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Turn Taking in Conversations Essay

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Updated: Jan 22nd, 2020


Turn-taking entails the doing of something by participants to a particular activity one after the other. The art of turn-taking is indispensable for an orderly life in the society in general. This is no different when it comes to the art of conversing. Turn-taking mechanism is not restricted to conversation only but extends to other aspects of life like games, taking leadership position, serving meals at a table among others.

Despite the existence of other speech exchange systems like debates, meetings and interviews among others, this paper sets out to analyze turn-taking in conversation because it is the foundation of all speech exchange systems (Forman & McCormick, 1995).

Conversation as a means of communication is a two-way traffic that requires that turns be taken for information to be passed between the sender and the recipient.

If every participant decided to make speech simultaneously, it would result in total confusion and there would be no communication between the participants. It is an important aspect of conversation since it forces all participants to listen and know when it is their turn to talk (Applebee, 1996). This enriches the conversation since everyone gets to understand what everyone else is saying.

Therefore, when a speaker takes his turn in a conversation, it is expected that he will continue in the vein of the previous speaker for the conversation to flow (Sacks, 1992). This show respects to the views of the previous speaker and also indicates comprehension abilities. If a speaker diverts from the topic of discussion prematurely, it will be a sign of disrespect to the views of the previous speaker. This could also be interpreted to mean lack of the ability to understand what others are saying.

The rules guiding conversation are usually established by the parties themselves. They are mostly influenced by the kind of relationship existing between the participants (Tannen, 1994). A conversation between adults will not be the same as that between an adult and a child. The social status of the participants in the two cases will necessitate different conversation techniques (Wells, 1999). This paper will review the role of turn-taking in conversation with regard to the communication between the couples in the case study.

Literature Review

Turn-taking is necessary in conversation because of the scarcity of time and the need of parties who are conversing to understand each other. It is a scarce commodity that people struggle to acquire just like a good in the market that does not meet the demands (Yule, 1996). It is an important tool in maintaining social relationships between parties conversing.

Conversation cannot be adequately analyzed outside the social context since it is just a tool used in interactions (Schegloff, 2002). Turn-taking takes place within the context of the conversation. For instance, it would be absurd for a participant to answer a greeting with a question.

In the same vein, when a question is asked, the norm in conversation is that the next speaker should give an answer or seek for further clarifications on the question. The immediate environment of the conversers also needs to be taken into account since this affects the nature of the conversation. For instance, the way students will converse in a classroom environment is not the same way they will talk in the football pitch (Silverman, 2001).

In some cultures, when one is speaking in a group with people of different age and social status, she/he is expected to be alive to the fact that the older ones speak first before the younger ones. This has the effect of pre-determining the turn-taking process in the conversation.

The distinguishing characteristics of a conversation that make use of turn-taking include the following:

  1. One participant speaks for a time as the rest listens. The other participants listen for a cue to take the turn to make contributions in the conversation.
  2. The turns between the participants are distributed to ensure that all participants participate in the conversation. The distribution is not necessarily equal, but each participant has his/her turn.
  3. Turn-taking techniques are used both by the previous and next speaker for a smooth flow in the conversation.
  4. The participants make use of repair mechanism to ensure that problems in the conversation are minimized. If there is an awkward pause or silence in the conversation, both the previous and next speaker moves to cure this conversational defect
  5. Situations where multiple participants simultaneously takes a turn are drastically reduced (Schegloff, 2002).

Generally, however, unlike other speech-exchange systems like debates, interviews meetings and others, turn-taking in conversation is spontaneous and not predetermined (Drew, 1992).. There is also no specification on how the conversation will flow among the parties. One party can dominate the conversation without interfering with the sequential organization of the conversation. He/she only needs to get cues from the other party that they are attentive for the conversation to proceed (Bales, 1950).

Secondly, it is also possible for one to converse alone. However, this type of conversation will lack a very important element of conversation since there will be no turn-taking. This will be a kind of a monologue.

Sequential Organization

Turn-taking in conversation does not stop new entrants into the conversation. This means that the cycle can be broken to allow entry and exit while the conversation continues. This is clearly illustrated at line 91 when Bob breaks to answer the phone but resumes at line 125 with the same vein of the conversation.

((telephone rings)) en so on;= en so on¿

91 ((answers phone)…..

125 Bob: an: y’kno:w,= that w’z gra:nd;= she sorda….

A lapse or pause may occur but may not necessarily discontinue the conversation. The conversation does not need to be lineal, moving from one definite speaker to another. A new participant may get into an already continuing conversation without interfering with the general drift of the conversation. All he/she needs to do is time the turn appropriately. The caller who speaks to Bob from line 92 illustrates this.

The problems associated with conversations include abrupt change of topics by a participant before the rest of the parties are ready to move to the next topic. This of essence also means that other participants might have problems in maintaining the same topic of discussion for a long period of time.

This may be caused by one party not being able to bring in new dimensions in the issue under discussion. He/she keeps on repeating what the rest of the parties have said. In addition, they may also have difficulties in sustaining the conversation in the same vein and keep on jumping from one topic to another. The couples in the case study, Bob and Anne are able to communicate very well with each other despite the fact that Bob seems to dominate the conversation.

Techniques in allocating Turns

There are several methods of transitions in conversations. One may be allowed the turn to speak expressly by the previous speaker. For instance if there is a group conversation, the person who has the turn may ask a direct question to a particular person and this will give him/her the power to take the turn in the conversation (Palincsar, 1986). In the case study, this is seen in line 232 when Ann asks a question to automatically signal Bob that he needs to take the turn. This he does in line 233.

232 Ann: W’ why: did ee hafta do: that.

233 Bob: ¿

234 (0.3)

Turn taking may also involve silence. When the participant on the floor becomes silent, then that is a signal that the floor is open to the next speaker. In some cultures when an older person is scolding a younger person, it is expected that the younger person would not respond out of respect to the older person (Ten, 1998). It is a way of showing remorse. The older person my just continue in a monologue, but this will not make it less a conversation.

The other technique involves mentioning the name of the person expected to take the turn by the person allocating the turn. There is also the use of tag questions in turn allocations. Phrases like can you believe that? or don’t you agree? expects a response from the listening party. Tag questions can be used by the previous speaker to give up his turn by indicating to the other parties that he/she expects the turn to be taken by someone else (Liddicoat, 2007).

There is also an unwritten rule that whoever starts first will have the first bite at the cherry, unless in a situation where there are angry exchanges between the parties and no one is willing to let go of the turn (Levinson, 1983). When more than one participant takes the turn at the same time, one may be forced to give up the turn to the other.

The use of continuers like “uh”, “mm”, “ooh” and many others also act as signs that the participant expects the previous speaker to continue speaking. Ann makes use of these in the case study.

59 Bob: b’d is in based in Me:lbern.

60 Ann: Mm [hm,

61 Bob: [pt·hh (.) en he:r ro:le;= is go:ing ta

One of the factors determining turn taking in conversations is adjacency pairs. (Levinson, 1983). This refers to a conversation a technique that pre-determines the response of the next speaker. A good example is request-decline/approval, offer-acceptance, and question-answer situations among others (Levinson, 1983).

In this technique, one speaker picks the next speaker to take the turn by the kind of statements he/she make. In a question-answer scenario, whoever the question is directed to amongst the participants takes the turn. The concept of adjacency pairs is also vital in indicating whether the next speaker was listening for his/her turn or not (Duncan, 1972). When a participant is greeted and he/she responds by asking a question, it is an indication that the participant was not keen on taking the turn in that particular conversation.

Turn-taking in the case study is hampered by the long pauses taken by the Bob. Anne does not also encourage the conversation since she has reduced herself to an active listener rather than a party to the conversation. There is also interference by the telephone call that Bob receives. However, being couples, they seem to pick very easily from where the conversation stopped. They understand each other very well and there are no serious interruptions between themselves.

Transitions in Conversations

The conversational coherence between parties is usually determined by how smooth the transitions are from one speaker to another (Shotter, 1995). This transition can only be smooth if every participant respects the turn-taking mechanism in the conversational process.

Silence in conversations act as transition points since they signal the next speaker to take his/her turn (Deborah, 2001).Bob does this in line 233 and 235 when Annie fails to take the turn.

Bob: ¿

234 (0.3)

235 Bob: <I(h) ha(h)ve no(h)t- godda clue:>.

236 (0.7)

This occurs mostly in cases where parties to the conversation self-select to take turns and there are no automatic allocations of turns during the conversation. At line 125, Bob takes the turn after having broken off to answer to the phone.

Bob: an: y’kno:w,= that w’z gra:nd;= she sorda

126 said;= well he:y;= y’know that’s:: w-what

127 we wanna kno:w¿= en (0.5) j’ sorda wennon

128 fr’m the:re¿= en (0.5) °jeezus ‘n bloody

129 drin:k;= could she drinkhh°.

This is a way of indicating to her partner that the conversation between them has resumed.

Silence is also effective in ordering conversation in that it allows the same speaker some breathing space before proceeding with the conversation (Deborah, 2001). It is also an opportunity for the next speaker to digest the direction which the conversation and decides whether to steer it in that direction or change course.

Since participants to conversations tend to be generally uncomfortable with long pauses or lapses, it is expected that the transition from one turn to the other will not be long (Goldenberg, 1993). In the case study, Bob seems to get uncormfortable with Ann’s prolong silence when she is supposed to take the turn in line 236. The conversation goes as follows:

W’ why: did ee hafta do: that.

233 Bob: ¿

234 (0.3)

235 Bob: <I(h) ha(h)ve no(h)t- godda clue:>.

236 (0.7)

This force Bob himself in line 237 to allow Anne to take her turn.

For their to be a smooth transition between one speaker to another, there is need of each party to listen to one another not only out of politeness, but also in order to maintain the conversational coherence.

Repair Mechanisms

The repair mechanisms available in a conversation are as varied as the mischief they intend to cure. For a free flow of speech in a conversation, there must not be lapses and pauses that cause discomfort among speakers (Schiffrin, 1994).

When dealing with trouble, it is always the previous speaker or the turn following the one which the trouble occurred (Schegloff, 2002). In the case study, at line 145 Ann encourages Bob to continue speaking after Bobs monologue by uttering the sound “ooh”.

144 Bob: hou:r en a ha:lf¿ or- nearly two hou:r[s:¿

145 Ann: [Hooh.

146 Bob: ·hh (thut-) on: topev the boddle a re:d, (0.4)

This is a repair initiating effort, which ensures that Bob does not think that Ann is not listening.

Other repair mechanism includes the giving up of a turn by one speaker should they find themselves taking a turn at the same time (Burbules, 1993).

Implication for Language Teaching

The art of conversation analysis is very important especially for language students since it gives students confidence. This is because they are able to analyze and understand the causes of lapses, pauses and other limitations of conversation and other speech exchange systems.

Turn-taking also assists the student to understand the multifaceted nature of conversation and the intricacies involved in ensuring that it flows freely. The significance of turn-taking in the study of languages is mostly appreciated by non-native speakers of the English language. This is because when the subject is broken down and dissected in pieces as is done in conversational analysis, it gets demystified and therefore easy to understand.


This paper has reviewed the role of turn-taking in context of the recorded conversation between the couples in the case study. It has shown that turn-taking plays a key part in ensuring that conversation between participants flows freely. It also averts friction and confusion that would be the natural consequence it was not used in conversation.

The paper has also endeavoured to highlight the repair mechanisms available to participants who take turns to make speech in conversation. The role of transition techniques in ensuring smooth turn-taking and flow of conversation has also been outlined.

The techniques of allocating turns during conversations have also been discussed. Previous speaker allocation has been distinguished from a situation where individuals allocate themselves the turn to speak

The paper has further established that turn-taking brings about sequential organization in a conversation. The sequence need not be linear or one directional, as long as all the participants take their turns at the appropriate time.

The significance of turn-taking to the teaching of language was also highlighted. It was observed that language students who take part in conversational analysis gain confidence and are able to improve not only their conversation but communication skills generally.


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Tannen, D. (1984). Conversational style: Analyzing talk among friends. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Ten, P. (1998). Doing conversation analysis: A practical Stride. London: Sage

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic inquiry: Toward a socio-cultural practice and theory of education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yule, G. (1996). Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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