Friday, 5 October 2012

Uh huh, no way!

reactions to reactions can change the way conversations develop

A lot of the focus in conversation analysis relates to how speakers construct and manage their turns in conversation and how listeners react to what is being said.  However, as Neal Norrick points out, there has been little attention to how a speaker reacts to their listener’s response. For example, consider the different responses of Speaker A to the following feedback from Speaker B below:

1)         A: I had lectures going on till 7 at night
            B: mhm
            A: and so I wouldn’t get home till really late

2)         A: I had lectures going on till 7 at night
            B: no way
            A: it’s true, something went really wrong with the timetable                     that year

We can see that while the mhm response in (1) doesn’t interrupt speaker A and allows them to carry on with their story, the response of no way in example (2) instead causes speaker A to defend their initial statement and not continue with their story about getting home late. Therefore, these types of listener responses function in different ways with respect to how much of a reaction they get from the speaker.

Norrick describes different feedback tokens in terms of three categories: continuers, assessments and information state tokens.  Continuers are those contributions such as mhm and uh huh which show the speaker that the listener is listening and that the speaker can carry on their turn without being fully interrupted. Continuers are also the least likely to elicit any kind of response from the speaker. Assessments, instead, are tokens such as wow, gosh or yuck and are more likely to prompt a response from the speaker.  They provide some kind of emotional response or evaluation to what has been said.  Finally, the most likely responses to get a reaction from a speaker are information state tokens. These include so, really, oh and yeah which can be used to negatively challenge what the speaker has said (e.g. by showing scepticism or sarcasm) and require the speaker to deal with them in their subsequent turn (such as example 2 above).

Norrick suggests that these listener responses can form a continuum of intrusiveness, depending on how noticeable they are to the speaker and how much they need to be addressed in the discourse. However, they can also be judged with respect to politeness.  For example, the production of mhm and uh huh show consideration and attentiveness on the part of the listener. If they are not produced, this can indicate lack of interest or attention and cause the speaker to abandon their turn.  Similarly, assessments mark positive politeness in that they can signal appreciation and involvement in the discourse.  In contrast though, information state tokens (such as well or so what) can be viewed as the least polite forms as they challenge the speaker’s motivation for saying what they do.

With these points in mind, Norrick cautions that a rigid scale relating to consideration and politeness would be unwise as we need to take into account various social aspects, such as the relationship between the interlocutors. However, he also asserts that more research should be done cross-linguistically so that we can gain a wider appreciation of conversational features across cultures.
Norrick, Neil  2012. Listening practice in English conversation: The responses responses get. Journal of Pragmatics (44:566-576)

doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2011.08.007

This summary was written by Jenny Amos


  1. Strangely enough, when reading these two conversations I didn't have at all the same reactions as the original reporter, and was surprised when I saw what they were.

    To me, speaker B in conversation number 1 isn't really engaging with A. "Mhm" (although I've never the sound written that way before) means no more than "I acknowledge the fact that you've just made a statement, but I'm not that engaged; in fact, I might even be only barely listening..." Far from encouraging speaker A to carry on speaking, "mhm" is more like a disincentive to continue. I cite in evidence those exchanges in internet conversations where person B writes "Mmm" specifically to indicate "I hear you, BUT..."

    I read the "No way" from speaker B in conversation number 2, however -- far from "caus[ing] speaker A to defend their initial statement and not continue with their story about getting home late" -- as an expression of understanding and sympathy (= That's incredible (dreadful)! Tell me more!) and is thus an invitation to A to continue with more details.

    Of course, there's more than one way to say "No way", and there's no doubt it can be an aggressive expression of denial. It's just that I didn't read it that way here. And the assertion that "mhm and uh huh show consideration and attentiveness on the part of the listener" is far from being universaly, or even usually, true. These "noises" are so hackneyed that they generally imply no more than "You've spoken", not "I agree"!

    Which all goes to show, I suppose, the truth in the statement that "Norrick cautions that a rigid scale relating to consideration and politeness would be unwise".

  2. Jenny’s response:

    I think that’s one of the main problems of reading conversations without hearing the actual intonation patterns or seeing the accompanying body language. With ‘mhm’, a lot will depend on its intonation. Written as ‘mhm’, I'm assuming Norrick is showing the rise and fall in intonation which is characteristic of questions. As a result, the ‘question’ format may be interpreted as requiring/ prompting a further response. In contrast, written as ‘mmm’, that could indicate more flat intonation and so it wouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as license for the speaker to carry on the turn. However, as you can imagine, any of these can be produced to show interest or disinterest which will have differing effects on the discourse.

    With 'no way', for me, it’s pretty much the same thing - it depends how it is said. However, the main point of Norrick’s claim is that, across his data ‘no way’ patterns with speakers taking a break in the story or description they were making (and may come back to the point at which they left it in later turns) while listener responses like ‘mhm’ don’t seem to disrupt the speakers’ turns in the same way.