Monday, July 30, 2007

Hesitation Particles, hmm...

What is a hesitation particle?

Sometimes known as filled pauses, they often precede a dispreferred response in a conversation. Instead of refusing or declining an offer right away, one usually throws in a filler word and/or a small pause (could be 0.5 seconds or more).

Hesitation particles are common in everyday speech, but often times speakers are not aware that they are using these words themselves.

Be careful of overusing them, as too many hesitation particles can make one sound less powerful or less credible. This is especially true when one is doing a presentation or public speech to a large audience. In normal conversations, these usually cannot be avoided completely and we have gotten accustomed using them often.

Here's a list of hesitation particles in English:
Here's a list of filler words to go along with them:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Preferred responses

There are 2 kinds of possible responses to speech acts: preferred and dispreferred.

Preferred responses are those that are culturally expected, they are the ones that feel the most 'natural'.

Characteristics of preferred responses:
-delivered promptly
-brief and to the point

A: Want to join us for dinner tomorrow?
B: We'd love to!

Dispreferred responses are those that are not expected, but they are not necessarily rude if phrased properly.

Characteristics of dispreferred responses:
-delayed response
-hesitation particles used
-long-winded explanation

Example (rude):
A: Want to join us for dinner tomorrow?
B: No, your cooking is terrible.

Example (polite):
A: Want to join us for dinner tomorrow?
B: [pause] Well, hmmm... I told Cathy a while ago that I would join her tomorrow for dinner. Maybe some other time, okay?

Since some think that *any* kind of dispreferred response may give off a sense of rudeness, one may try to mask a dispreferred response by lying.
A: So, what did you think of the movie?
B: It was great! [You actually thought it was the worst film you have seen.]

Friday, July 20, 2007

Politeness in conversation

One useful property of indirect speech is that it can convey politeness.

Consider these two statements:

A: "Can you please shut the window?"
B: "Shut the window now!"

Statement A is obviously more polite than statement B. However, B is more direct and to the point. It would seem quite rude to phrase it as such, so we resort to the more polite indirect way (A). Even though statement A is asking a Yes/No question, it is actually a request to perform an action.

Types of politeness

There are two basic kinds of politeness: positive and negative politeness.

Positive politeness: respects a person's right to be understood, showing sympathy

  • Letting people know that we enjoy their presence
  • Liking their personality
  • Becoming interested in their well-being
Example: "Let's get together again sometime!"

Negative politeness:
often involves deferring to others and respects their privacy
  • Avoid intruding on other people's lives
  • Don't be overly inquisitive about their activities
  • Don't impose our presence on others
Example: "Excuse me sir, do you have the time?"

Monday, July 16, 2007

More fun with speaking indirectly

The previous post on indirect speech acts illustrated that one is allowed to violate the Gricean maxims to get your point across. Here are some more examples:

C: I promise to pay you back next week.
D: Sure, and pigs will fly.

Indirect conversation
In this case, the maxims of relevance and quality are violated. D has just uttered a seemingly unrelated response, and it is obviously a falsity. However, the point here is to "match" what D thinks is a falsity uttered by C. This is a bit more polite than responding with "No, you won't."

E: How do you like my new dress?
F: Hmmm, [pause] ... Anything good on TV tonight?

bad dress avoidance
Here, relevance is violated. F probably didn't like E's dress and thus F is attempting to shift the conversation to another topic, rather than give a dispreferred response (which is a topic that will be covered in future posts).

G: So, Sarah thinks you're cute, right?
H: Is Rome in Spain?

Similar to the first example, this illustrates responding to a question with a question. Keep in mind that one of the requirements for indirect speech acts to work is that both participants have shared knowledge about the context of the situation, and of the world in general. G will recognize that H responded indirectly, but whether H can interpret that response will depend on H's knowledge of geography.

One more, I'm sure you've all heard this one:

I: Name 3 things that are important in real estate.
J: Location, location, and location.

The maxim of quantity is violated here. Instead of naming 3 different things, location is repeated to get the point across that it is the most important thing and needs extra emphasis.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Indirect speech acts and violating the maxims

Indirect speech acts are used all the time, they have basically become second nature to us. Here's an example:

A: Has the boss arrived today?
B: The light's on in his office.

Notice that speaker A has asked a yes/no question. However, speaker B did not follow up with such a reply. The point here is that B has just violated one of the aforementioned Gricean maxims (relevance). But is B's response irrelevant?

The short answer is no. We do not take everything literally, so this response makes sense (of course, this assumes the boss doesn't leave the light on when out of office!) This is just one out of many cases of an indirect speech act. These such acts violate at least one of the maxims. Good listeners/speakers notice that the maxim is intentionally being violated, and can identify its intended meaning with the knowledge of the context of the situation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Conversation tips and general conversation rules

conversation tips
Conversation requires that listeners trust speakers to follow certain conventions. To make conversation efficient, both speakers and listeners must cooperate in communicating with each other. Philosopher H. Paul Grice devised a set of maxims (general principles to follow) regarding conversation.

1. Be relevant

Perhaps the most important rule is that your utterances must be relevant to the current topic at hand; this is known as the maxim of relevance. Going off-topic constantly will provoke displeasure with your fellow participants.

Example that violates this rule:

A: How's the weather today?
B: There's a nice film opening at the theater tonight.

A very extreme and obvious example, speaker B's response has absolutely nothing to do with speaker A's question.

Violation of this rule is quite useful in order to force a subject change, as seen below. [caution: don't try this at home! ☺ ]

loaning money
C: Are you ever going to pay back the money I lent you?
D: It's very hot outside, isn't it?

2. Provide enough, but not too much or too little, information

Speakers should give enough information as necessary in order to understand the current conversation, but not provide more information than expected. This is known as the maxim of quantity, giving just the right amount of details so that the conversation flows smoothly.

Example that violates this rule:

selling a TV
Customer: Excuse me, how much is that television?
Salesperson: $600 dollars. The hi-def DVD player is $300, and that MP3 player over there is $200.

As you can see, marketers and salespeople love to violate this rule!

3. Be orderly

Avoid ambiguity by mentioning events in the order they happened; this is known as the maxim of manner.

In English, speakers are accustomed to hearing events in chronological order. (Note that in some other languages, word order isn't as important.) This is why "We got married and had a baby", and "We had a baby and got married" have different meanings altogether.

Example that violates this rule:

On a resume/CV: I received my Ph.D. in 2001, graduated high school in 1990, and received my M.A. in 1996.

4. Be truthful

Pretty much self-explanatory, speakers should always tell the truth; this is the maxim of quality.

Ironically, this rule is the one that makes lying possible, since without this rule, we wouldn't have any reason to believe that the truth is being uttered. This rule is violated on purpose for a lot of reasons, one of which is sarcasm, as seen in the below example.

Example that violates this rule:

A: I love working all day in the heat without any breaks!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Under construction for a bit

Working on a new template for this blog, site may be down periodically.

Posting will continue next week.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Conversations and turn taking

Even casual conversation is organized by a set of rules, although we probably don't realize it because we pay more attention to the content of conversation, rather than the specific rules that govern them. We mark the beginning and ends of our turns implicitly. We don't say things like "Okay, you may now speak" or "I asked you a question, please answer it now!", which would render our conversations quite inefficient.

Here are examples of end of turn signaling:

* raise or lower your tone of voice
* draw out the final syllable of the last word you spoke
* make a pause
* use a "filler" word like y'know, um, dunno, or kinda

Multiparty conversations and getting the floor

In conversations that consist of 3 or more people, whoever is the current floor holder usually decides who gets to speak next. This can be accomplished by addressing the next speaker by name ("How are you doing, Alice?") or by turning toward him or her.

However, if the next speaker isn't specifically chosen by the current floor holder, then there may be competition. If 2 or more people attempt to speak at the same time, either the following will happen:

* the current speaker(s) suddenly stops talking and gives up his/her turn, thus letting someone else speak
* one of the current speakers continues to talk, but increases his/her volume, signaling that he/she does not want to be interrupted

In all cases, participants should attempt to resolve these such competitions in a smooth and fast manner.