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One man and three women in military fatigues converse while standing
Individuals involved in a conversation take turns speaking.

Turn-taking refers to the process by which people in a conversation decide who is to speak next. It depends on both cultural factors and subtle cues.


The steps involved in the conversational process occur in order to maintain two important elements of conversation: one person speaking at a time and the space in which one person stops talking and another begins.[1] Turn-taking is a part of the structure and systematic organization of conversation. Turn-taking in conversation is not stereotypical of any type of person, conversation, or language. Turn-taking is done in most settings, by any type of person and is not reliant on a set amount of participants.[1] Turn-taking is not optimized for fairness or efficiency, resulting in variations in how turn-taking occurs.[2]

Turn-taking and gender[edit]

Turn-taking in male-female interactions is highly salient. Male interlocutors systematically interrupt females and tend to dominate conversations, and women are frequently treated in much the same way as children are in conversations.[3] This interruption, however, is not due to female interlocutors’ failure to pursue the floor. “Deep” interruption, or interruption at least two syllables before a potential utterance boundary, is perpetuated more frequently by men, towards women, regardless of ways that women negotiate them.[4]

Language and conversation are primary ways in which social interaction is organized. Unequal conversational patterns are therefore reflective of larger power disparities between men and women. One study by Zimmerman and West found that in same-sex pair conversations, overlap and interruption tend to be equally distributed between the two interlocutors, and interruptions are clustered – that is, only a few of the pairs did all of the interrupting. For opposite sex pairs, male interlocutors interrupt much more, and interruptions are much more widely distributed – that is, most men did it.[3] Gender differences in turn-taking are not invariable, however, and are related to the conditions and context of the speech.[3] Gendered aspects of speech and turn-taking must be recognized as being reflective of the cultures in which they exist.[5] Questions have been raised about the correlation between interruption and dominance, and its importance to gender as opposed to other social categories. Studies done by Beattie find status difference more important than gender difference in predicting which speakers interrupted more.[6]

Cultural variation[edit]

Turn-taking is developed from very early on – the first instances of it in a person’s life are the interactions between parent and child – but it can still be thought of as a skill, rather than an attribute.[6] The way in which turn-taking occurs is greatly affected by culture. For instance, Japanese culture is group-oriented, and highly focused on the importance of social structure and ritual harmony in interaction. This is reflected in the negotiation of turns in Japanese discourse. During a news interview, Japanese moderators incorporate many backchannels (listener responses) and reactive tokens (aizuchi), whereas US interlocutors use hardly any.[7] For instance, this exchange from the television show “Sunday Press” between the moderator and Kiichi Miyazawa (a former Prime Minister) is typical of a Japanese news interview:

Miyazawa: dakara, kore wa dekimasen to iu tameniwa koredankeno koto wa deki masu to,

So, in order to say we cannot do this,

Moderator: un.

Um huh.

Miyazawa: iu koto wo kichinto shinai ikenaindanaa tu iu koto wo watakushi wa tukuzuku kangaeta mondesukara,

I thought we had to do what we can do

Moderator: un un. un huh un huh

Um huh um huh [7]

This demonstrates culturally different floor management strategies. In Japan, interlocutors invite backchannels in order to legitimize their right to speak, and in the US, interlocutors rush through completion points in order to maintain the floor. Difference in use of backchannels could also be explained by the syntactic structures of the two languages. English word order is subject-verb-object (SVO), whereas Japanese is subject-object-verb (SOV). For example, the sentence “Where are you from, Fumi?” is rendered in Japanese as

Fumi san te   doko    kara dakke?

Fumi Ms.    QP (question particle) where from is [7]

Therefore, in English conversation it is easier for interlocutors to predict and anticipate the transition relevance points. This demonstrates the interdependency of cultural and linguistic factors in turn-taking.[7]

Additionally, turn-taking can vary in aspects such as time, overlap, and perception of silence in different cultures, but can however, have universal similarities as well. Stivers et al. (2009) cross-examined ten various languages across the globe to see if there were any similar underlying foundation in turn-taking. In analyzing these languages, it was discovered that all the languages had the same avoidance of wanting to overlap in conversation and wanting to minimize the silence between turn-taking. However, depending on the culture, there was variation in the amount of time taken between turns. Stivers claims that their evidence from examining these languages suggests that there is an underlying universal aspect to turn-taking.[8]

Overlapping talk while turn-taking[edit]

When more than one person is engaging in a conversation, there is potential for overlapping or interruption while both or many parties are speaking at the same time. Overlapping in turn-taking can be problematic for the people involved. There are four types of overlap including terminal overlaps, continuers, conditional access to the turn, and chordal. Terminal overlaps occur when a speaker assumes the other speaker has or is about to finish their turn and begins to speak, thus creating overlap. Continuers are a way of the hearer acknowledging or understanding what the speaker is saying. As noted by Schegloff, such examples of the continuer’s phrases are "mm hm" or "uh huh." Conditional access to the turn implies that the current speaker yields their turn or invites another speaker to interject in the conversation, usually as collaborative effort.[9] Another example that Schegloff illustrates is a speaker invited another to speak out of turn when finding a word in a word search. Chordal consists of a non-serial occurrence of turns; meaning both speakers' turns are occurring at once, such as laughter. It should be noted that the above types of overlap are considered to be non-competitive overlap in conversation.[9]

Gail Jefferson proposed a categorization of overlaps in conversation with three types of overlap onsets: transitional overlap, recognitional overlap and progressional overlap.[10]

  1. Transitional overlap occurs when a speaker enters the conversation at the possible point of completion (i.e. transition relevance place). This occurs frequently when speakers participate in the conversation enthusiastically and exchange speeches with continuity.
  2. Recognitional overlap occurs when a speaker anticipates the possible remainder of an unfinished sentence, and attempts to finish it for the current speaker. In other words, the overlap arises because the current speaker tries to finish the sentence, when simultaneously the other speaker "think aloud" to reflect his understanding of the ongoing speech.
  3. Progressional overlap occurs as a result of the speech dysfluency of the previous speaker when another speaker self-selects to continue with the ongoing utterance. An example would be when a speaker is retrieving an appropriate word to utter when other speakers make use of this gap to start his/her turn.

Cultural variation of overlap and timing[edit]

Harvey Sacks, one of the first to study conversation, found a correlation between keeping only one person speaking at a time and controlling the amount of silences between speakers.[1] Although there is no limit or specific requirement for the number of speakers in a given conversation, the number of conversations will rise as the number of participants rise. This is in order to maintain speech and silences more adequately.[1] This correlation between speech and silence in conversation differs across languages and cultures as shown by Jack Sidnell’s findings in Caribbean Creole.[11] The turn-taking process in Creole is in fact orderly, like that of American English. Turn-taking occurs at a specific time within the conversation. In order to continue to be a part of a conversation, participants must listen to the speakers since overlap is common among Caribbean Creole English speakers. These overlaps show agreement of what is being said, while violation of overlap shows disagreement.[11]

Eye contact and turn-taking[edit]

During a conversation, turn-taking may involve a cued gaze that prompts the listener that it is their turn or that the speaker is finished talking. There are two gazes that have been identified and associated with turn-taking. The two patterns associated with turn-taking are mutual-break and mutual-hold. Mutual-break is when there is a pause in the conversation and both participants use a momentary break with mutual gaze toward each other and then breaking the gaze, then continuing conversation again. This type is correlated with a perceived smoothness due to a decrease in the taking of turns. Mutual-hold is when the speaker also takes a pause in the conversation with mutual gaze, but then still holds the gaze as he/she starts to speak again. Mutual-hold is associated with less successful turn-taking process, because there are more turns taken, thus more turns required to complete.[12]

David Langford also argues that turn-taking is an organizational system. Langford examines facial features, eye contact, and other gestures in order to prove that turn-taking is signaled by many gestures, not only a break in speech. His claims stem from analysis of conversations through speech, sign language, and technology. His comparisons of English and American Sign Language show that turn-taking is systematic and universal across languages and cultures. His research concludes that there is more to turn-taking than simply hearing a pause. As other researchers have shown, eye gaze is an important signal for participants of a conversation to pay attention to. Usually, whoever is speaking will shift their gaze away from the other participants involved in the conversation. When they are finished or about to be finished speaking the speaker will revert their gaze back to the participant that will speak next.[13]

Timing and turn-taking[edit]

Another cue associated with turn-taking is that of timing. Within turn-taking, timing may cue the hearer to know that they have a turn to speak or make an utterance. Due to the very nature of turn-taking and that it is dependent on the context, timing varies within a turn and may be subjective within the conversation. Vocal patterns, such as pitch, specific to the individual also cue the hearer to know how the timing will play out in turn-taking.[14]

Deborah Tannen also shows timing differences in relation to turn-taking. For a particular study, she used a recording of a conversation between a group of her friends at dinner. The group included men and women from across the United States of mixed ethnicities. She concluded that while the amount of space left between speakers may differ, it differs most dramatically between people from different regions. For instance, New Yorkers tend to overlap in conversation, while Californians tend to leave more space between turns and sentences.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Sacks, Harvey (1992). Lectures on Conversation. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. pp. 2.32–66. 
  2. ^ Hirsch, Richard (1989). Argumentation, Information, and Interaction: Studies in Face-to-face Interactive Argumentation Under Different Turn-Taking Conditions. Gothenburg: Gothenburg Monographs in Linguistics. 
  3. ^ a b c Zimmerman, Don H.; West, Candace (1975). "Sex Roles, Interruptions, and Silences in Conversation". Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance: 105–129. 
  4. ^ West, Candace (1979). "Against Our Will: Male Interruptions of Females in Cross-Sex Conversation". Language, Sex, and Gender: Does La Difference Make a Difference?: Result of a workshop: New York Academy of Sciences, 1977 327: 81–96. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1979.tb17755.x. 
  5. ^ Scherzer, Joel. 1987. A diversity of voices: men’s and women’s speech in ethnographic perspective. Language, Gender, and Sex in Comparative Perspective. ed. Philips, Susan U.; Steele, Susan; and Tanz, Christine. 95-120. Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ a b Beattie, Geoffrey (1983). Talk: An Analysis of Speech and Non-Verbal Behaviour in Conversation. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press. pp. 77–170. 
  7. ^ a b c d Furo, Hiroko (2001). Turn-Taking in English and Japanese: Projectability in Grammar, Intonation, and Semantics. New York: Routledge. 
  8. ^ Stivers, T., Enfield, N. J., Brown, P., Englert, C., Hayashi, M., Heinemann, T., Levinson, S. (2009). Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(26)
  9. ^ a b Schegloff, E. (2000). Overlapping talk and the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language in Society, 29(1), 1-63.
  10. ^ Jefferson, G. (1984). Notes on some orderlinesses of overlap onset. Discourse analysis and natural rhetoric, 500, 11-38.
  11. ^ a b Sidnell, Jack (2001). "Conversational Turn-Taking in a Caribbean English Creole". Journal of Pragmatics 33: 1263–1290. doi:10.1016/s0378-2166(00)00062-x. 
  12. ^ Novick, D.G.; Hansen, B.; Ward, K.; , "Coordinating turn-taking with gaze," Spoken Language, 1996. ICSLP 96. Proceedings., Fourth International Conference on, vol.3, no., pp.1888-1891 vol.3, 3-6 Oct 1996.
  13. ^ Langford, David. "Analysing talk: Investigating verbal interaction in English", 1994. London, UK: Macmillan Press, pp.69-118.
  14. ^ Cowley, S. (1998). Of timing, turn-taking, and conversations . Journal of Psycholinguistics Research, 27(5), 541-571. doi: 10.1023/A:1024948912805
  15. ^ Tannen, Deborah. 2012. Turn-taking and intercultural discourse and communication: The handbook of intercultural discourse and communication. ed. Paulston, Chrstina; Kiesling, Scott; and Rangel, Elizabeth. 135-157. Chicester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.