Help me construct a syllabus for "Talking to People 101"?
November 7, 2012 10:04 AM   Subscribe

If I want to study conversation -- how people talk, what they look like when they're talking, why people talk in certain situations, how to get better at talking -- what are the classics? What has helped you?

I'd like to become an expert in talking. I'm already pretty good at it, but it's an area that seems incredibly important and totally limitless. So this isn't a question about not being good at talking and wanting to know the basics. It's a question about what I can look at to move further.

Other than just talking and listening to everybody -- which I do whenever it seems right -- what books, podcasts, films, and classes are out there for me? What helped you get better at talking, or helped you realize important stuff about talking? I mean this here in the most expansive sense; we could be talking about vocal tone or eye contact, we could be talking about jokes, we could be talking about negotiation. I'm looking for self-help books and whitepapers as well as works of art and particularly good recorded conversations.

Interview shows, like Fresh Air, are helpful, but not the totality of what I'm looking for, because I'm not convinced that talking is mostly about extracting information.

One thing that's been weirdly helpful is the podcast You Look Nice Today.

Oh, and I hate the movie My Dinner With Andre.
posted by insteadofapricots to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Books by Deborah Tannen, an academic who studies conversational styles.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:12 AM on November 7, 2012

Look up Grice's Maxims if you aren't familiar.
posted by null14 at 10:25 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard that doing theatre improv develops the ability to think quickly in conversation.
posted by canoehead at 10:32 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Came in to suggest Deborah Tannen. I'll add that around 4 pages of James Spradley's Ethnographic Interview and maybe anothe 4 pages of Keith Johnstone's Impro have been crucial to me personally. The relevant concepts from the former are leading questions (defined expansively in Spradley as pretty much any question that smuggles in assumptions to close off possibilities your interlocutor may have in mind) and grand tour questions (open-ended questions about someone else's way of life for which Spradley gives a list of topics and examples). In the first few pages of the latter text, Johnstone gives really vivid examples of how blocking someone else conversationally happens to destroy a good interaction. Memorize those couple of lessons and you're set for hours-long conversations with absolutely anyone. Example: I was stuck riding a particular bus route alone for a few weeks with a nice driver who clearly wanted to talk, although we had essentially nothing in common and he wasn't a great turn-taker or question-asker himself. I learned an awful lot about bus driving, but also just reams of stuff about this guy's life, brief association with a famous serial killer, etc. It wasn't quite My Dinner with Andre, but thinking of it as half improv and half ethnographic interview helped in making it fun for probably 15 hours spread over just a few weeks. Things like that come up on a much smaller scale all the time.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:39 AM on November 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Deborah Tannen has a bunch of books, like That's Not What I Meant!

How to Win Friends & Influence People has some interesting thoughts.

Getting to Yes is about negotiation, but the ideas are useful for other types of conversations as well.

Language in Thought and Action is more academic than a typical self-help book, but has deeper insights into language and the varied ways it can be used and can impact us without our realizing.
posted by philipy at 10:55 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I took a seminar on conversation in college, years ago. The texts for that were a Deborah Tannen book and this one, Everyday Conversation by Nofsinger.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:06 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first thing to say is that 'expert' treatments of conversation are often very different to 'academic' treatments of conversation. Pop culture books on conversation are very often ignorant of developments in academic studies of the subject and rely more on intuition, essentialised notions of male/female conversation styles, lack empirical evidence to support their claims, and can occasionally be just outright wrong about the things they claim. So I suppose you need to decide if you want to go down the pop culture route or the scientific study of language.

In any event, there are a number of ways to approach this from an academic standpoint:

If you want to study stereotypical gendered conversational styles, then you could do worse than Tannen's work, but bear in mind that her research has been criticised by others working within sociolinguistics/conversational analysis (e.g. Deborah Cameron, among others). Part of the problem of Tannen's work is that it assumes a 'two cultures' model of male/female language use, and there are other theoretical models which offer a far more nuanced picture of language use/conversational styles, like the social constructionist approach. If you wanted to go down the gendered language use path, then Deborah Cameron, Penelope Eckert, Sally McConnell-Ginet, Jennifer Coates, are essential reading and more reliable and less sensationalist than Tannen.

If you wanted to go down the structural path (that is, what common patterns make up conversation), then Structures of Social Interaction by Atkinson and Heritage is a good starting point, and work by Emmanuel Schegloff, Harvey Sacks, Gail Jefferson are all good. This falls under the bracket of conversational analysis (or CA).

If you wanted to go down the more 'ideology' route (particularly how racism, sexism, ageism, etc are created and reified in discourse), then you really want to look at Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), and Teun van Dijk, Norman Fairclough, Ruth Wodak are the people to read.

If you wanted to look at the more generic interpretative analysis of discourse (what people mean in their conversations, how contextual knowledge is important etc), then Discourse Analysis (DA) is the way to go. People working within this domain include James Paul Gee, Deborah Cameron, Gillian Brown and George Yule.

Lastly, there is also the more epistemological/philosophical angle on what speech achieves - Searle, Grice, and Austin are the main people here. Or you could go on the politeness/impoliteness perspective (Brown and Levinson for politeness, or Culpeper for impoliteness).

As I said, 'examining conversation' is a *really* wide field, but hopefully, the above gives you some sense of what you might want to hone in on.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 11:39 AM on November 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

I liked The Art of Conversation . It is, however, the only book I've ever read on this topic.
posted by PaulaSchultz at 2:50 PM on November 7, 2012

The book I read as a kid that kind of cemented the idea of "conversation is different from prose" was Huckleberry Finn. (Or the other Twain book that I confuse with it.) In it, he spells words in conversation differently, because that's how they talk. Something about that just connected with me.

Other things would be to try and transcribe conversations that you've had with someone. In the early days of email, my friend and I would detail our awkward holiday conversations with our families. It's really hard to do until you get the knack for it. Good practice, I think.
posted by gjc at 3:52 PM on November 7, 2012

Anything out of the field of Conversation Analysis

So, to add to the Deborah Tannen note, try to find Sidnell and Stivers Handbook of Conversation Analysis.
posted by Milau at 4:45 PM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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