Deborah Tannen: Conversational Style

Chapter 2: Theoretical Background

Analysis of conversation is a subdomain of discourse analysis (which also includes written text).
CA is related to Semantics – basic question is ‘how do people communicate and interpret meaning in conversation?’

Style: Hymes described as register; Ervin-Tripp as  alternation. Tannen  refers to choices of particular linguistic devices made by speakers.

Individual & Social Differences

Sapir said: “It is always the variation that matters, never the objective behavior.” (1958:542)… and style is an “every day facet of speech that characterizes both the social group and the individual.”

Distinction between ‘unmarked’  (normal behavior for a community) and ‘marked’ (different from the norm) is important when distinguishing between individual style and a community’s style.

Acquisition of Style

Children learn by age four what conversation style is used by members of their speech community.

Stylistic Strategies: Involvement – Considerateness

Lakoff’s Principles:

  1. Don’t impose (distance)
  2. Give options (deference)
  3. Be friendly (camaraderie)

Tannen gives examples of how these principles are expressed in conversation. There is a tension between expressing politeness through distance and camaraderie. Lakoff sees them as points on a continuum.

distance                               deference                      camaraderie

The middle ground is deference; which is giving the other choices about how to interpret one’s message.

Another graphic representation:

Particularly relevant to the upcoming chapter is the discussion of features of the High-Involvement Style

  1. Topic
    a. Prefer personal topics
    b. Shift topics abruptly
    c. Introduce topics w/o hesitation
    d. Persist (keep introducing a topic)
  2. Pacing
    a. Faster rate of speech
    b. Faster turn taking
    c. Avoid pauses between turns
    d. Cooperative overlap
    e. Participatory listenership
  3. Narrative Strategies
    a. Tell more stories
    b. Tell stories in rounds (each person gives their own story)
    c. Prefer internal evaluation (the point of a story is expected to be interpreted by the listener)
  4. Expressive paralinguistics
    a. Expressive phonology
    b. Marked pitch and amplitude shifts
    c. Marked voice quality
    d. Strategic pauses within turns


Tannen used a tape recorder (which ran out of tape!) then later, met with each participant and had them control the recorder to pause and comment. She acknowledges that the transcription of the conversation does not capture the intonation of the talk nor the nonverbal gestures employed.

Chapter 3: The Participants in Thanksgiving Dinner

Host: Steve, 33-yr-old musician and music teacher
Peter, 35-yr-old management analyst at university
Sally, 29-yr-old musician
Deborah, 29-yr-old graduate student
David, 29-yr-old artist, sign language interpreter
Chad, 30-yr-old writer at film studio
Late arrival: Victor, 37-yr-old engineer, deaf

Origins: Steve, Peter, and Deborah grew up in NYC – Jewish heritage
Chad & David in Southern California  – Chad has Jewish heritage
Sally in London, England – Father from Poland – Jewish heritage

Sexual orientation: Steve, David & Chad are gay
Deborah, Peter, and Sally are heterosexual

Chapter 4: Linguistic  Devices in Conversational Style

  • Personal / Impersonal Topics
  • The ‘Enthusiam Constraint’
  • The Machine-Gun question
  • Overlap and pace
  • Mutual Revelation  (see also my dissertation in reference to self-disclosure)
  • Bonding through high-involvement devices
  • Expressive Phonology and Intonation (pitch)
  • Persistence
  • Tolerance for Noise vs. Silence

Questions for Tyler:

How would you define your own conversational style?

What has your experience been in interacting with people who have a different conversational style?