Tolin and Fox Tree obtained recordings of 30 conversations between undergraduate students. Conversations were 12 minutes in length and freely structured, but began with bad roommate experiences (because we all know complaints generate the best stories). Several relevant interactions were then extracted.
In their data, the authors distinguished between generic backchannels and specific backchannels. While both signal the attention of the listener, generic backchannels typically display comprehension and reception. Words like mhm and uh huh are considered generic backchannels: after using these, speakers often continued their story by providing new information. On the other hand, specific backchannels convey added information, showing the listeners' reaction to what was just said. Specific backchannels include oh my god, wow, and yeah. When a listener responded with a specific backchannel, the speaker was observed to then elaborate on whatever the listener was responding to.
The researchers then conducted an experiment using 20 short written dialogues from the data. These dialogues captured short narratives, but with an interesting twist—the parts after the backchannel were missing. Participants thus never knew what the storyteller said after the backchannel. The backchannels were also altered to be either generic or specific. Participants then guessed how the story would unfold by writing what they thought the storyteller would have said next.
Despite being unaware of the full original contexts of these recordings, the participants displayed some surprisingly consistent patterns. When a generic backchannel was presented, the participants were more likely to simply continue the story by presenting new information. To do so, they also used words such as well and so. However, when a specific backchannel was presented, participants were more likely to elaborate on the previous point in the story. They were also more likely to explicitly acknowledge the backchannel itself by saying things like yeah.
These differences show that participants actually perceive the backchannels to be important in determining their choice of what comes next. The backchannels therefore have a role in shaping the story telling. When you use a specific backchannel such as wow, you actually invite an elaboration, thereby steering the story, allowing the storyteller to add emphasis and elaboration. Accordingly, the type of backchannel gives a sense of predictability about what kind of information would follow it. This might make it easier for people to follow a particular conversation.
To conclude, backchannels are not simply passive, but do actively influence the outcome of =storytelling. For example, the researchers suggested that audiences who provide less specific backchannels could result in a storyteller telling a... well... boring story. So perhaps if you get bored by someone carrying on and on, you might like to try a specific backchannel every once in a while!
Tolins, Jackson and Fox Tree, Jean E. (2014) Adressee backchannels steer narrative development. Journal of Pragmatics 70: 152-164.
This summary was written by Darren Hum Chong Kai