and backchannel items. These should be kept apart because of their different functions. With reference to Henne and Watzlawick among others, he defines a speaking turn as a sequence that conveys new information and expands the topic, whereas a backchannel item has a low value on the content level but a relatively high value on the relationship level of communication. It is a question of different roles played by the interlocutors, where one party is the active speaker, advancing the topic and delivering turns, while the other party is the active listener, staying in the background and showing interest by emitting backchannels. Example (1) shows a typical and indisputable backchannel (marked in italics by me). As speaker Claire pauses to take a breath at the end of a tone unit, Dave conveniently puts in an m, which does not interrupt A's flood of words in any way: (1) Claire: ...and I went back to my old Dave: /m/ >Claire: that I got this
in the civil
and I found it -
job in a teacher's
(S.1.6:143) Unfortunately, not all backchannels are as easily identified. The form of a turn and a backchannel overlap. To identify a backchannel, you need to take into account the context as well as timing, intonation and pause lengths.
2.2 Identifying backchannels When I first started scrutinising the selected texts, I meant to follow Tottie's (1991:260261) criteria for determining backchannels. She states that:
"The most important principle is that backchannel status can be determined only on
the basis of the following utterance. Thus in (1), A's utterance ^oh G\od' yes ^that's the :w\orst 'one might have been a backchannel, but as it provoked a response from B, y\eah# ((it's)) ^really !\awful, it came to serve as a turn. (1) B: A: B: we ^came 'back 'by . from ^Windlebury \East# ^that's the one that :st\ops at# . *^every !st\ation#* *^oh ^G\od 'yes* **^that's the :w\orst 'one#** **y\eah# ((it's)) ^really** !\awful# (S.5.9:1221-7)2"
At first, it seemed to be an ingenious guiding line, but as I studied my texts and kept filling my margins with question marks, I realised that I did not agree. It turned out that about 20% of the utterances that I felt were intended as backchannels were noticed and answered to by the turnholder. Were they to be labelled turns, although there was no claim of the turn from the active listener? In a way, Tottie (1991:255) answers my question in her introduction:
"Backchannels are the sounds (and gestures) made in conversation by the current nonspeaker, which grease the wheels of conversation but constitute no claim to take over the
3 turn. "
On the other hand, I noticed that an utterance that starts off as a backchannel may change into a turn: "yeah / ə:m/ well this was a scheme which…". This happens when the other party yields the turn. Tottie (1991:261) also recognises that probably "no two researchers will arrive at exactly the same solutions", and "the best one can do is to state one's criteria for inclusion of back channels as explicitly as possible". Unfortunately, she has not been very explicit herself. Apart from the quotation above, she mentions that "most problems arose with longer backchannels". Admittedly, it would be too lengthy to describe all criteria for identifying a backchannel, but I will show the two most recurring difficulties that I experienced while examining the transcription.
2.2.1 Back-backchannels In Example (2), Eric's first are they is intended as an encouragement to Frank to go on, and not a proper question. Frank hears this and breaks off to give a short answer before he goes on with his originally intended line. Again, he receives the same supporting signal, but this time, he pays no attention. Seen in context, Frank keeps the turn over a longer period before and after these exchanges. Although Eric elicited a reaction from Frank, it does not change the direction of the conversation long enough to be seen as a turn. It stays a backchannel as intended, and Frank's short reaction can be called a back-backchannel, a term borrowed from Oreström (1983). (2) Frank: although Rank XEROX are doing their best to make sure that it IS Eric: are they Frank: oh they are DEVILS you know · they're buying EVERYBODY out Eric: are they Frank: and they then they they've not only put up their PRICES but the've tacked on all kinds of HANDLING charges and CUTTING charges and – PACKAGING and… (S.2.1:941) Another common back-backchannel is when the turnholder reacts to laughing, either by laughing back or making a short comment, as in Example (3). The giggles convey no other information than that Dave finds Claire's utterance amusing. Furthermore, it does not make Claire replan or change direction of the subject, although she breaks off for an instant. Dave has no intention of taking the floor. Even as Claire chooses to react to the giggles, they remain a backchannel. (3) Claire: + I was an /e/ last Claire: Dave: / - giggles/
YEAH UNDER+ GRADUATE
here of very
- - and I went back to my old
in the Civil
I have not included the back-backchannels in my count, since I regard them as tightly connected with the active speaker's turn.
2.2.2. Unnoticed turns The notion that utterance status is determined on the basis of the next speaker's utterance might also easily lead to the wrong idea that any utterance that is answered is a turn, and vice versa, that any utterance not answered constitutes a backchannel. As is noticed in Example (4), this is not the case. Here, Eric's utterance next term is a turn in its own right, adding a clarification of the first question /ə/ when are you submitting it. Frank continues without a pause, which is also signalled by the symbol (>). Alternatively, this exchange can be seen as the two men being turnholders almost simultaneously. (4) Eric: /ə/ when are you submitting it Frank: /ə:h/ - well +it+ Eric: +next+ term >Frank: it
have been this -
- but / ə:/ - I had to go to
– THIS (S.2.1:9)
– and that really (3 sylls)…
2.2.3 Comment on the transcription marker (>) The marker (>) is occasionally found before the letter which indicates the speaker. It marks that the 'speaker continues where he left off' (Quirk and Svartvik, 1980:21). It puzzled me, because there are more instances, where the speaker has no (>) marker, although he or she speaks without interruption. Does the marker keep an otherwise broken tone unit together? No, there were lots of exceptions to that rule. As no further explanation was given, I figured that it might mark that a single phrase is broken in two by a supporting signal (Crystal and Davy 1974:109), and thus would be a certain indicator of the presence of a backchannel. This idea did not prove to be watertight either; however, out of 71 instances of (>), only five were exceptions to the 'backchannel indicator rule', including the one shown in Example (4) above. With the above examples, I have pointed at some of the difficulties that arise with picking out backchannels from a piece of transcribed spoken discourse. This means that my results are far from exact; however, they show a tendency of what types of, and to what extent, backchannels occur.
2.3 Backchannel functions The primary function of the backchannel is entirely interactional. It is a device to convey the act of listening. Backchannels come in a variety of forms and functions that do not necessarily agree. Thus, "m" may convey acknowledgement, agreement, surprise, or boredom, depending on intonation (Oreström, 1983). A further function exists on the semantic level in the manner that the backchannel gives the current talker a clue to whether the points introduced are new or already known to the listener - and whether the talker was right in presuming the one or the other in the first place. Terasaki (2004:171) describes how it is widely observed, that utterances can be divided into two main groups: those that refer to a previously introduced item, so-called "given" information, and utterances that introduce a piece of information as "new". Gardner (2001) surveyed the eight most common mono- and bisyllabic response tokens in the British language (mm, mm hm, uh huh, yeah, oh, really, okay and alright) in the light of their functions as continuers, acknowledgement tokens, newsmarkers and change-ofactivity tokens and found that these tokens are rather a complex bunch of utterances that does very varied work. He complains that many researchers tend to lump a whole range of sounds and utterances together as backchannels, and treat them superficially as a group. My conclusion is similar; in many studies of conversation, the backchannel functions are mentioned, but shallowly treated in favour of other properties of conversation. Heritage (1989:30), however, sums up some work that has been made in this area. He has shown that 'oh' is distinctive in being used to indicate some change of state of current awareness. Schegloff has shown the importance of the precise placement of utterances, such as 'mhm' by reference to the boundaries of turn-constructional units within a segment of talk. Jefferson has shown that while 'mm' and 'hm' is a token of passive recipiency, 'yes' may function as topic-shifting or topic-curtailing activity. Jefferson has further shown that 'really', 'did you', 'you did', etc., promote the telling of news. Finally, Heritage complains that the fast development of advanced technical devices has led to a strongly empirical approach to conversation, especially in the field of social psychology. Experiments are prearranged and carried out in laboratories, and the computer data findings are believed - until proved otherwise - to bring important facts about the participants of
conversation. In this context, Heritage (1989:21-47) accuses researchers of oversimplifying the function of backchannels and he would like to see more theory constructions. In view of this last statement, and because I was not able to find a suitable method or model in the consulted literature, I decided to create my own model, built on considerations that I will explain in the Results section.
2.4. Laughter I have decided to devote a whole sub-chapter to laughter, as it was completely omitted in some research reports (Oreström, Stenström, Tottie), albeit it is a very prominent form of backchannel. I speculate that it could have something to do with the way it is marked in the LLC transcriptions. For some reason, Quirk and Svartvik (1980:24) have chosen to include the sound of laughs - not to vocalisations like /m/, as one would expect - but to a group of features they call 'contextual comments', which indicate "non-linguistic activity, such as laughs, coughs, enters, telephone rings or technical mishaps, e.g. gap in recording". Other oral sounds, such as coughs, sighs and groans are included here to. This gives the wrong impression, as enters, telephone rings and mishaps on one hand are mechanical happenings, whereas laughter, coughs, sighs and groans are. Although perhaps mostly unplanned, the latter can be used to cause attention and/or show emotions. This causes obvious problems working with computerised data, which Oreström (1983) did, and this might explain why he omitted laughter. American researchers have included laughs as a grammatical element though. Schegloff (1996:102), for example:
"…such as laughter (---) This last is a systematically produced acoustic component of the "speech stream", which surely contributes to the "meaning" and "import" and "understanding" of the speech production of which it forms a part."
Heritage (1989:30) refers among others to Jefferson, who points out that not only is laughter never reported "verbatim", it is also rarely transcribed. Heritage: "Moreover laughter is apt to be regarded as an out-of-control activity and not as a phenomenon which is strongly structured in its occurrence, organisation and tasks." I agree that laughter represents a spontaneous and unplanned feature of communication. This makes it even more interesting and I see no reason why it should be ignored as an important form of backchannel in conversation.
3. RESULTS Before discussing the results, I need to comment on the conversations that were being examined for this paper. The first one takes place between two women, who know each other well and it is very informal and lively. It is dominated by Alice, who in detail recounts episodes from her life, so-called "storytelling", and she keeps the floor practically through the whole conversation and offers only two backchannels. Her friend, Beth, knows about the recording, which may be the reason why she stays in the background by means of regular backchanneling. She also asks questions to start a new topic when a previous one dies out. The conversation is dominated by laughing. Alice keeps laughing while telling, and Beth laughs with her, producing an outstanding total of 50 laughter backchannels. The second and the third texts are different from the first one but similar to each other in that the parties have a working relationship, and do not know each other very well. In the second text, the atmosphere is friendly and non-competitive between Claire and Dave. They take turns in holding the floor. In the third text, the exchanges are short and many between Eric and Frank, and you get the impression of fast turns with hardly any pauses.
3.1. Backchannel forms As shown in Table 1, the single item /m/ (33%) is the most frequent backchannel item, followed by /laughs/(19%), yes (7%), mhm (6%), yeah (5%), /hm/ (2%) and no (1%). These figures show about the same trend as the results of Oreström (1983:121), whose most frequent single word support types were /m/ (50%) and yes (34%), and Tottie's result of yes (44%), followed by /m/ (36%). The higher number of yes can be explained with the fact that she included the complex backchannels, which often started or ended with yes. Table 1. Female and male occurrences of backchannels
Women % Men % Total
/m/ /laughs/ yes /mhm/ yeah no /hm/ complex other Total
53 60 16 3 7 3 0 32 20 194
13% 14% 4% 1% 2% 1% 0% 8% 5% 46%
85 18 14 21 14 3 7 37 27 226
20% 5% 3% 5% 3% 1% 2% 9% 6% 54%
All in all, men offered more backchannels than women: 226 (54%) to 194 (46%). The use of the different forms are evenly spread, with exceptions for /laugh/, which women used three times more than men, and /m/ which men used 1,5 times more than women. Also, all 7 instances of /hm/ were made by men. These represent 1% of all backchannels. Oreström (1983) does not mention /hm/ at all (did he not find any?), but Tottie's (1991) number of /hm/ also constituted 1%, however with no mention of gender. According to some of Oreström's results (1983:123), the females used mhm and yeah much less often than the males. This is also the case in my study, where men used /mhm/ 7 times more and yeah twice as often. The complex backchannels make up 13%. They are either a combination of single ones (yes yes, /hm/ /hm/, I see yes yes) or unique utterances: you know this is what's so awful about academics isn't this is the worst side of them (text S.1.6:1130). "Other" backchannels make up 15%, and include (1) questions (really, have you, you think so, oh), (2) restatements (kept in Circencester yes), (3) sentence completions (viceroy /m), (4) exclamations or emotion signals (crikey, amazing, ugh, wow, oh lord /m/, /sigh/, /gasp/, /groan/).
3.2. Backchannel functions Is there in my results any evidence for the general notions that exist about male and female conversation strategies and what are these notions? Coates (2003:87-93), in summing up various research work, states that women are said to be more polite, more cooperative and make use of more backchannels in conversation than men. Women are also believed to employ more questions as a conversational strategy. Men, on the other hand, are said to follow strategies of non-cooperation. They interrupt and take hold of the floor without regard to timing, and they are more unwilling to give support in the way of backchannels. She goes on: "Research on the use of minimal responses is unanimous in showing that women use them more than men, and at appropriate moments, that is, at points in conversation which indicate the listener's support for the current speaker. --- when men do use minimal responses, these are often delayed, a tactic which undermines the current speaker and reinforces male dominance." There are a lot of studies which focus on interruptions as a disruptive behaviour, and although these usually exclude backchannels, there is no clear boundary between the two. In their review of studies on interruptive behaviour, James and Clarke (1993:258) sum up that:
13 "not only are instances of interruption not necessarily disruptive in nature, but they can
function to indicate support, collaboration, and solidarity. There is considerable evidence, however, that women tend to perform more positive socioemotional behavior of this kind in interactions than do men. For example, many studies have found women to do more agreeing and showing of support, in both same- and mixed-sex interaction (---) the majority of studies which have examined the use of back channel responses by listeners have found women to use more."
In order to compare my results with the above cited generalisations, I wanted a model that would include all backchannels on one hand and mirror emotional behaviour on the other. I decided my starting point to be that: - not only is the primary function of the backchannel to show interest in way of agreement, understanding, question, surprise, etc., but to signal the extent of this interest. It was not possible to undertake a systematic study of the prosodic features, such as intonation and loudness, for two reasons. I did not have access to computerised transcriptions, which would have meant overwhelming work to keep track of all features on paper, and two of the six speakers were aware of the recording. As a consequence, the prosodic features of their speech were not transcribed. As I did not find a model in consulted literature that suited my purpose, I decided to organise the backchannels on a level-of-interest scale, starting with the least emotional and ending with the most expressive.
3.2.1 Defining a "level-o- interest" scale
Starting with the most neutral, I organised the backchannel realisations in the following groups: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. the single forms m, yes, yeah mhm, hm, no complex (quite quite quite quite)4 questions (really, you think so, oh) restatements (they relax m) sentence completions (fifteen thousand) exclamations (oh lord no, christ) laughs
To arrive at this model, I looked at the length of the backchannel, if it seemed to carry several functions and/or emotional weight, and made the following considerations:
a short form shows less evidence of active interest and is more void of emotion than a longer one; you can "m" and "hm" along without really listening. Exceptions are: - oh, which adds the signal of surprise at the made utterance and therefore shows evidence of active listening; - /laugh/ (see below); and - yes and yeah, which may show evidence of high interest and belong to the group of exclamations. Where available, I looked at the transcripted intonation and timing to decide on the level of interest. This means, that in my scheme, form and function generally agree, but not always.
Complex forms, such as yeah yeah yeah show more interest than a single one, but are monotone, not creative, and showing less interest than an exclamatory question, such as really.
Restatement and sentence completion require thought as well as creativity and therefore belong to the high interest end, as do exclamations, whose intensity of shown emotion bring them further to the high interest end.
Finally, laughter, although perhaps not creative in its physical realisation, is a spontaneous, i.e. strongly emotional, reaction following a creative thought as part of a necessary active listener participation. It is a backchannel form that you can hardly fake or control by will, and the combination of these features place laughter at the furthermost high interest end of this scale.
Perhaps not totally surprisingly, the "unruly" cases of backchannels that I - in want for better ideas while sampling – grouped as "other" backchannels turned out to correspond to the higher interest end of the scale; they were questions, restatements, sentence completions and exclamations. Chart 1 shows the result of the backchannels offered by men and women on the "level of interest" scale. Single and complex backchannels as a group were offered 114 times by women and substantially more, 181 times, by men. Questions, restatements and sentence completions as a group were represented three times more by men than women. Finally, at the high interest end, women offered three times more exclamations and laughs. Looking at the illustration, you can see how men are strongest at the low interest end, how women and men follow each other closely towards the middle - men always slightly ahead - and how they break up towards the end and differ in choice of form and intensity of backchanneling.
Chart 1.Distribution of backchannels offered by men and women on an interest level scale.
160 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0
qu es tio ns re st at em en ts co m pl et io ns ex la m at io ns co m pl la ug hs ng le si ex
Chart 2 shows that the single gender conversations contained a slightly larger amount of backchannels than the mixed gender one. The all female conversation sticks out from the other two in that Beth does practically all the backchanneling: 133 instances of the total 135. As already mentioned, Beth was aware of the recording, and it is possible that her reaction to that was to encourage Alice to keep talking. Therefore, this result may not be representative. On the other hand, Eric also knew about the recording, and participated in the conversation as both active talker and active listener. Tannen comments on the dilemma that as long as participants are aware of the presence of the tape recorder, their talk is not natural. However, the participants also tend to soon forget the tape recorder (1984:33-34). The mixed conversation contained the lowest amount of backchannels, 122 instances, fairly evenly divided between Claire (59) and Dave (63). The largest amount of backchannels was found in the all male conversation with 163 instances. A seemingly constant observation from research on single sex conversations is that while men tend to disagree with or ignore each other's utterances, women tend to acknowledge and build on them. This is done by women in a way that Coates (2004) calls "jam session" and means that the floor is open to all at the same time, and that speakers co-construct utterances (sentence completion). She continues: "In contrast, male speakers prefer a oneat-a-time model of turn-taking. Overlapping talk is rare in all-male talk and is interpreted as an illegitimate attempt to grab the floor. This means that, in mixed conversation, women and men may come into conflict over overlapping talk."
Chart 2. Distribution of backchannels in the same gender and mixed conversations
140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0 Alice Beth Claire Dave Eric Frank
single complex questions restatements completions exlamations /laughs/
This manner of conversation was confirmed by Alice and Beth, producing the vast majority of backchannels simultaneously (section 3.3). Similarly, the all-male conversation was dominated with backchannels produced between talk. In the mixed gender conversation, however, I could not detect any signs of conflict or misunderstanding. In their reviews of studies, James and Drakich (1993:289) conclude that "higher-status" individuals, e.g. by rank, race or occupation, are more willing to contribute to the interaction than will "lower-status", and are viewed by themselves and others as more intellectually competent, and likely to perform better. Lower-status participants are content to make more support signals. This theory clearly do not apply to "Almighty Alice", who is 23 and a nurse, and "Backchanneling Beth", who is 25 and a teacher. There is plainly something else than profession, age or gender rank that is reflected in this conversation. Looking at the two academics Claire and Dave, however, it fits the picture that Dave is younger and also the one offering most backchannels, if only marginally. Interestingly, Dave's second most offered backchannel was /laugh/, a typically female, cooperative feature (16 instances to Claire's 10). Similarly, Claire's most presented backchannel was /m/, a typical male noncommitted form. Is it possible that both parties more or less unconsciously know of the other's preference of strategy and copies it to show cooperation and avoid any possible conflicts? Finally, it also fits that Frank in the all-male talk is younger, seeks approval from
Eric and is eager to show interest by using a number of sentence completions. This makes Frank the lower-status talker and as expected he also gives (marginally) more backchannels: 86 compared to 77.
3.3 Appropriate timing Chart 3 shows that about 40% of the female backchannels were simultaneous speech, and 20% of the male. It is worth noticing that with both genders, most simultaneous backchannels were uttered at a tone unit end (predicting a pause?), and turned into simultaneous talk only because the turnholder just got started again, see Example 5. (5) Dave: which he Claire: +YES+ Dave: +EXACTLY+ what he'd
(S.1.6: 326) I looked for especially long turnholder pauses – one or more units – where the listening party seemed slow to give a backchannel, but I could not find any evidence that men delay their supporting signals as a conversational strategy. Assuming that men indeed prefer talking one-at-a-time, my interpretation is that they do not want to seem to interrupt – as a cooperative strategy – and take care to backchannel when there is a pause, whereas women do not take offence at simultaneous talk, and therefore overlapping speech takes place more often. Chart 3. Female and male timing of backchannels
250 200 150 100 50 0 females males
in between simultaneous
3.4 Elicited backchannels Another cooperative device is elicited backchannels, i.e. a reaction specifically asked for by the turnholder. The eliciting mechanism from the turnholder was laughter and 'you know', tag questions and a first person remark such as 'I think', 'I don't know'. I found 42 elicited backchannels, twice as often offered by women than by men. These were laughs, single and complex items, as well as questions, in that order of frequency (Chart 4). Chart 4. Male and female elicited backchannel responses
18 16 14 12 10 8 6 4 2 0 single complex question laugh male female
The conversations go like waves, with many short exchanges for a while, and then longer exchanges, with hardly any backchannels at all. There is clearly a rhythm of speech, where the listener is quiet for a longer stretch of time. However, instead there are probably gazes, nodding, smiling, and such body signals, to show active listening. I speculate that it might be tiring for the turnholder – in the middle of storytelling – if the active listener keeps making noises ALL the time. There is a fine line between supportive and interruptive behaviour. In this context, it is worth noticing that the elicits and elicited responses did not appear after long stretches of talk, but in a wave of a number of backchannel realisations. It could as well be that the 'eliciting device' is in fact NOT the turnholder's way of asking for support, but quite the reverse. It could mean saying thank you for the already given backchannels by including the other party in the speech. 4. CONCLUDING REMARKS In this study, I could show some tendencies of gender difference in backchannel strategies. I looked at the form and frequency of backchannels and found that men, contrary to many other studies gave a greater amount of backchannels. The forms used were the same except
for /hm/ that was offered only by men. Other forms that stood out in this context were /m/, which men used 1.5 times as much, and /laugh/, which women used three times as often. I looked at functions, employing a "level-of-interest" scale, and found that men used sentence completion as a strategy of cooperation, however, thereby also dominating the floor for a short while; in other words, showing interest as well as creativity in a competitive way. Women were not found to be competitive, but solely cooperative, and more so than men. This was confirmed in the way they showed more interest in the way of more emotion. They were creative, using a great variety of exclamations. However, contrary to some other studies exemplified by Coates (2004), women were not more cooperative than men in the manner of using exclamatory questions, such as oh really, did you. Also contrary to expectation, men were good listeners, predicting the next pause and timing their backchannel to this pause. It seems to instead confirm the theory that men prefer a one-at-a-time strategy. Men were not found to wait too long before giving support. The same gender conversations seemed to confirm the belief that women talk with each other simultaneously, whereas men prefer one-at-a-time. In the mixed gender conversation, I thought I could detect a willingness from the parties to "overuse" a backchannel form that was typical of the other; Claire used /m/ and Dave used /laugh/. Both genders made room for longer stretches of speech from the turnholder, also allowing for longer stretches of pauses without breaking the silence. There seemed to be a rhythmic alternation between short and long exchanges.
5. REFERENCES AND NOTES 5.1. Primary Source Quirk, Randolph and Svartvik, Jan (eds). 1980. The London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English, 152–172, 372–398, 686–706. Lund: Lund University Press. 5.2. Secondary Sources Coates, Jennifer. 2003 (3rd edition). Women, Men and Language. A Sociolinguistic Account of Gender Difference in Language. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited. Crystal, David and Davy, Derek. 1969. Investigating English Style. London: Longman.
Eckert, Penelope. 1993. Cooperative Competition in Adolescent "Girl Talk". In: Deborah Tannen (ed). Gender and Conversational Interaction. 32-61. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. Gardner, Rod. 2001. When Listeners Talk. Response tokens and listener stance. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Heritage, John. 1989. Current developments in conversation analysis. In: Derek Roger and Peter Bull (eds). Conversation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. 21-47. Clevedon & Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd. James, Deborah and Clarke, Sandra. 1993. Women, Men and Interruptions: A Critical Review. In: Deborah Tannen (ed). Gender and Conversational Interaction. 231-280. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. James, Deborah and Drakich, Janice. 1993. Understanding Gender Differences in Amount of Talk: A Critical Review of Research. 281-312. In: Deborah Tannen (ed). Gender and Conversational Interaction. 231-280. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. Oreström, Bengt. 1983. Turn-taking in English Conversation. Lund: Liber Förlag. Stenström, Anna-Brita. 1984. Questions and Responses In English Conversation. Lund: Liber Förlag. Tannen, Deborah. 1984. Conversational Style. Analyzing Talk Among Friends. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation. Terasaki, Alene Kiku. 2004. Pre-announcement sequences in conversation. In: Gene H. Lerner (ed). Conversation Analysis. Studies from the first generation. 171–223. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Tottie, G. 1991. Conversational style in British and American English: The Case of Backchannels. In: Karin Aijmer & Bengt Altenberg (eds). English Corpus Linguistics. 254-271. London: Longman. Yngve, V.H. 1970. On Getting a Word in Edgewise. In: Papers from the Sixth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, April 16-18, 1970. 567-578. Chicago: University of Chicago, Department of Linguistics.
I put laughter in between slashes together with vocalisations and phonetic sounds and do not follow Quirk and Svartvik's transcription, which puts laughter within brackets, together with nonconversational sounds like when a door opens. 2 this example is taken from Corpus of Spoken American English, which differs somewhat from the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English (Tottie 1991:260) 3 my italics 4 Oreström (1983:124) argues, however, that a chain of backchannel items also has another function; it can indicate the listener's raised interest in taking over the turn, similar to raising a hand in the classroom.
Basic Data: Occurrence of backchannels in the texts S.2.12, S.1.6 and S.2.1.
Alice Beth Claire Dave Eric Frank Total %
/m/ /laughs/ yes /mhm/ yeah no /hm/ complex other Total
0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 2
32 50 4 2 7 0 0 19 19 133
21 10 11 1 0 2 0 13 1 59
38 16 0 3 0 0 0 3 3 63
27 1 8 5 4 2 6 15 9 77
20 1 6 13 10 1 1 19 15 86
138 78 30 24 21 6 7 69 47
33% 19% 7% 6% 5% 2% 1% 16% 11%
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