December 08, 2017

As human beings, we spend a great deal of time talking with others, but we don’t always stop to think about how and why we choose to say what we say. N.J. Enfield, author of “How We Talk: The Inner Workings Of Conversation,” breaks down the rules of conversation for us.

Three Takeaways 

  • Even a simple “yes” or “no” answer can tell us some interesting things about conversational patterns. For example, we tend to say “no” a lot slower than we say “yes.”
  • We’re constantly putting each other under obligations just by asking each other questions. If someone asks you a question, you have to acknowledge it in some way, if not answer it. Otherwise, you break an unspoken rule of conversation.
  • We don’t talk the way we think we do. When people listen back to themselves talking, they hear a lot more “likes” and “ums” than they might expect.

More reading 

  • Here's NPR's review of Enfield’s book.
  • A New York Times op-ed described how to decode the rules of conversation.
  • Enfield conducted a study on the universality of the word “huh?”

innovation hub, pri, NJ Enfield, Kara Miller, WGBH

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