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
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)
This summary was written by Jenny Amos