When reading the chapter about discourse analysis in George Yule's The Study of Language, I came across the following statement about conversation:

Typically, only one person speaks at a time and there tends to be an avoidance of silence between speaking (This is not true in all situations and societies.)

So I'm curious about in which situations or societies people don't take turns to speak in conversations?

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    I would guess the disclaimer relates mostly to the second part of the statement: it’s not in all societies and situations that silence between speaking turns is avoided. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 11:34
  • From an essay I once wrote: Rabbi Pappenheim also writes that the root of amirah is MEM-REISH which refers to “switching” or “exchanging.” He explains that amirah fits into that umbrella because amirah denotes the exchanging of ideas, and in polite dialogue the parties involved constantly “switch” their status from being vocal (when it is their turn to speak) to being quiet (when it is their turn to listen). Link: ohr.edu/this_week/whats_in_a_word/8393 Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 13:26
  • I suggest Janus has the right of it. Silences are always optional. More than one person speaking at the same time will by definition cause a problem. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 22:48
  • In conversation analysis, turn-taking organization describes the sets of practices speakers use to construct and allocate turns.[1] The organization of turn-taking was first explored as a part of conversation analysis by Harvey Sacks with Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and their model is still generally accepted in the field.[7] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn-taking //Whoever removed my comments, removed the actual name of the discipline that studies this which none of the answers or comments even mention. [Harrumph]
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 1:01
  • @Lambie You can write an answer if you think it is essential to name turn-taking. But please stop commenting to add that. Other people are free to answer this question without using that term.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 1:44

3 Answers 3


As an English Language teacher, I often have to explain to students who come from very different cultures that most English speakers are uncomfortable with long silences in conversations. So whereas, for example, it might be very polite for a Japanese student to pause silently for some time before answering a question when in Japan—it would be interpreted as polite thoughtfulness in Japanese culture—it is very likely to be interpreted as unfriendliness, or indicative of a lack of interest in English.

This is where it's very useful to teach students the level nuclear tone, which is what English speakers use to show that they are thinking before answering. An alternative is the chin clutch whilst tilting the head and saying well with a protracted level tone before saying something like let me think about that, and then tilting your head the other way and then back again whilst saying hmmmmm. I think the writer is probably highlighting the following part of the sentence:

there tends to be an avoidance of silence between speaking

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    On the topic of silence in Japanese sociolinguistics, consider aizuchi (相槌) as a possible counterexample in context.
    – jogloran
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 2:46
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    Another posture that conveys the same sort of thoughtfulness is a lowered head (that is, basically chin against chest)while having a hand raised (often to head level but at least chest) and making a circling motion with one or two fingers, whether the person makes any noise is pretty irrelevant to this. It's basically a "give me some time" pose. Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 4:12

A common situation is where a listener has guessed (correctly or not) what the speaker is going to say next and starts to respond.

Another is when one person feels they've been interrupted and wants to carry on. Or feels they have been misunderstood and wants to immediately deal with this.

All of the above appear in a flaming row between a couple. :-)

It is possible to listen and speak at the same time, so these still count as conversations most of the time.

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    Another common situation is more or less any gathering of children. Turn-taking is learned social behaviour that children tend to learn a good deal later than they learn speech, hence the chaos – all too familiar to school teachers – of a group of children all talking at once and making a frightful racket. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 22:56

A common example is faculty meetings, when Distinguished Professors A, B and Q are free to butt in when they have an idea. Whether or not this works depends on the extent to which Irrelevant Professor F or Invisible Grad Student P take umbrage at being interrupted. There are other examples where a lecture is entitled "Conversation on X", but in fact it is primarily a monologue by a single speaker, with allowances for question and answer at the end.

Traditionally, a "conversation" has a small set of individuals who take discrete turns speaking for a short period of time (maybe a couple of minutes at most) on a topic. By definition, a conversation is turn-taking between equals. We have other words to describe utterance-exchanges that don't follow that form (e.g. lecture, "class"). A "discussion" is a notch up from "conversation", so that one can hold forth for much longer in a "discussion", and a discussion is usually organized around a weightier proposition.

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