Interpersonal Communication, Conversation and

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Linguists have long studied the properties of language as an organized system, focusing especially on syntax (i.e., grammatical organization) and semantics (i.e., how meaning works). J. L. Austin (1962) noticed that linguists tend to assume that language is used "constatively" (i.e., to describe the world). Austin contested this, suggesting that language is used to accomplish actions. That is, in his words, "Speech Acts." Coming together with Ludwig Wittgenstein's (1953) notion of "language games," the notion of language use as a way through which humans enact their everyday business with one another has been very influential. The interest of communication scholars in language is then a pragmatic one. That is, such scholars are interested in language-in-use. While in the communication field language and nonverbal communication are frequently treated as separable, the argument that they are in fact part of the organic whole of everyday conversation is a strong one. The to and fro of language that orchestrates nonverbal behavior through which everyday actions get done is what constitutes conversation. It has been suggested that conversation can be regarded as the "primordial site of sociality" (Schegloff, 1987). That is, it is in and through conversation that humans come together to construct and coordinate their daily lives. Thus, a detailed knowledge of how conversation works is central to understanding how interpersonal communication works.

Within the communication discipline, the study of conversation has developed out of the study of language. Language studies have focused on the attitudes of communicators toward language, on language and culture, and on psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic questions such as how language use is related to aspects of character and how it is related to aspects of social class, race, gender, and so on. Since the early 1980s, increasing attention has been paid to the organization of naturally occurring conversation and its role in interpersonal communication.

Much work in discourse analysis, sequential analysis, and conversation analysis has attended to the role of ordinary conversation in interpersonal communication. Conversation analytic work focuses on the workings of naturally occurring conversations in everyday life and therefore provides a useful resource for inspecting how everyday conversation affects, and may even be taken to constitute much of, interpersonal communication.

Conversation analytic study of interaction began in the early 1960s when Harry Sacks began to notice that systematic description of conversations was possible. Specifically, he described a systematic method by which a caller to a suicide hotline could avoid giving a name. His work with Emanuel Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, Anita Pomerantz, David Sudnow, and others started with the observation that "The talk itself was the action, and previously unsuspected details were critical resources in what was getting done in and by the talk" (Schegloff, 1992, p. xviii). Sacks (1984) indicates that the initial interest was not in conversation itself, but rather in social order. Starting from the ethnomethodological premise that everyday life is constructed in an orderly fashion and treated by interactants as being orderly, Sacks and his colleagues took the position that anywhere they looked in naturally occurring social life they could find that orderliness. Taped conversations had the advantage that they were preserved and could be played repeatedly and transcribed. However, as study of conversation proceeded, it became clear that it played a crucial role in everyday social life. Subsequently, the field has laid out features of the organization of naturally occurring interaction, as well as descriptions of the methodical ways in which a wide range of interpersonal actions are conducted.


Regular methods for taking turns at talk, for constructing sequences, for repairing difficulties in talk are described by conversation analysts. Drawing on these resources, the overall structure of conversation is laid out. Each aspect of the structure of conversation is important because variations in the regularities have implications for the relationships that exist between people. This is further evidenced in a range of interpersonal conversational activities, including joke-telling, complimenting, blaming, inviting and turning down invitations, accounting, and complaining. Patterns of conversation in professional settings (e.g., medical and legal) reveal that the setting and the talk that goes on within it have a reciprocal influence. A brief description of how these activities are accomplished in talk shows how their enactment has implications for interpersonal communication.


Sacks (1974, 1978) has described the orderliness of joke-telling and the interpersonal activities that it may be designed to accomplish. He suggests that joke-telling is tightly and economically structured and that it may function as a kind of "newsletter" for the audience of early teenage girls for whom it appears to be designed. Sacks further suggests that because the joke that he describes is about oral sex, its tellability was limited to its intended audience—early teenage girls. The joke that he examines concerns three sisters who marry three brothers. The mother of the three girls "leads" the joke recipients through the joke, listening through the doors of her daughters' rooms on their wedding night and then asking them about the strange sounds she heard. In the punchline of the joke, the youngest daughter gets the better of the mother, disobeying one maternal rule in the observance of another. Sacks suggests that the joke serves as a newsletter for its early teenage audience in the following ways. First, by featuring three sisters marrying three brothers it may address the target group's concern about being separated from their friends when they get married. He notes that young adolescent girls tend to "travel in packs." Second, listening at the door and hearing inexplicable sounds may be something young teenagers have experienced and wondered about. Raising it in this joke format may be a way of addressing this concern sub rosa. Third, trumping the mother by flouting one rule while observing another may appeal to adolescent girls who struggle with their mothers and with the often conflicting and confusing parent-imposed rules of childhood. In these ways, then, Sacks sees the joke as serving an interpersonal function. Observing joke-telling in a variety of settings indicates that jokes are often tailored to serve interpersonal functions of this type.


According to Pomerantz (1978a), compliments have two simultaneous functions. First, they are positive assessments—offering a positive evaluation of some aspect of another person. Second, they are supportive actions—something nice someone may do for another. In general, there is an empirical skewing in conversation in favor of agreeing with positive assessments and accepting supportive actions (Pomerantz, 1984). Pomerantz (1978a) observes that despite this, compliments frequently are turned down in ordinary conversation. She points out that there is a widespread preference in conversation for avoiding engaging in self-praise and that a conflict with this preference would be encountered by individuals who agree with the positive assessment and accept the supportive action embodied in a compliment. Thus, compliments may be turned down or deflected in order to avoid violating the norm of not engaging in self-praise. In this way, Pomerantz shows how offering and responding to compliments are activities that are discernibly influenced by interpersonal communication considerations. While psychological reasons, such as low self-esteem, are often offered to explain turning down compliments, as this conversation structural explanation shows, close examination of details of conversation can offer an alternative explanation based in the structure of conversation.


Pomerantz (1978b) notes that blaming can be accomplished interactively. A speaker may take the first step in indicating that something blameworthy has happened, without officially laying blame. A speaker reports an "agentless, unhappy event"—some "negative" circumstance for which the agent is not officially designated. This puts the recipient in the position of inferring from the reported circumstance that someone is to blame. In the next turn, the speaker can assign responsibility or report some other circumstance that shows he or she is not to blame. Pomerantz (p. 118, instance 4) provides the following example:

R: Liddle has been eating pudding.

C: You've been feeding it to him.

R reports an agentless unhappy event (i.e., the baby eating pudding). In the recipient's turn, C transforms the unhappy event into a consequent event by describing an another event (i.e., R feeding pudding to the baby) that is chronologically prior to the unhappy event. If an unhappy event can be turned into a consequent event, then an agent for it (i.e., a person to blame) can be specified. In this example, C, the recipient of the report of the agentless unhappy event thus attributes blame for the event by describing the preceding event. In this way, reporting provides a method for a speaker to make attributing responsibility relevant, without actively engaging in blaming. This puts the recipient in the position of claiming or attributing responsibility. Thus, blaming becomes voluntary and collaborative. In blaming, the technique of presenting a neutral brief story or report, which puts the recipient in the position of inferring the "upshot" or consequences, provides a method for undertaking a delicate activity. A similar mechanism operates in the organization of conversational complaints.


Reportings may be used in a bipartite technique for managing invitations (Drew, 1984). By reporting a possible upcoming social event, such as, "Uh, next Saturday night's surprise party here for Kevin," the speaker can put the recipient in the position of inferring that this social event could be available for them to participate. The recipient could then treat the report simply as news. If this occurs, the potential inviter could take it as an indication that the recipient is not interested in attending the party. Alternatively, the recipient can respond by self-inviting, or at least indicating some interest in attending the party. Similarly, the invitee may turn down the invitation by reporting circumstances that the inviter could hear as precluding the invitee from taking up the invitation. This can put the inviter in the position of either modifying the invitation in an attempt to achieve acceptance of it or abandoning the invitation without the invitee having to give, and the inviter having to receive, an outright "no." Thus, reporting provides a collaborative method for managing invitations without explicitly engaging in an activity that could result in the inviter getting turned down. Like blaming, then, inviting can be managed interactively by making information available that puts the recipient in the position to advance the action or not take it up. In this way, both inviting and blaming, activities that both have some interpersonal delicacy associated with them, can be managed in a collaborative fashion.


Managing issues of responsibility is often dealt with under the rubric of "accounts." While the term "accounts" is used to characterize a variety of actions, in its strongest sense it refers to stories with which communicators attempt to remediate some wrong. Marvin Scott and Sanford Lyman (1968, p. 46) examined "talk that shore[s] up the timbers of fractured sociation." Often, they found, this shoring up involves telling about some specific aspect of an event in order to provide an explanation or justification for its having happened. A great deal of work in a number of fields has examined this phenomenon.

Richard Buttny (1993) has identified four different ways in which the concept of accounts has been taken up. First, the telling of accounts in conversation can be seen as being strongly related to remediating social wrongs, especially as this activity relates to matters of face-preservation. Work in the communication field has focused in this domain. Second, accounts focus on explanation of everyday activities, with less of a focus on remediating social wrongs. Third, accounts form part of the attribution theory literature. In this line of work, accounts as explanations of actions (whether the actions are problematic or not) are not limited to verbal accounts; they may form part of private cognitions. Fourth, for ethnomethodologists, social actors treat their everyday activities as "accountable" (i.e., sensible, normal, and proper). Accounting processes offer one method by which everyday people treat and come to see their actions as being ordinary. Rather than being a feature only of remediation, for ethnomethodologists, accounts are part of the everyday work of constructing the social fabric of everyday life, even though they are often "seen but unnoticed."

For practical reasons, much work on accounts relies on reconstructed or remembered accounts, or accounts that are produced in response to hypothetical situations. As they occur in interaction, though, accounts are often found in narrative structures. They may be found in the psychotherapeutic setting as part of justifications for actions. Kenneth Gergen and Mary Gergen (1983) found them being used to explain failed relationships. Buttny (1993, p. 18) points out, "Narratives as a discourse genre work as accounts when tellers re-present past events in such a way to defend their conduct. Narratives allow the teller to offer explanations at a greater length."


A story may be told in such a way as to provide for the delicate management of a complaint. Here, a structure is used that is similar to the structure used in constructing blame, where the story is told neutrally, leaving the recipient to infer what is being done. However, in complaints, tellers may first set up a frame that allows the recipient to infer the negative or problematic character of the neutrally recounted events. The frame puts the recipient in the position of collaborating with the teller to discern, and show the appropriate reaction to, the complainable events the teller recounts. Jenny Mandelbaum (1991) describes how one teller set up a frame for the events she was about to tell: "He really doesn't know where he is. He always gets mixed up." This puts the recipient in the position of listening to and understanding the events of the story with this frame in mind. Whether or not such a story is treated as a complaint or simply as an account of an activity may be shaped by considerations related to the relational delicacy of becoming involved with the complaint or not.


Studies of conversation have shown that it is both a context-shaped and a context-renewing phenomenon (Drew and Heritage, 1992). That is to say, talk in social and professional settings is constructed by the interactants, rather than by the setting, but conversation may also show the sensitivity of interactants to the fact that the talk is taking place in a given setting. Schegloff (1987) suggests that one aspect of what makes talk into institutional talk is how turn-taking is organized. In institutions, there is often a variation on the system for exchanging turns that exists in ordinary talk. Studies of talk in the medical and legal contexts show that other features of language may also be involved in how professionals and lay people work together through conversation.

Medical Setting

Studies of conversation in the medical setting show that although it is a professional setting, how talk unfolds has important implications for interpersonal communication. For example, John Heritage and Sue Sefi (1992) have studied health visitors with new parents in Great Britain. They contrast the responses that each parent makes when a health visitor comments that the baby is enjoying a bottle:

  1. Health Visitor: He's enjoying that, isn't he.
  2. Father: Yes, he certainly is.
  3. Mother: He's not hungry because he just had his bottle.

The father agrees with the health visitor's remark, indicating that he understands it as an assessment of how the baby is taking the bottle. The mother's response indicates defensiveness regarding whether or not the baby is hungry, which could implicate a failure on her part. In this way, she shows that she takes the health visitor's comment to have institutional relevance regarding her competence as a mother. It is thus seen that the same remark can be understood to have interpersonal relevance or to have institutional relevance and that the recipient of the remark plays a part in constituting its possible institutional character.

Legal Setting

Paul Drew (1985) has studied how talk in a court of law can be constructed to display institutional concerns. Specifically, this talk is designed in such a way as to be partly for the benefit of non-participating overhearers (i.e., the jury and judge). Also, this talk is designed to be responsive to the context of both prior and anticipated testimony. Participants' awareness that talk is overheard by the jury and judge is demonstrated in a particular vigilance with regard to word selection. For example, a prosecuting attorney in a rape trial asks a witness (the victim) if she went to a "bar." In responding, the witness responds that she went to a "club." The shift from "bar" to "club" can be attributed to the witness's understanding that "bar" may sound more disreputable than "club," which may influence how she is perceived by the jury and judge. With regard to talk being designed with prior and anticipated testimony in mind, Drew has shown how, in responding to an attorney's question, a witness may proceed from descriptive to explanatory accounts that show that he or she anticipates the negative case that the attorney is trying to build. Thus, particular aspects of language have significant interpersonal and institutional consequences in the legal setting.


Recognizing the centrality of conversation in interpersonal communication can have important consequences for communicators. Language (and the associated nonverbal conduct that is part of its production) may be a medium through which relationships are created, maintained, and dismantled. A detailed understanding of how language works in interpersonal communication shows that it is orderly, not random. Once communicators understand the structure, they can know what to expect in communication. This can lead them to become more effective communicators. Furthermore, as is shown by the example of complimenting described above, a structural explanation of conduct may emphasize the communicative character of an action and may differ markedly from the native theory explanation, which may emphasize individual psychology. As the discussion of blaming shows, understanding some of the different interactional methods that are available to interactants can give them a choice between pursuing blame in a collaborative or a confrontative manner. Similarly, awareness of different methods for inviting makes interactants aware of the possibility of providing for voluntary coparticipation in shared activities. In the professional setting, the effect of different ways of talking on how institutions and institutional roles are produced can also have an important effect on interpersonal communication in the workplace.

Understanding the role of conversation in how relationships are enacted and managed can empower communicators to go beyond the stereotypes that they may hold with regard to themselves, others, relationships, and institutions by re-creating them anew in and through different ways of communicating.

See also:Interpersonal Communication; Interpersonal Communication, Ethics and; Interpersonal Communication, Listening and;Intrapersonal Communication; Language and Communication; Language Structure; Nonverbal Communication; Relationships, Types of; Sociolinguistics; Wittgenstein, Ludwig.


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Jenny Mandelbaum