Monday, July 27, 2009

A conversation analysis of IM

Just another example of how once you turn the linguistic machinery in your mind on, you can't turn it off...

Some of the important seminal articles in the field of conversation analysis study the structure of telephone conversations. Among the findings of this research are that the beginning of telephone conversations has a slightly different structure from face-to-face conversation. Face-to-face conversation always involves a period of negotiation at the beginning of the conversation where the participants signal their mutual agreement to start the conversation, such as the following:
A: Hello, how are you?
B: Fine. How are you?
A: Good, thanks. How was your weekend?
B: Oh pretty relaxed.
A: Good. So, what's the latest news on the Berman report?
B: Well Berman called yesterday and...

and the conversation on the chosen topic continues on from there. In this conversation, both A and B signal their mutual consent to have a conversation by following the standard moves listed in the first four turns ("Hi, how are you" etc.) In this example, A requests B to have a conversation by initiating this sequence of turns and don't agree to participate in a conversation, the conversation might go like this instead:

A: Hello, how are you?
B: Good. How are you?
A: Good. How was your weekend?
B: Pretty good. Gotta run! See you later!

And in this case the conversation is ended, since B did not indicate agreement with A's request to have a conversation.

Telephone conversations are very similar in their structure, except they are usually missing the first part.
B: Hello?
A: Hiya. How was your weekend?
B: Pretty good. So, what's the latest news on the Berman report?

If you compare the turns in this conversation to the turns in the previous conversation you will notice that the turns are very similar, except appear to be offset. That is, the order of turns seems to be the same except for the first turn is missing. Conversation analysts have identified that the ring of the telephone seems to neatly replace the initial (missing) turn of the conversation:

A: (ring)
B: Hello?
A: Hiya. How was your weekend?
B: Pretty good. So, what's the latest news on the Berman report?

The initial turn of the conversation, then, whether it is a stated "hello" in a face-to-face conversation or the ring of the telephone, serves as a summons to the conversation, an initial request for the conversation to happen. The other participant responds with a series of turns that indicates his/her uptake of the summons and agreement to participate in the conversation. With the conversation fully initiated, the first participant is then available to propose a topic and the conversation will continue.

So far, this has all been summary of some work that has been done by some important researchers in the field of conversation analysis, such as Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson.

With this background in mind, I noticed that when I began a conversation by IM recently, I did not use any conversation initiator. I simply began the conversation with, "I miss you". No "hello" or other standard conversation initiator.

My guess? Since both people have already indicated that they are "online" by means of chat indicators, there is no need for the first part of the chat by which both participants mutually agree that they are willing to have a conversation, since the online indicator takes care of that.

However, I have also noticed that not all IM conversations begin that way. Sometimes they begin with something like "hey" which certainly seems like an initiator. Perhaps in these situations, even though the people are both online, the person still feels a need to verify that a conversation is wanted?

Feel free to respond with your thoughts...


Spencer said...

I'm not really sure what I think about this, but I am suddenly fascinated.

In my own experience, I find that most IM conversations do start with some sort of "initiator", if you will - a "Hey" or a "Dude" or a "Greetings" or whatever, unless they are continuations of an earlier terminated conversation.

Laverna said...

Wow. I must not had much of an inclination to be a linguist. Never thought about conversations like that before.
So how do you explain people who don't pick up on cues that the other party doesn't want to be talked to? Or maybe that's not in the linguist's realm and more of a behavioral psychologist's.