what is conversation?

We are so used to it, so close to it, that we may not appreciate it for what it is.

womentalking.jpg (16083 bytes)The first, and obvious, thing to say about talk is that it is a social activity. Apart from talking to yourself, or to animals, we engage in it with others. Much follows from this. To talk with others involves thinking about their feelings, thoughts and needs. In turn, they too must think of you or me. We have to consider, for example, whether our words could upset or offend the others; or whether they will help us in dealing with the matter in hand. Thus, if two or more people are to communicate, then they must:

In other words, talking - conversation - is a reciprocal process.

Second, conversation involves people agreeing about the topic. There is usually a lot of activity centred on locating an agenda. We have all overheard, and taken part in, talk where each person is intent on his or her topic irrespective of what others are saying. One person might be describing what they have just read in the paper; another talking of his or her feelings concerning a driving test. This is really two monologues - not dialogue.

Third, conversation involves an immediate response. There is not much of a time lag between the action of one person and the response of the other. A number of things flow from this. It means, for example, that what we say may be less thought out. Linked to this is the need for us to be tolerant of what is said to us in the heat of the moment. The immediacy of talk also allows people to ask questions and to explore different angles. However, it can also mean those who fail to respond are viewed with suspicion.

Fourth, although conversation is all around us - it is a very sophisticated activity as Ronald Wardhaugh shows.

You must have a well-developed feeling about what you can (or cannot) say and when you can (or cannot) speak. You must know how to use words to do things and also exactly what words you can use in certain circumstances. And you must be able to supplement and reinforce what you choose to say with other appropriate behaviours: your movements, gestures, posture, gaze, and so on. You must also attune yourself to how others employ these same skills.

Ronald Wardhaugh (1985) How Conversation Works,
Oxford: Blackwell, page 4.

Reading a list like this brings home why things can often go awry - such as those embarrassing moments when we say 'the wrong thing'. It also enables us to see why so many people feel clumsy, or have difficulties, in this area. Significantly, many of these things are also culturally specific. What is right for one group, may be wrong for another. This means that conversations between people of different cultures require special care.

Fifth, conversation entails certain commitments. For it to work, we have to trust in the others involved. When they say they will do something, for example, then we tend to have to take it at face value. At a minimum we have to be open to the possible truth of their words. We may have doubts - but without a degree of trust or openness to the views of others, conversations (or social life) could not happen. Indeed, effective work must always be based upon participants believing in the truthfulness of the educator. Once that is called into question, and the trust is broken, there is the danger conversation will cease and informal educators will no longer be productive.

Sixth, talk involves us in interpretation - and in filling the gaps. To make sense of what others are saying we often have to make leaps forward. People cannot give us all the information we need right at the start. We put their words in context, make assumptions, and add in material to give shape to what they are saying. For example, a person may start telling us about the problems she is having with her neighbours over noise. To make sense of her anger we have to add in various things, e.g. that her mother is very ill; that there is a history of tension in the street and so on. In other words, conversations often involve people drawing on a large amount of 'background knowledge'. If we do not have it then we have to make great leaps of imagination and hope that all will become clear as the person speaks, or we ask questions.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that conversation is a complex and perplexing activity. It embodies rules and etiquette. It requires participants to possess skills that are improved with practice. Those who lack these can find themselves socially, even physically, isolated. Those who find it difficult to engage in conversation and dialogue inevitably have fewer chances to practice the art so tend to find themselves locked into a vicious circle. Many find conversation difficult to handle. There are those who seem incapable of listening to others; some so self-obsessed they merely deliver a monologue to an unfortunate audience; others who ignore the verbal and visual clues that enable a conversation to flow; and some so competitive they turn each exchange into a battle of wills from which they must emerge victorious. As a result, informal educators must be prepared to teach some the protocols that underpin the art of conversation. This they may do by example and sensitively devising opportunities for individuals to learn how to listen and participate in dialogue and conversation.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published October 11, 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014