Turn Taking In Intercultural Communication Essay

Table of COntents

1. Introduction

2. Turn-Taking in Conversation

3. Turn-Taking and Gender
3. 1 Interruptions and Overlaps
3.2 Minimal Responses and Silence
3.3. Hedges
3.4 Conversational Aims, Dominance and Context

4. Turn-taking in cross-cultural communication
4.1 Japanese - American Encounters
4.2. Interethnic Communication Between Americans and Athabaskans
4.3 American-Spanish Communication

5. Conclusion

Works cited

1. Introduction

Conversations are occasions where participants are given the opportunity to give and take by making contributions and by allowing others to take turns. Turn-taking concerns the ‘me and you’ level of communicative interaction and examines how speakers share the floor in conversation. Every time, there is interaction, the mechanisms of how turns are taken are involved automatically. In conversations where turns between the participants are exchanged smoothly, and where speakers share similar or the same turn-taking patterns, communication is successful and allows the development of a topic. Disturbances in the flow of communication are likely to arise when there is disagreement in the turn-taking systems employed by speakers that may have different assumptions in regards to which linguistic behaviour is appropriate in conversation.

Not later than John Gray we know that men are from Mars and women from Venus and it is not later than Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand that we know that men’s and women’s communicative styles can lead to misunderstanding in cross-sex conversation and to the development of stereotypes such as women talking too much and never getting to the point and men never listening. In Sociolinguistics, gender communication has become a popular field of analysis. Committed linguists, such as Coates (1993), West and Zimmermann (1977) and Leet-Pellegrini (1983) have done extended research on linguistic behaviour of men and women. The findings of their studies form the basis of the first part of this paper which will deal with turn-taking behaviour of men and women in cross-sex conversation. In an introductory part I will provide general information on turn-taking and gender and will then elaborate on interruptions and overlaps, minimal responses and silence, and hedges to illustrate what role they play in turn-taking in cross-sex communication. Finally, I will explore in how far men’s and women’s communicative styles are related to conversational aims, dominance and context situations.

In cross-cultural encounters, there are not only speakers of different cultural backgrounds that stand vis-á-vis, but often also different turn-taking systems. When there is knowledge of the turn-taking system of each speaker in the conversation and knowledge of how to interpret it, the chances of cross-cultural communication to be smooth and successful are considerable.

In the second part of my paper I will focus on aspects of turn-taking in cross-cultural communication. After an introductory part I will consider particular instances of cross-cultural communication to illustrate how turns are taken by speakers of different cultural backgrounds and point out the consequences of their encounters.

In the following, I will start off with an introduction to turn-taking in conversation.

2. Turn-Taking in Conversation

Frictionless communication presupposes cooperative behaviour from the speakers involved. They are expected to have a sense of what behaviour is appropriate in different communicative situations and they are usually aware of certain rules which need to be applied for conversation to be efficient and successful. One example of cooperative behaviour is that instead of one speaker monopolizing the floor, both speakers are gained the right to equally contribute to the conversation and to finish their turns.

In conversation analysis, linguists have been particularly interested in turn-taking behaviour. Does it follow smooth patterns? How do participants know when it is their turn to speak? Does turn-taking behaviour vary in different speech situations? In the past decades, researchers have gone further into these questions. In the 1970’s, Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson (1974) developed a model for turn-taking and established rules of how turns, which refer to the “continuous period of time during which a person is talking” (Oreström 1983:23), are ideally taken in naturally occurring conversations. Since then, their model has become the basis for extended research on turn-taking per se. One of Sacks et al’s basic rule of turn-taking is one person speaking at a time (Oreström 1983:26). They assume that if this rule is violated by a speaker interrupting and trying to take the turn, the current speaker will react with certain repair mechanisms in order to manage the violation. The speakers’ reactions that occur when they notice that the flow of the conversation is disrupted depend on the severity of the violation. According to Oreström (1983:26), conversationalists will all, or all except one, stop talking when they find themselves speaking simultaneously. When silence arises, usually one speaker is likely to react and speak up. In the course of this paper it will be shown that these rather general assumptions are tendencies that might hold true for some situations and speakers but not necessarily for all cross-sex and cross-cultural turn-taking behaviour in conversation.

In respect to how turns are taken, Sacks et al. observed amongst others that turn order and turn size can vary. Most of the time one person talks at a time. The length of the conversation and number of contributions are not determined in advance and talk can either be continuous or abruptly end. Based on their observations, Coates (1993) describes their model of turn-taking as follows: The person who starts to speak first, gets the turn. The current speaker can then choose the next speaker by addressing the same or by asking him a question, in which case the selected speaker will take the next turn. If there is no next speaker selected by the current ‘turn-holder’, one of the other conversationalists has the option to speak next. If this is not the case, the current speaker can continue talking.

If a participant is not directly addressed or asked, it is due to signals that he knows when to take the next turn, or when he is not supposed to do so. In An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Wardhaugh (1986) refers to Duncan (1972) who argues that there are four such signals: the turn-yielding signal indicates that the current speaker is about to end his turn. The pitch level of the voice can signal its end or “an utterance may be deliberately closed syntactically to achieve a sense of completedness” (1986:289). Hedges such as you know might be used as well, to signal a turn point. Contrary, the attempt-suppressing signal indicates that the speaker wishes to hold the floor. Lengthening or stressing the final syllable of an utterance can indicate this intention. By sending turn-claiming signals the listener signifies that he intends to take the turn whereas the usage of so called ‘back-channel items’ such as mhm or yeah indicate that the listener is fine with being in the listener position.

The length, content and manner of a turn are determined by the speech situation. A speech event can have a rather fixed character like a wedding ceremony where the turns taken are fixed in advance, or can be informal and open. The rules for an appropriate interaction therefore depend on the character of the speech event. In a political debate, for example, where the participants are commonly eager to convince the other participants and to display their point of views, they are prone to try to hold the floor as long as possible. Interrupting may be another way to get the speakership whereas the other participants are then likely to claim their right to finish turns and to make contributions, as well, and criticise if someone is monopolizing the floor. When analysing turn-taking in conversations it is vital to consider the different contexts as turn-taking behaviour is likely to follow different patterns. In public or formal contexts turns might be pre-allocated and turn-length and content fixed. Ritualized procedures such as funerals or wedding ceremonies but also interview situations are such instances. Furthermore, aims are likely to differ in different contexts and reflected in turn-taking. Concerning a political debate, which would be in the public domain, aims and turn-taking tendencies have already been mentioned.

Especially, when analysing turn-taking in cross-gender communication, the differentiation between public and private contexts is of importance, as communicative behaviour among both sexes can vary greatly.

Besides bearing the importance of the degree of formality and informality in mind, Holmes (1995:15) emphasises the significance of what she calls the solidarity-social distance dimension and the power dimension relating to hierarchy. In both cases, the relationship of the speakers and the social position are crucial for their interacting behaviour. A speech situation between employer and employee exemplifies the power dimension. The employer has more power since he has the higher rank in the hierarchy. Therefore, the employee might be especially interested in a rather smooth conversation where he avoids violation of turns and behaves politely since he is in an inferior position. Concerning the solidarity-social distance, Holmes differentiates between reduced social distance and high solidarity. The degree of politeness in turn-taking behaviour may differ depending on how close we are with the person we are talking to.

What we have to keep in mind is that when it comes to analysing turn-taking behaviour, it is vital to consider the varying contexts. In this connection, it should also be pointed out that Sacks and al’s modal of turn-taking is a general modal and not context-based, but independent of different social contexts. Therefore, it cannot be universally assigned. Nevertheless, this does not mean that “it cannot be locally context-sensitive, i.e. the internal structure of a turn may contain different sorts of trigger elements” (Oreström 1983:26).


Communication is culturally patterned. Speaking rules in different cultures have been studied more systematically since 1960s, particularly in ethnography of speaking (or ethnography of communication), founded by Dell Hymes.

A typical example of this approach is the following characterization of Finnish speaking rules, proposed by Donal Carbaugh (1995):

  • Do not say the obvious!
  • When you speak say something worth of everybody´s attention!
  • Do not bring forth conflicting or questionable issues! Try to keep harmonious relationships!
  • Be personally committed in what you are saying!
  • What you say forms a basis for the subsequent interactions!

According to Carbaugh these rules are very demanding. Speech becomes deliberate and perhaps scarce. When people using these kinds of rules meet others from different cultures, such as mainstream Americans, misunderstandings are possible.

Carbaugh goes further in describing that in the USA there are many cultures, each with their own speaking patterns and rules. According to him, in general it is important for the Americans to be able to express oneself by speaking. Everyone has the right to speak and to be heard. The social worth of the speech is less important than its personal significance. In these kinds of circumstances the amount of speech is large, and the topics of conversation are often personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. This may contribute to members of cultures representing other speaking patterns perceiving the Americans as being "superficial" (Carbaugh 1995).

Conversation has been a particular focus of linguists and discourse analysts for several decades. In intercultural studies, many regularities of conversation and joint features have been found. Conversation is like a ball game: It has its own rules. The participants need to know how to open conversation, to respond appropriately, to maintain conversation and to finish it. Turn giving and taking has been found to be systematic and is signaled by, for example, nonverbal means (e.g., eye contact, body position) or paralinguistically (e.g., intonation). In intercultural encounters, different conversational rules can cause misunderstandings. Pauses between turns, for instance, have been found to be longer in Finnish than in German conversation. This may lead to turn taking by Germans, which might be perceived by Finns as rude interruptions. Overlapping speech is common in Southern European conversation and is perceived as involvement and a sign of presence. In many Finnish contexts, overlapping speech is perceived as impolite.

(original text by Liisa Salo-Lee, 2006)

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